A common misconception is the presumption that origins of the verismo style of singing are initially solely to be found in the fourth act of Verdi's La Traviata. There is a tendency to divide opera according to a variety of sub-headings in order to "facilitate" its history. While this perhaps serves to help distinguish between baroque, bel canto and verismo at a glance, it also, unfortunately, abruptly severs one from the other, rather than acknowledging a continuation of styles that successfully evolved through the centuries.
Giovanni Battista Pergolesi's La Serva Padrona (1733) also defies the assumption that verismo plots were the first to deal with the problems and passions of everyday life. There have been less mutations in the continued stream of topics dealing with "ordinary people" than is often supposed in an incessant desire to define verismo as dealing with people of a lower social strata wedded to music of incessant emotional outbursts. Opera went through numerous changes prior to reaching a vocal style known as verismo. It has always dealt with emotions, though often operatically disguised throughout its artistic history behind court intrigues and palatial facades. The works of Emile Zola and Giovanni Verga, together with the appearance of Cavalleria Rusticana, are not the sole origins of naturalism. Verismo should be considered an era in which opera changed - from set pieces, recitativo, coloratura and stereotypical ensemble writing - to a wider palette of vocal communication. It is a more impassioned form of expression, that makes an immediate emotional impact, though such a statement runs the risk of sounding subjective, as the psychological reaction to any given work is so closely dependent on a listener's own sensibilities. Verismo should therefore be considered the development of a musical style that reached an apex during the early 1900's, with its origins firmly embedded in the centuries of operatic composition that preceeded it.
Mozart's creation of Don Giovanni's death at the hand of the Commendatore is a fine example of a myth merged with music of such compelling force to justify it as containing seeds of realism from which verismo would later eventually spring. A decade later found Luigi Cherubini's Medea (1797), a more violent sister to the future operatic Norma (1831). The drama inherent in this work of fiery beauty enabled nineteenth-century tragic opera to be far removed from its eighteenth-century counterpart. With Medea, emotion came to the forefront in leading the musical direction, just as it had in parts of Don Giovanni (1787). Thus, Cherubini's heroine would later attract many sopranos who also merited success in verismo works, such as Maria Callas and Magda Olivero. The dramatic soprano Ester Mazzoleni, who also interpreted works of the verismo repertoire premiered the opera in Italy, believing that the role required no less than a Rachel or a Sarah Bernhardt to prove successful.
While Fidelio (1805) layed great emphasis on the vocal expression of human emotion, it seems that Donizetti was the next major force in preparing the way for verismo prior to Verdi. In his trilogy of Queens: Anna Bolena (1830), Maria Stuarda (1834) and Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux (1837), Donizetti created towering musical portraits that combined a mixture of purely brilliant vocal writing with a greater sense of psychological insight. These works prompted the librettist Felice Romani to write: "The poet can throw away the pale melodramatic rubbish known as libretti, and soar to heights of lyric tragedy; the composer can leave his desk, his worn-out stock of routine phrases and eternal cabalettas, and rise to dramatic truth and the music of passion."
With Giuseppe Verdi, the succession of an operatic style of singing leading to verismo advanced significantly in 1842 with the appearance of Nabucco. Although the work contains the usual elements of bel canto, including the obligatory Sinfonia that precedes the opera, it nevertheless enabled a more varied manner of vocal usage for the fiendishly difficult role of Abigaille. This is immediately recognizable upon her initial entrance: "Prode guerrier! ...d'amore conosci tu sol l'armi?" Verdi imagined the interpreter of Abigaille to lay more emphasis on her portrayal rather than adhering to strict note values with his marking "a piacere." He thereby imparted added freedom to the artist depending upon the theatrical capabilities of the soprano. In fact, Verdi seemed to be experimenting with modes of expression that had received few parallels until that time. With Macbeth (1847), he took yet another step in the psychological development of his characterizations. Here we have an example of "demonic" coloratura far removed from customary bel canto writing.
