When it comes to Italian opera, the term verismo promises tales of high drama, love, lust, violence and death.

From the anguish of Elisabeth in Verdi's Don Carlos, to the ghastly murder that draws the curtains on Puccini's Il tabarro, this is a week of passion, ecstasy and heartbreaking tragedy, realised in sumptuous musical technicolour by the grand masters of the genre.

There's a feast of music by Puccini, Leoncavallo and Mascagni, along with a series of lesser known but equally colourful characters including Cilea, made famous by Enrico Caruso, Ponchielli, probably best known for the comedic realisation of Dance of the Hours in Disney's Fantasia and Catalani, whose best known aria was used in the French film Diva".

There's even an aria from an alternative Bohème, written by Leoncavallo at the same time as Puccini's big hit.

But it's not as easy as it might seem to work out why these composers get lumped together.

Musically speaking at least, verismo is a term that's probably got more exceptions than rules, inviting debate to the point where some academics have stated it should be "handled with great care.if at all"!

Happily ignoring that particular advice, as part of the BBC's opera season in 2010, the Italian opera authority Roger Parker joins Donald Macleod to map out the ways in which "verismo" can be applied to opera from Verdi to the twentieth century.

Monday's programme begins in the 1870s, in the aftermath of a newly unified Italy.

Responding to the prevailing artistic restlessness, composers were keen to break away from the operatic conventions of the past and found inspiration in an avant-garde literary movement headed up by Giovanni Verga.

It was against this backdrop that the grand old man of Italian opera, Verdi looked to Paris and grand opera, wishing to produce something new and distinctly modern.

Soon enough a tide of younger composers rushed to follow in his wake.

Donald Macleod explores how verismo first came about in the 1870s."


The last decade of the nineteenth century produced a work that's been cited as a watershed of verismo.

Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana is a tale of rivalry and infidelity, set in a village in Sicily.

Its unprecedented popularity generated a rush of composers interested in producing their own takes on this new style of musical drama.

Two years later that included Leoncavallo who produced I Pagliacci", an opera that's forever linked with Cavalleria rusticana as part of the double bill popularly known as Cav and Pag

With Donald Macleod and Roger Parker.

Donald Macleod explores the influence of Mascagni's opera Cavalleria rusticana."


The success of Mascagni and Leoncavallo encouraged a wave of young composers to bring a sense of reality of their theatrical productions.

Today Donald Macleod and Roger Parker look at the work of Catalani, best known for the aria used in the French film Diva", Giordano, who introduced socialist principles to a tale of aristocratic love in the French revolution and the work that catapulted Puccini to fame and fortune, his adaptation of the tale of the courtesan Manon Lescaut.

Donald Macleod on stories of revolution and socialist realism in Mascagni and Catalani."


The years following unification were difficult times for many Italians, with huge numbers abandoning rural life and moving to the cities.

Donald Macleod and Roger Parker consider whether these experiences informed works like Puccini's La Bohème and how well themes like this catered to the changing tastes of audiences.

Donald Macleod explores the changing tastes in post-unification Italy.


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In this final chapter Donald Macleod and Roger Parker look at how composers like Puccini responded to the artistic currents prevailing at the beginning of the twentieth century and how elements of verismo spread beyond Italy.

Donald Macleod on how composers responded to early 20th century artistic currents.