Teatro di poesia - last three operas of Antonio Smareglia

Antonio Smareglia’s last compositional phase (from 1896 to 1929) includes several vocal compositions and three works for musical stage. Among these compositions most significant are his operas: Falena (Venice 1897), Oceana (1903) and Abisso (Milan 1914) stand out as the composer’s most mature and most original works for musical theatre. These operas indicate a new path in his career. In comparison to his earlier opera Nozze istriane and to the lyric realism which permeates this opera, the investigation of Falena, Oceana and Abisso shows that these operas contain novel subjects, ideas, characters and new musical expression.

This new path in the composer’s career can be largely explained by the fact that Smareglia met and chose a different librettist, Silvio Benco (1874-1949). Smareglia’s collaboration with the young triestine poet, whom he had met at the end of 1894 in Trieste, directed the composer towards a new kind of musical theatre, creating “teatro di poesia” (“poetic theatre”). “Poetic theatre”, first created in Benco’s libretti and then in Smareglia’s music, derives from a particularly suggestive text. In such a libretto the poet leaves particular gaps for music in order to stimulate the composer’s imagination when creating the elements of the fantastic, picturesque and poetic rather than the drama itself, fashioning a different type of opera.


The novelty and particularity of the “poetic theatre” which Smareglia was creating in his collaboration with Silvio Benco, can be best seen in his opera Oceana. One of the reasons for which the opera remained vividly remembered in the history of Italian opera is Oceana’s critical reception at its premiere in Milan’s La Scala in 1903. Although the performance was considered to be a real success, earning ovations for Toscanini’s interpretation, the reactions of the audience were vivid. The musico-dramatic structure of Oceana took the spectators by surprise to such an extent that the audience was divided into two disparate camps - pro and contra Oceana.


The more traditional part of the audience was shocked by the opera’s unusual and anti-theatrical appeal. More perceptive spectators interpreted Oceana’s non-dramatic character in a different way. They ended up praising the opera’s picturesque elements, and found new terminology in order to describe the work. Oceana was seen as a “lyrical poem” (poema lirico, Sacchetti), “continuous descriptive symphony” (continua sinfonia descrittiva, Pozza), or as a “fairytale of pure imagination” (fiaba di pura imaginazione lirica, Pozza). More recent descriptions of Oceana are “poetic theatre” (teatro di poesia, several authors) or “allusive, purely musical theatre” (Sansone).

Vivid reactions at the opera’s premiere confirmed the originality and the novelty of its style. Just like with Falena, Smareglia’s earlier opera written on Benco’s libretto, Oceana had little in common with the other new Italian operas at the time: among other premieres at La Scala was for example, Puccini’s Tosca (1900), Mascagni’s Le Maschere (1900) and Franchetti’s Germania (1902). What distinguishes Oceana among the other operas of the time is its connection with the figurative arts. Benco’s libretto is not based on a preexisting play or event, as was most often the case. In creating it, Benco’s imagination was completely animated by the elements of the fantastic: the characters from Shakespeare’s plays (The Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest), Goethe’s verses from Iphigenie auf Tauris, and a painting. Entitled Im Spiel der Wellen (In the play of the waves), the painting of the Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901) provided the atmosphere and the appearance of the characters who would come to life in Benco’s fantastic comedy (commedia fantastica).


Although it is not clear on which occasion Benco had seen Böcklin’s paintings, the unusual imaginary world of his art fascinated the poet. More detailed investigation of Oceana reveals that numerous scenes, characters and their mythological names such as Triton, Nereid, Nymph, Naiad, were drawn from several pictures of Böcklin, all belonging to the sea world. Similarities between a number of paintings and the scenes in Oceana can be seen in the following pictures: The Naiads at play (1886), Calm sea (1887), Triton and Nereid (1875) and in the previously mentioned In the play of the waves (1883). There is a particularly close resemblance between the painting Faun, listening to the sleeping nymph (1885) and the scene at the beginning of act II in which the sea geniuses, Ers and Uls, gaze at the young girl Nersa while she is asleep. This image was extended in Smareglia’s music as a lullaby sang by the old sea genius Uls to the sleeping Nersa.


Stimulated by the art of Böcklin, Benco conceived the libretto as a story placed in the sea world whose plot unfolds on stage through suggestive stage directions and arranged fantastic images. In his commentary to the opera written on the occasion of Oceana’s premiere, Benco explained that his and Smareglia’s intention was to present the “paintings of landscapes and music” as if the opera was about the presenting of pictures on stage, set to music. Such visual stimulus influenced the poet by structuring the libretto episodically, each scene captured with its own inner vitality. Instead of developing the drama, their purpose was to inspire more poetic depth in music.


Animated in Benco’s verses, such a picturesque bases influenced Smareglia’s imagination and were bound to determine the musical form of the opera. The need for atmospheric painting stimulated the abundance of orchestral music, the result being what Gabriel Fauré had said about Salome: “a symphonic poem with voices on top”. The second act is a particularly good example: its setting (the nightfall on the seashore) resulted in a series of musical images such as Notturno marino (the sea nocturne), Arrivo dei tritoni (the arrival of the tritons), Canzone alla dormente (the lullaby), and Danza delle ondine (the dance of the waves).


