New York City Opera Project: Madama Butterfly


A style of operatic composition, prevalent in Italy in the 1890s, with repercussions extending to other European countries and later decades. Verismo in Italy originated in Milan in the 1870s, when the Sicilian critic and writer Luigi Capuana published the novel Giacinta, generally regarded as the "manifesto" of Italian verismo. The most important and influential exponent of the verismo school was Giovanni Verga, whose novel and plays show analogies with the naturalism of the French authors Emil Zola whose novel Germinal portrayed a coal-mining community living in terrible housing, working under shocking conditions, and a major pit accident and rescue, and Guy de Maupassant.

The landmark veristic opera is Mascagni's Cavelleria rusticana (1890), based on a short story by Verga set in contemporary times in mountain village in Sicily, portraying peasant workers, carriers, and local poeple, retribution and murder.The veristic operas that followed, such as Leoncavallo's Pagliacci (1892), ...and Puccini's Il tabarro (1918), have certain traits in common. The settings are contemporary; the characters are often rural and generally impoverished; the passions run high and lead to violence. There is a tendency in these works to mix the sordid with the sensational.

(adapted from The Harvard Dictionary of Music, 1986)

Even before Cavalleria rusticana, Bizet's Carmen (1874; based on a work by Prosper Mérimée) could be considered veristic in its portrayal of female workers in a cigarette factory, and local policemen, though combined with the "exotic," Romantic world of smugglers.

The term verismo is used more loosely to describe opera that portrays "everyday" characters. Thus Puccini's La Bohème (1896) depicts four impoverished artists living and working in a sordid garret in Paris, and an equally poverty-stricken young girl who does embroidery for a living. (These lives are, however, romanticised in a way that is alien to true verismo). Puccini's Tosca (1900) is also loosely called veristic: set in Italy, it portrays a political prisoner, a painter, and a singer, heartessly tricked by the chief of police.

Madama Butterfly (1904) exists, of course, in a very different--and potentially glamorous!--setting and situation. But it is set in th4e contemporary world, and deals with the disreputable attitude of an American sailor toward his Japanese bride, and so undercuts the superficially "exotic" world that it inhabits, ending with a geisha girl--perhaps the epitome of glamor!--committing suicide on stage.