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Homegrown verismo

George Scigliano

George Scigliano

George Scigliano was the first Italian American elected to public office in Boston. His story was brought to life by Steven Puleo in “The Boston Italians.” As Puleo notes, Scigliano fought hard to end the exploitation of Italian immigrants through the corrupt padrone system. His death inspired the unsuccessful effort by James Donnaruma to rename North Square after him. Scigliano’s work also may have been the inspiration for something else: an opera about Italian immigrants set in the North End. That opera is George Whitfield Chadwick’s “Il Padrone” (1913).

Chadwick is one of the most well-known and accomplished American classical composers. Born in Lowell, Mass., in 1854, he studied music at the New England Conservatory and was a key member of a group called the New England School, or “Boston Six,” whose members were instrumental in developing an American idiom of classical music. Chadwick composed three symphonies, five string quartets and numerous tone poems, songs and choral works.

George Whitfield Chadwick

George Whitfield Chadwick

“Il Padrone” is the third of his four operas. Composed it in the verismo style made popular in Italy by Mascagni, Leoncavallo and Puccini, “Il Padrone” centers on two sisters, Francesca and Marietta. Living and working in the North End, the sisters anxiously await the arrival of Marco from Italy: Francesca because Marco was her past love in Italy and Marietta because of their present love and planned marriage upon his arrival in Boston.

Marietta has arranged to meet him at the dock with their marriage license, a priest and the wedding party. Since her arrival in the U.S. She has worked as a tambourine player in order to pay the interest she owes to Catani, her padrone, Catani, who loves her and wants her for himself. When he hears of her plans to marry Marco, Catani manipulates Francesca’s jealously so that she betrays Marco by revealing his criminal record to the immigration officials. Marco is arrested and deported, and Marietta has her revenge by stabbing Catani to death as the wedding party arrives on the scene.

Bill F. Faucett, author of “George Whitefield Chadwick. The Life and Music of the Pride of New England” (Northeastern University Press) notes that Chadwick wanted a verismo setting “with a real atmosphere and with real emotions,” but outside the then-typical setting of the American deep South or wild West. Since verismo opera was intended to treat real life events among ordinary people, Faucett states that “the atmosphere and emotions Chadwick sought were close at hand in the burgeoning Italian community of Boston’s North End” (p. 279).

Moreover, Faucett points out that Boston’s newspapers at the time were filled with accounts of the abuses of the padrone system as well as Scigliano’s fight against them. Chadwick would have known of Scigliano’s funeral, the largest in Boston at that time, and he would have sympathized with his efforts to end the padrone system. Certainly, the story is an explicit criticism of padrone excess and exploitation, and sympathetic to the plight of the poor and working class.

Chadwick had high hopes when he sent it to the Metropolitan Opera Company, and he was bitterly disappointed when they rejected it, ironically because of its verismo style and commonplace setting. Sadly, the opera lay unperformed until 1995, when it was premiered at the Thomaston Opera House in Thomaston, Conn. A second performance took place in 1997 by New England Conservatory Opera Theater at Northeastern University’s Blackman Auditorium. This was also video recorded. I was able to get a CD recording of the Thomaston performance. The story is intriguing enough and the music is wonderful, with Chadwick’s orchestral and melodic skills evident. The interlude between the two acts is particularly lovely.

I can’t imagine a good reason why Chadwick’s “Il Padrone” might not someday see its North End premiere. I don’t know how that could come about, but it would be a true homecoming for a lovely work.

About James Pasto

James S. Pasto is a senior lecturer at Boston University, co-founder of the North End Historical Society and editor of the society's journal. To share stories about North End's past, e-mail pasto@bostoniano.info. To find out more about the North End Historical Society, visit alexgoldfeld.com/NEHS.html.