Introduction | Turn of the Century | Opera

The schools of naturalism and realism had an immediate effect in Italy. With scant literary tradition to draw on from this period, Italian writers in the second half of the nineteenth century seized upon Zola’s beliefs as a potent dramatic source. The style they developed came to be known as verismo and was exemplified by writers such as Giovanni Verga and Luigi Capuana.

The characteristically veristic traits of strong local colour, down-to-earth language and – to the audiences – familiar and often personally resonant plots, made the style immediately popular. Opera was quick to latch on to the possibilities offered by verismo. Giordano’s Mala vita (‘The Miserable Life’, 1892) recreates in careful detail the squalid environment of an inner city prostitute without pulling any punches. It reveals without flinching the quotidian torments of inner-city Neapolitans.

Exciting, Sensational Opera

Perhaps unsurprisingly, opera audiences did flinch from the extremes of verismo and the style quickly moved away from its didactic origins. What did grasp the imagination of audiences across Italy and Europe were sensational, technicolour texts set to viscerally powerful music. These were tremendously exciting for audiences, and operas with veristic traits – though perhaps lacking a truly veristic ideology, like Pietro Mascagni’s (1863–1945) Cavalleria rusticana (1890) and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s (1858–1919) Pagliacci (1892) – spread like wildfire across Italy and Europe.

The influence of naturalism was soon seen in the approach to staging as well as in the artwork itself. André Antoine formed his Théâtre Libre in Paris in 1887 – in opposition to all he had been taught at the capital’s Verismo – with the aim of presenting the works of naturalist authors. Antoine wanted to achieve a more intimate style of acting and a realistic use of stage space, eliminating grand gestures. Antoine’s work inspired the German director Otto Brahm who, in 1889, established the Freie Bühne in Berlin. Like Antoine, Brahm wanted to divest German theatre of its old production methods and bring a new realism to the stage. In 1894, Brahm’s theatre merged with the large Deutsches Theater and Brahm became director. Under his leadership, the theatre mounted productions of Molière, Shakespeare and Sophocles as well as naturalist works by Ibsen and Hauptmann.

The Seeds of Modern Stage Production

Brahm’s successor at the Deutsches Theater was Max Reinhardt, whom Brahm had directed in several productions prior to his succession. Reinhardt was keen to move on from his realist inheritance and was particularly interested in the ideas of Adolphe Appia and Edward Gordon Craig. Appia was a Swiss theorist who had a strong interest in Richard Wagner’s (1813–83) ideas on stage design. He espoused the use of three-dimensional sets in order to make the actors a part of the stage rather than simply being on it. Appia was also interested in the use of light to create atmosphere, a trait that he shared with his English contemporary Craig. Craig’s work had led him to reject some of the realist theories then fashionable...

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