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Verismo: Definition & Operas

Instructor: Emma Riggle

Emma has taught college Music courses and holds a master's degree in Music History and Literature.

In this lesson, you'll learn about verismo, a style of Italian realist opera from the late 19th Century. You'll read about the typical plots and characters in verismo operas, and we'll go over some of the most famous examples of verismo in the operatic repertoire.

Verismo: Realist Opera

'I couldn't relate to that movie - it just wasn't realistic!' Have you ever heard that statement coming out of someone's mouth, maybe after seeing a fantasy or sci-fi movie? Sometimes we turn to entertainment to escape to another world, but at other times, we would rather experience realism: that is, characters and situations based closely on everyday life.

Verismo (pronounced 'vay-REE-zmoh') is a late 19th-Century style of opera that strove to bring realism to the opera house. With its name derived from the word 'vero' (Italian for 'true'), verismo style is anything but escapist: it depicts ordinary characters and everyday emotions of its time - particularly their darker side.

Illustration from Cavalleria Rusticana, a verismo opera
Scene from Cavalleria rusticana

For much of the 19th Century, the most popular operas revolved around aristocratic characters, fairy-tale situations, mythological settings, and other material that was far from the experience of the average audience member. Inspired by realist writers like French novelist Emile Zola, some Italian composers began to bring realism to their operas in the 1890s, inventing the style now known as verismo. With gritty plots, lower-class characters and plenty of sordid violence, verismo operas resemble episodes of Law and Order more than the tales of princesses and goddesses that had graced the opera stage in the past.

'Cav & Pag'

The first great verismo opera was Cavalleria rusticana (Rustic Chivalry), written in 1890 by Italian composer Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945). This tragic one-act deals with the passionate emotions of four peasants, revolving around the star-crossed affair between Turridu and Lola. Though Turiddu and Lola were in love before Turiddu left to become a soldier, they are both romantically entangled when Turiddu returns and fatefully rekindles their romance. With extramarital affairs, seduction, and vigilante justice, the plot of Cavalleria rusicana would be at home in a 1940s film noir as well as a TV whodunit.

Gemma Bellincioni and Roberto Stagno in the 1890 premiere of Cavalleria rusticana
The original stars of Cavalleria rusticana

The next great verismo hit was Pagliacci (Clowns), a dark tale of heartbreak among a traveling theater troupe. Composed in 1892 by Ruggero Leoncavallo (1858-1919), Pagliacci has much in common with Cavalleria rusticana - both are set in the countryside of Italy among then-contemporary peasants, and both revolve around infidelity and violent vengeance. In fact, these two operas are often performed together to create a full evening of entertainment, and opera buffs like to refer to them as 'Cav & Pag.' Together, they encapsulate the passionate emotion, everyday characters, and tragic plots that are central to the verismo style.

Original cover art for the score of Pagliacci
Original score cover of Pagliacci

Giacomo Puccini

After Mascagni and Leoncavallo, the most famous composer of verismo operas was the Italian Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924). Puccini was a hugely successful box office hit during his lifetime, and his operas remain some of the most popular draws at contemporary opera houses. In Tosca (1899), a singer and a young revolutionary face off against a corrupt police chief who is determined to flatten their political insubordination and tear them away from each other.

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