Opera Dives Deep: Verismo’s Creative Deceptions

By: Lyric Opera Staff

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Dr. Jane Sylvester, Assistant Professor of Musicology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and noted opera scholar, joined Opera Dives Deep on Monday, September 18, 2023 to prepare audiences for Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci. Her presentation, entitled Verismo's Creative Deceptions: The Fictions of the Italian South in Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci, explored how—and why—practitioners of opera have transformed stories into artistic realities. The presentation in full is available on YouTube, and highlights are below.

What do you envision when you think of regions in Italy such as Calabria or Sicily? You may, at worst, think of mafioso violence and crime. Or you might think about the more rugged area of Italy with blue ocean waters, volcanos, and ruins. Perhaps the second season of White Lotus comes to mind! In our new production, Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci take place in the same Sicilian village separated by World War I.

What is verismo? We’re happy you asked! Verismo is an opera genre that evolved in Italy during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Synonymous with realism and truth, the verismo movement sought to portray the world with greater realism.

How is the verismo tradition evident in the music of Cavalleria rusticana? Taken in full, the fast-paced, layered scenes of Cavalleria rusticana create a kaleidoscopic soundscape, capturing the many shades of human complexity that underlie even the simplest bucolic setting.

Cavalleria rusticana features psychological deceit, infidelity, and violence among men. Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci follows suit, feeding evolving stereotypes of brutal masculinity in a distinctly Italian setting.

Pagliacci is an example of mise en abyme, or a play-within-a-play. The play the traveling troupe of actors perform in the second half of the opera is a perfect display of stock characters typical of the commedia dell’arte play tradition.