Today the art of operatic composition appears to be returning for its best results to its much-loved home, Italy ; the young Italian composers, among all its devotees of all nationalities, appear to be putting forth the strongest work. Contemporary English, French, and German operas, with a few notable exceptions, are rarely heard beyond the borders of the land which gives them birth, but the works of Mascagni, Puccini, and Leoncavallo find a home in every opera house.
At the outset of our review of living Italian opera composers we meet the strange figure of Arrigo Boito (born 1842), more famous for one opera than are many composers who have endowed the world with dozens of such works. The charm of his personality has aided its success, while the ill fortune which dogged its birth and its intimate relationship to a great home have also contributed to its world-wide fame.
Not that Boito’s “Mefistofele” is a work in the repertoire of every opera house; rather, its performances seem to be limited in number, and yet all the world knows of its composer as the capable litterateur and musician who, amidst intense excitement, brought his “Mefistofele” before the Milanese public at La Scala in 1868, and by the novelty of its form and musical treatment so displeased a very large number of his would-he admirers that he fell from the height of popularity to which expectation had elevated him al-most to the depth of extinction so far as his musical efforts were concerned. “Mefistofele” has been re-written ; it was a work in advance of its time, and honor must be given to Boito for the artistic beauty of his conceptions, and for his courage and skill in the wielding of them to the ultimate conviction of an unwilling public. This fascinating but tantalizing composer still stimulates interest by the fact that he keeps two other and newer operas, “Nerone” and “Orestiade,” in his desk, and refuses, at any rate for the present, to bring them to the light.
We now come to a composer whose music, or part of it, at any rate, must have been heard by everybodyPietro Mascagni (born 1863), whose most famous opera, “Cavalleria Rusticana,” is one of the most popular modern works in the operatic repertoire. It was produced in 1890, and soon attained to fame; this was due, to some extent, to the introduction of a new devicenamely, the performance of an orchestral inter-mezzo dividing the work into two parts, the curtain remaining up and disclosing an empty stage (a street scene). Possibly the original intention in leaving the curtain up was to prevent the buzz of conversation which always accompanies its fall, and precludes the possibility of careful attention to the music; but in this instance the music is so melodious, tuneful, and cleverly scored that it assured the success of the opera. Succeeding works from the same pen”L’Amico Fritz,” “I Rantzau,” “Guglielmo Ratcliff,” “Iris,” and othershave not yet found equal success.
Very frequently coupled upon the same playbill with Mascagni’s “Cavalleria” is the short modern Italian opera “I Pagliacci” (The Strolling Players), the work of Leoncavallo (born 1858), and written upon much the same general lines as its forerunner. Its prologue, for a solo barytone, is popular in concert-halls. In the opera it occurs as part of the overture, the singer pushing his way through the curtain, and retiring again after his performance, before the stage scene is actually disclosed. Leoncavallo has written many other works, but his chief distinction of later date has been that upon him fell the choice of the German Emperor to write a typically German opera on the subject of “Roland of Berlin.” The work was produced in Berlin in 1905, but without giving full satisfaction, the general opinion being that a German composer should have been chosen to clothe so essentially national a subject with music, and that Leoncavallo’s attempt was uninspired, grandiose, and lacking in the elements of beauty.
Other followers of Mascagni are Giordano (born 1867), composer of “Andrea Chenier”; Spinelli (born 1865), chiefly known by “A Basso Porto”; and Franchetti (born 185o). More famous than these is Francesco Cilea, a young composer of promise, whose “Adriana Lecouvreur” contains music of great beauty and charm. The method of Mascagni is closely followed, even to the introduction of a tuneful and charmingly scored intermezzo, but there is independence of melodic phrase and real grip in the music. “Adriana” was originally produced at Milan in 1902, and was staged at Covent Garden, London, during the autumn visit of the San Carlo company, two years later.
Undoubtedly the greatest of the modern Italian composers is Giacomo Puccini (born 1858), who has made himself famous not merely by one opera but by several. His earlier works, “Manon Lescaut,” etc., hardly represent him at his best, although they contain much fine music ; but in “La Boheme,” in “La Tosca,” and most of all in “Madame Butterfly,” this clever musician has found himself and has risen to great heights. He is most happy in the way in which his music paints the situation to be depicted, and he has a most wonderfully ready power of melody. The continuous use of distinctive and rhythmic melody and the absence of any definite characterization by means of the Leitmotiv differentiates his work very largely from that of the Wagner schoolit is altogether on a lighter basis, but the melody has an irresistible attractiveness, which ac-counts largely for the favor which his operas are finding at the present day.
Puccini’s latest work, “The Girl of the Golden West,” deals with an American subject. It was produced at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, during the season of 1910-11.
Germany to-day can hardly be held to have produced such an array of familiar names, but that of Humperdinck (born 1854) has become famous through his setting of the delightful fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel.” There is, however, still living a senior to Humperdinck in the person of Goldmark (born 183o), whose “Cricket on the Hearth” is well known. Goldmark became famous by his opera `”The Queen of Sheba,” produced in Vienna in 1875. He has penned much music, and other operas, but the two above named are his best-known contributions to operatic literature.