While some musicologists suggest that it is unfair to claim La Traviata a bridge to verismo, both the opera's intimacy and the work's concentration on one protagonist who matures and transforms herself from one act to another, is nothing if not "uno squarcio di vita" - "a slice of life" - as heralded in Tonio's prologue to I Pagliacci, the credo of the verismo movement. Violetta would become a prefered role among verismo sopranos. The reason for this attraction was presumably the dramatic possibilities afforded by the last act. The impression that present-day audiences have of the Dumas heroine has certainly been influenced by the way the part has been performed during most of this century - very often by sopranos who have excelled in verismo roles - thus probably far removed from interpretations during Verdi's own time.
With works such as I Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana, the verismo style of singing hinted at in parts of La Traviata, Otello and other earlier operas, united and matured to create a unique form of musical expression demanding a vocal and emotional differentiation from its interpreters. When operas by Puccini, Pietro Mascagni, Umberto Giordano and Franco Alfano further enhanced the repertoire, a dramatic shift of vocal requirements became necessary, lending additional attention to the drama in opera. Text suddenly came to the forefront. Vocalism was now geared to make an immediate impression thanks to its dramatic impact. Phrasing suddenly gained more importance than entire arias. Diction, personality and brevity now reigned over agility and vocal pyrotechniques. A fresh repertoire also created the need for a new type of singer, who, while often trained in the bel canto school, would also be able to master the rigors imposed by verismo.
Tessitura now also meant sudden dramatic changes of expression in the midst of a single line without any forewarning, thus implying a composer's quest to bring operatic vocalism in closer proximity to speech. Most roles composed during the advent of verismo layed more emphasis on the central registers of the voice. High notes were not always required to be stunningly beautiful or to crown a specific scene - on the contrary - they were now employed to serve as an additional means of expression, be that joy, sadness or sheer hysteria. Additionally, most verismo arias concluded on a note at the center of the voice, whose effect could be heightened by the means of a messa di voce: "Vissi d'arte" from Tosca, "In quelle trine morbide" from Manon Lescaut, "Ridi Pagliaccio" from I Pagliacci. Sometimes, the wilfull destruction of a tone for effect in the midst of a passage to illustrate utter hopelessness was also used, as when Cio-Cio-San sings "Ah! m'ha scordata?" in Act 2 of Madama Butterfly, or Violetta's "Ah! gran Dio! morir si giovine" in Act 4 of La Traviata.
Verismo now implied that the artist was confronted with vocally accompanying a more symphonic style of orchestral composition - frequently in unison - thereby also adding stress to the center range that, if void of sufficient strength, would become inaudible. An aid to this dilemma was now sought in the greater importance paid the chest voice. With less thought given the upper range, the voce di petto was called upon to offer greater bite to emulate speech. With time, sopranos soon employed this often dangerous style to imbue their characterizations with added passion, pulling the chest voice continuously higher, until it became expected in certain phrases or passages such as at the conclusion of Gioconda's aria "Suicidio" in Act 4 of Ponchielli's opera of the same name or Maddalena's "La mamma morta" in Act 3 of Giordano's Andrea Chenier or Santuzza's "Voi lo sapete" in Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana. Vocal tightrope acts strangely now no longer had to be found solely in the upper extension of the voice as they had been for centuries.
Fortunately, artists who were coached by some of the verismo composers also left recorded legacies of certain roles, or, as in the case of Mascagni, conducted some of their own works on disc, thereby leaving a living link between us and the era. This also enabled singers to actually become active in the process of creation when it came time to interpret their roles, an important sense of freedom that has now ceased to exist. Words or phrases were suddenly interpreted in a more varied manner depending on the artist, or with a sudden switch from song to speech that was not to be found in the markings of the score. Some of operas most famous spoken lines are meant to be sung, had it not been for singers who felt speaking would greatly enhance the dramatic impact of a given moment. In the score of Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana, Santuzza is made to sing "A te la mala Pasqua!" rather than hurl it out as the showstopper it has become. The same is true of many other phrases, the difference being that composers condoned such changes and artists were thus able to imbue their own personalities on a given role, frequently improving on the creator's original intentions. Some of these ideas were also incorporated into Verdi and the bel canto composers by verismo singers who also performed such roles. An example would be the customary speaking of Paolo's curse "Sia maledetto!!" in Act 1 of Simon Boccanegra, notes for which are to be found in the score.