Smareglia’s music and the manner in which he created the atmosphere and interpreted the drama of the opera stand as the example of “teatro di poesia” which the composer realised in the other two operas set on the texts by Benco. The beginning of their collaboration, as well as Benco’s first libretto, was La Falena. Conceived as “leggenda drammatica”, the opera’s premiere, in Venice in 1897, was a real success. The fact which raised additional curiosity among the audience was that Smareglia appeared with a new librettist. Silvio Benco was at the time a young twentytwo- year-old writer who was establishing his career as a journalist, writing reviews and essays about the intellectual events in Trieste and the rest of Italy. He was familiar with the artistic movements of the late 19th century which developed around Europe, in particular with Symbolism and Decadence which thrived in France and had its repercussions in Italy (the work of Gabriele D’Annunzio). It is important to mention that Benco’s sensitivity to the period of Decadence was evident in his novels and can be recognised even in the titles he had given to these novels: for example, La fiamma fredda (1900), Il castello dei desideri (1906), Nell’atmosfera del sole (1918). The poets preoccupation with themes such as the forces of nature, the world of legends, the night and the dream, all which we can find in his literary works, reflected on his libretto writing. The story of Falena is set in an imaginary world inhabited by the mysterious creature, Falena, who bewitches King Stellio, enters his dreams, induces him into erotic games and then vanishes with the light of dawn. Just like a femme fatale painted in the images of the Pre- Raphaelite art (such as La Belle Dame sans merci (1893) J. W Waterhouse), or the Beguiling of Merlin (1874) Edward Burne-Jones), the story of Falena contains its own inner drama, providing the opportunities for what Benco called “restless and bizarre music”.


Particularly interesting example of the way in which Smareglia evokes the psychological atmosphere of the drama can be found in act II of the opera. It is the part of the plot during which Falena waits in her cave for King Stellio, whom she had previously hypnotised. She seduces him at first physically, then by inducing him to drink wine, and by a particularly enticing way of singing. Both characters move as if intoxicated, by wine, by each other’s presence and by the nightmarish atmosphere around them. The musical structure of this act is conceived as a single scene evolving around the two main characters. The mounting tension of their emotions is realised in a constant alternation of ariosos, which are at times more lyrical (when Falena wants to appear attractive and kind), at others more declamatory (when she is dangerous and orders Stellio what to do). Although certain passages resemble arias and duets, they arise imperceptibly from the symphonic texture and sink back into it. The extremely high register of strings, restless usage of chromaticism, leitmotifs and repetitive rhythm in the orchestral texture evoke the irrational hallucinatory world occupied by the two protagonists.


The last opera which Smareglia composed in collaboration with Silvio Benco was Abisso. What distinguishes Abisso from other two Smareglia-Benco operas is its historical subject: the theme is linked with the Lombardese fighting Barbarossa in the Battle of Legnano. Although dealing with an episode from Italian history, the opera’s musicodramatic style shows the continuation of the two artists’ collaboration. The investigation of the libretto for example, confirms that Benco’s creativity was still absorbed by the subjects of Decadence, revealing the influence of O. Wilde, G. D’Annunzio, E. A. Poe, and M. Maeterlinck. In conceiving the libretto Benco fused two dramatic themes within the plot, love and war, producing a passionate drama of the two sisters (Gisca and Mariela) who, once assaulted and imprisoned, fall in love with their captors. By emphasising their disturbed psychological state, immoral behaviour and the elements of eroticism of the plot, Benco again, just like in Falena, evoked and developed more the inner drama of the protagonists than the historical battle. As was the case with Falena and Oceana, Smareglia’s interpretation of this libretto is realised through dense and continuous symphonic texture. What seems most fascinating about the score of Abisso is the intense vocal writing, and the refined manner in which the vocal parts merge with the orchestral fabric. The most poetic example can be found at the beginning of act III, the prelude whose mood gives the impression of an orchestral fantasia.


Abisso marks the end of Smareglia’s career, proving that neither his imagination, nor his strength of will to dictate what he imagined, were exhausted. Although Smareglia’s operas differed from the works which dominated Italian musical theatre of the period, the composer deserves the credit for renewing Italian opera by creating the “poetic theatre”. Even though this may have left him isolated among his contemporaries, Smareglia’s last three operas confirm his place and originality in Italian opera.


The musico-dramatic style of Falena, Oceana and Abisso shows that Smareglia’s musicality was stimulated by the literary taste of his librettist. In his reaction to Benco’s undramatic stories and atmospheric settings, Smareglia moved away from tastes and fashion of Italian opera as exemplified in the work of his better know contemporary, Giacomo Puccini. The style of Benco’s libretti and Smareglia’s musical language show how the two artists gave musical aspects priority over dramatic ones in their determination to create a new style of opera. Absorbed in the climate of Symbolism and Decadence, Smareglia and Benco’s “poetic theatre” makes an important contribution to the operatic theatre.

Đulijana Ličinić van Walstijn