More interesting, because his fairy opera has been seen by almost every one, is Humperdinck, who has skillfully applied Wagnerian methods to opera on a comparatively light subject. The story of “Hansel and Gretel,” from Hans Andersen, is worked up into a charming plot, and if some of the incidents seem, upon the modern stage, somewhat trivial and childish, the music is so perfect in form and matter that the ear is delighted throughout. The use of folk-songs and simple melodies which appeal to all is supplemented by a wonderfully capable and polyphonic use of the orchestra, which shows the master hand in every bar of the score.
“Hansel and Gretel” can be appreciated alike by the smallest child and by the skilled musician, and therein lies its great charm, for much study must usually precede appreciation of work so elaborate and complex. Humperdinck’s succeeding works, several in number, have not risen to the same level, either of beauty or of popularity. His “Die Heirat wider Willen” was produced with a fair measure of success under Strauss at Berlin in April, 1905.
Richard Strauss, the well-known composer of orchestral tone-poems. has made several bids for fame in opera : his early works, such as “Guntram” and “Feuersnot,” have not attracted so much attention as have “Salome,” produced at Dresden in 1906, and the “Elektra” staged in 1909. Strauss, the most conspicuous of recent musical innovators, writes very boldly, often with a startling lack of blend between orchestra and voice.
Other living composers of German opera are Max Schillings (born 1868) ; Weingartner (born 1863), the great orchestral conductor; Siegfried Wagner (born 1869). son of the great master; Nessler (born 1841), composer of “Der Trompeter von Sakkingen” (a wonderfully popular work, which, however, is not of the first rank) ; and many others whose fame may or may not be enduring. Modern German operasince Wagner has hardly, with the exception of “Hansel and Gretel,” the distinction, power, and originality which we find in the followers of the young Italian school.
More famous are the men of the French school, the natural followers of Gounod, Ambroise Thomas, and their fellows. Progress is noticeable from the type of music which prevails in “Faust,” in the works of such composers as Saint-Saens, Massenet. and Bruneau, and the influence of Wagner is quite apparent. But in French opera the traditions which belonged to the Academie of old, and which have descended to the more modern grand opera. combine with a certain Gallic grace and charm to pre-serve individuality to this school.
Foremost among French composers in every branch is that versatile and gifted man Saint-Saens (born 1835). Like Boito, he possesses an interesting personality, prominent among his characteristics being a habit of suddenly disappearing for months together from the eyes of a world of which he has grown temporarily weary. He will then come back from some half-civilized or totally barbarous district of Africa or elsewhere, bearing with him piles of manuscript, which soon finds a ready publisher. The music so composed often bears some impress of the surroundings amid which it has been penned, which adds in no small degree to its acceptance by the public. Saint-Saens has written many operas both for the grand and the comique stage without any very marked success. The work best known here is “Samson et Dalila,” a dramatized version of the Bible story. His “Henry VIII” is perhaps the best known of his other works, which include “Proserpine,” “Ascanio,” “Phryne,” “Les Barbares,” and “L’Ancetre.”
Jules Massenet (horn 1842) is the author of many operas, of which mention may be made of “Don Cesar de Bazan.” “Le roi de Lahore,” “Herodiade,” “Manon,” “Le Cid,” “Esclarmonde,” “Werther.” “Thais,” “La Navarraise.” and “Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame.” “Herodiade” is really a dramatic version of the Bible story of St. John and Salome. It is perhaps the best of the Massenet operas, “Manon” and “La Navarraise” approaching it nearest in popular esteem. Massenet has had much success with “Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame,” produced at Monte Carlo in 1902.
A most earnest and serious-minded composer, who more closely follows Gluck and Wagner in his desire for operatic truth, is Alfred Bruneau (born 1857), one of the finest of French musicians. From the first his style has been revolutionary, and owing to crudities somewhat hard to accept ; but while sometimes musically deficient, his dramatic, grip and sincerity of purpose are so strong that there is doubtless a future before his operas. “Le reve,” “L’attaque du moulin,” “Messidor,” and “L’Ouragan” are the titles of his chief works, the third named of these being perhaps the best. Bruneau was fortunate in securing the services of Zola as his librettist, several prose-poems by the great novelist having been intrusted to his care.
Andre Messager (born 1853) has chiefly distinguished himself by a charming light work, “La Basoche,” which has had much attention at English hands. Dubois, Paladihle, and others are still at work in the field of French opera, but perhaps its most prominent modern representative is Gustave Charpentier (born 1860) whose opera “Louise” has made a great hit, and shows possession of great gifts from which much more may be expected. Vincent d’Indy (born 1851), another of the younger school, is the composer of a fairly successful work, “Fervaal.”
Claude Debussy (born 1862), a composer who has written an amount of successful music of a unique kind, in that it employs mostly a scale of whole tones, rather than one of tones and semitones, produced in 1902 “Pelleas et Melisande,” based on Maeterlinck’s drama of the same name. This original and distinctive work has become widely popular.