The vocal line also became significantly shorter, with greater interest frequently paid a few words or phrases, in verismo's quest to magnify the details of life rather than supply a broader canvas of emotions (e.g. "ma, quando vien lo sgelo" sung by Mimi in Act 3 of Puccini's La Bohème.) Added touches, such as a certain breathlessness - used to effect by Claudia Muzio (Mefistofele: "L'Altra notte in fondo al mare") and, later, Licia Albanese, also suggested a greatly varied approach to what was earlier considered appropriate.
Being able to color the voice to shade the text with added dimension was also desirable. Gradually, the atmosphere, as well as the emotional impression that a singer managed to create, was given greater importance as a facet of their artistry rather than solely the purity of their vocal art. Singers began to covet roles more for their expressive affinity to operatic personages, than for sheer matters of vocal suitability. It was no longer only Puccini's Tosca, but also that of Renata Tebaldi, Maria Callas or Zinka Milanov. Important details - frequently psychological aspects of a given interpretation - found "between the notes" - ensured that Maria Caniglia's Tosca was completely different than Maria Jeritza's. Sopranos with prevalent vibratos were now also able to make use of this sometimes detrimental trademark to audibly enhance the passion inherent in their roles. Gemma Bellincioni - one of the first verismo sopranos to create a recorded legacy - provides ample testimony, as would later Augusta Oltrabella, Clara Petrella and Magda Olivero.
Sopranos now more often than not became the catalysts in works that usually also carried their name, especially in Puccini. A dark burnished sound was cultivated with added importance also given diction. Apart from Puccini's Minnie in La Fanciulla del West and the name part in Turandot, the vocal quality necessary to interpret all of the composer's protagonists is essentially identical.
Since verismo was so strongly tied to Italy's language and culture, it now - for the first time - frequently became evident when the artist was not Italian. Only few non-Italian sopranos came to excel in verismo, and even if they did, it was frequently pointed out that their timbres were unitalianate. Rumanians such as Hariclea Darclée or Virginia Zeani seemed to have it easier thanks to their country's latin origins. This serves to emphasize that verismo is closely dependent on tradition and language, together with an understanding of the latin philosophy and temperament. There were, of course, examples of German language verismo in the guises of D'Albert, Korngold, Zemlinsky and Schreker, though they usually opted for a higher tessitura originally introduced in the works of Richard Strauss, as well as the use of spoken dialogue and Sprechgesang. While Massenet may represent French verismo - and not only with his La Navarraise but also with such varied works as Therèse and Sapho - Janàcek affected by the influence of realism, including Russia, with Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Prokofiev's The Gambler.
Tenors were next in line in this newly created hierarchy. Very similar to the male dancer in the world of ballet, the tenor in verismo - particularly in the works of Puccini - frequently only served to offer an emotional foil for the soprano, or, at most, share equal importance. The title role of Giordano's Andrea Chenier, Federico in Cilèa's L'Arlesiana, and the works of Mascagni in general, nevertheless somewhat sought to alleviate this predicament. With the creation of Leoncavallo's Canio in I Pagliacci, tenors were expected to offer a sufficient sense of slancio to merit frequent vocal outbursts, including a fair portion of sobbing, perhaps originally initiated by Verdi in Otello. Arias also no longer concluded on a high note - save few exceptions such as Calaf's "Nessun Dorma" in Turandot - but, rather, around the upper middle range of the voice, including Federico's lament from Cilea's L'Arlesiana or "E lucevan le stelle" from Tosca. Notes at the higher end of the scale were now incorporated into the score to give vent to added expression. Thus, relatively high lying roles such as Des Grieux in Puccini's Manon Lescaut brought about added technical difficulties often unappreciated by the audience more accustomed to applauding a final high B or C. Since verismo's main emphasis centered on dramatic voices with a meatier sound and added heft, the tenore di grazie was reduced to cameo roles such as Beppe in I Pagliacci or Goro and Prunier in Puccini's Madama Butterfly and La Rondine respectively.
