Massenet Catches the Verismo Wave

1350-250bThe decidedly Italian double bill known in operatic slang as "Cav-Pag" is nearly synonymous with opera's passionate, verismo style. But, perhaps surprisingly, there's also a pairing of French operas that packs a similar, verismo wallop.

As with much operatic jargon, the term verismo is hard to pin down. Generally speaking, it's a genre relying on realistic stories, a straightforward narrative style, and the expression of true-to-life emotions -- often extreme emotions, which lead to extreme events. And verismo operas are often Italian -- like the term itself. The most popular of all composers associated with verismo was most certainly Italian: Giacomo Puccini.

So, perhaps unexpectedly, there's a famous French composer who singlehandedly wrote a pair of brief, vivid operas that in tandem exemplify the verismo tradition nearly as well as "Cav-Pag."

In 1892, Jules Massenet looked on as Cavalleria Rustiana made a splash at its first performance in Paris. Knowing a profitable trend when he saw one, Massenet decided to get in on the action. By 1894 he had written a verismo drama of his own, called La Navarraise -- a violent story of romance, murder and madness.

Like Cavalleria, Massenet's opera is a brief score, with two acts divided by an orchestral nocturne, or intermezzo, which may be its most famous number. For the premiere, Massenet even brought in Emma Calvé, a soprano famous for the role of Santuzza in Mascagni's drama. The various similarities, together with the Spanish setting of La Navarraise, quickly earned Massenet's opera the somewhat cynical nickname "Cavalleria Espagnola."

Still, riding with a trend frequently pays off. La Navarraise was successful enough that after its London premiere Queen Victoria requested a command performance at Windsor Castle. And, about ten years later, Massenet came up with another short but sensational.

For that second drama, called Thérèse, Massenet teamed with the same librettist, writer Jules Claretie. Following the same pattern, they gave Thérèse a pair of short acts, and Massenet composed an intermezzo to go between them. And, also like their first effort, the drama has a wartime setting; La Navarraise takes place during the Carlist War, a civil conflict in Spain, while Thérèse is set during the French Revolution. ("Cavalleria Francese," anyone?)

Neither opera is heard often today, but performed back-to-back, they boast enough verismo passion and intensity -- not to mention outright bloodlust -- to give "Cav" and "Pag" a run for their money.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Massenet's Thérèse and La Navarraise in a highly-entertaining double bill from the Wexford Festival in Ireland. Soprano Nora Sourouzian and tenor Philippe Do play the fiery couples in both operas, in performances led by conductor Carlos Izcaray.