Lower voices were now also no longer given equal importance as had still been the case in the operas of Verdi. Since many verismo themes deal with erotic subjects, composers perhaps felt that tenors and sopranos emanated a greater sense of youthful passion. Gone were the days of a Don Giovanni or Dalila. Mezzo-sopranos were now an almost extinct species, usually only remaining as secondary roles. This voice range suffered greatly as a cause of verismo, especially in the case of lyric mezzo-sopranos, who were now hardly offered an adequate means of expression as they had been in earlier roles such as Cherubino or Mignon. Cilea's Principessa di Bouillon in Adriana Lecouvreur and Rosa Mamai in the same composer's L'Arlesiana, together with La Comandante in Riccardo Zandonai's nordically imbued I Cavalieri di Ekebù, are rare examples of leading verismo mezzo-soprano roles. For artists of this voice category who felt drawn to verismo - such as Gianna Pederzini - the only consolation sometimes offered was in the form of transpositions of soprano roles such as Katiusha in Alfano's Risurrezione, Conchita in Zandonai's opera or Fedora in the Umberto Giordano opus.
Lyric baritones also gave way to darker voiced artists. Thus, singers such as Mattia Battistini were replaced by the trumpet sounds of a Titta Ruffo, who set a standard among baritones with his regal yet agressive style, later adopted by Benvenuto Franci, Gino Bechi, Tito Gobbi, Aldo Protti, Giangiacomo Guelfi and Ettore Bastianini among others. While verismo operas include numerous baritone roles - usually as a menacing force - basses fare much worse, and painfully few verismo works with the exception of Italo Montemezzi's L'Amore dei Tre Re or Mascagni's Iris do this voice category justice.
Just as with bel canto, there are varied ways of singing verismo. There is undoubtedly a difference between earlier interpreters such as Eugenia Burzio and the more recent Renata Scotto. From older recordings we can hear an almost reckless abandon from the performing artists documented. An interesting example would be to compare Rosina Storchio's rendition of Musette's aria "Mimi Pinson la biondinetta" from Leoncavallo's La Bohème, to any of the many more modern recordings of the work. The zest and indescribable exuberance heard from this 78 is sufficient to understand why verismo operas were so popular during their heyday. Storchio enjoys what she is doing, which is a completely unself-conscious and most successful attempt at inspiring the hearer through her own sheer joy of song. Listeners at the time were perhaps more accustomed to accept a few scratchy notes that made the interpreter even more human. Through the almost maniacal quest of sterile perfectionism, a larger part of today's recordings no longer make the same dramatic and emotional impact that they were once capable of. Storchio's recording is only one example.
Up until the end of the 1960's, there still remained singers - including Renata Tebaldi - capable of demonstrating what verismo singing was all about. Many of these artists had solid vocal techniques deriving from the school of bel canto, such as Callas, Gencer, Zeani, Scotto, Olivero, Carosio and Caballé. Since verismo requires a more mature sound to do justice to its heroines, many singers only ventured to interpret roles in this genre at a later stage in their careers. This enabled them to combine the best of both worlds, with a superior vocal technique coupled with great interpretive skills. Margherita Carosio, who was essentially a coloratura soprano, ventured into verismo relatively late, although her complete recording of Menotti's Amelia al Ballo is a lesson in expressive phrasing and delicate pathos, while Menotti's works in general are frequently a form of neo-verismo containing melancholic autumnal shades. Magda Olivero, on the other hand, transported modern audiences back a few decades to see what they had missed whereas Caballé, a bel canto specialist par excellence, understood the style sufficiently to be able to do more than justice to such roles as Gioconda and Tosca. Scotto sought to purify verismo, ridding it of its melodramatic exaggerations which, she believes, contributed to the style's gradual decline.
The excitement essential to singing verismo brought us closer to the spoken stage than ever before, though it also served to shorten the life of numerous singers due to emotional and vocal wear and tear. Thanks sometimes specifically to many of the detrimental causes listed above, verismo signified an enthralling period in music given to a heightened sense of excitement. In essence, it represented the musical equivalent of the decadent movement in art and literature: one last final summing up before the onset of two world wars succeeded in stifling a spontaneous expression of love and beauty, therafter making us more self-conscious when artistically expressing passion. Like a somewhat mature and forbidden fruit, it contained all the juice and flavor only made available following centuries of different styles. While today's voices have swung in exactly the opposite direction - with the operas of the baroque - the sense of an immensely powerful theatrical experience as embodied in verismo is sorely missed.
© Konrad Claude Dryden 2000