In musicology, verismo (meaning "realism", from Italian vero, meaning "true") refers to a post-Romantic operatic tradition associated with Italian composers such as Pietro Mascagni, Ruggero Leoncavallo, Umberto Giordano and Giacomo Puccini. They sought to bring the naturalism of influential late 19th-century writers such as Émile Zola and Henrik Ibsen into opera. The style began in 1890 with the first performance of Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana, peaked in the early 1900s, and lingered into the 1920s. The style is distinguished by realistic – sometimes sordid or violent – depictions of everyday life, especially the life of the contemporary lower classes. It by and large rejects the historical or mythical subjects associated with Romanticism. The term may also be used more broadly to refer to the entire output of these composers and others of the giovane scuola ("young school") who were active in Italy during that period.
There is disagreement among musicologists as to which operas are "verismo" operas, and which are not. Non-Italian works are generally excluded from the scope of the term. However, some consider Georges Bizet's Carmen to be an early verismo opera. Umberto Giordano, whose Andrea Chenier is considered a prototypical verismo opera, viewed Carmen as representing both the origin and the best of that style. Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana, Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, and Puccini's Tosca and Il tabarro are operas to which the term verismo is applied with little or no dispute. The term is sometimes also applied to Puccini's Madama Butterfly and La fanciulla del West.
Exponents of the verismo style
The Italian verismo composers comprised a musicological group known in its day as the giovane scuola ("young school"). The most famous composers who created works in the verismo style were Puccini, Mascagni, Ruggero Leoncavallo, Umberto Giordano, and Francesco Cilea. There were, however, many other veristi: Franco Alfano, Alfredo Catalani, Gustave Charpentier (Louise), Eugen d'Albert (Tiefland), Ignatz Waghalter (Der Teufelsweg and Jugend), Alberto Franchetti, Franco Leoni, Jules Massenet (La Navarraise), Licinio Refice, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, (I gioielli della Madonna), and Riccardo Zandonai.
For most of the composers associated with verismo, traditionally veristic subjects accounted for only some of their operas. For instance, Mascagni wrote a pastoral comedy (L'amico Fritz), a symbolist work set in Japan (Iris), and a couple of medieval romances (Isabeau and Parisina). These works are far from typical verismo subject matter, yet they are written in the same general musical style as his more quintessential veristic subjects.
In Italy, many opera singers became verismo acolytes—rejecting the traditional tenets of elegant, 19th century bel canto in the process. The most extreme exponents of verismo vocalism sang habitually in a vociferous fashion, often forfeiting legato to focus on the passionate aspect of the music. They would 'beef up' the timbre of their voices, use excessive amounts of vocal fold mass on their top notes, and often employ a conspicuous vibrato in order to accentuate the emotionalism of their ardent interpretations. The results could be exciting in the theatre but such a strenuous mode of singing was not a recipe for vocal longevity. Some prominent practitioners of full-throttle verismo singing during the movement's Italian lifespan (circa 1890 to circa 1930) include the sopranos Eugenia Burzio, Rosina Storchio and Adelaide Saraceni, the tenors Aureliano Pertile, Cesar Vezzani and Amadeo Bassi, and the baritones Mario Sammarco and Eugenio Giraldoni. Their method of singing can be sampled on numerous 78-rpm gramophone recordings. See Michael Scott's two-volume survey The Record of Singing, published in London by Duckworth in 1977/79, for an evaluation of most of these singers, and others of their Ilk, and a discussion of the adverse impact that verismo music had on singing standards in Italy.
Such great early-20th century international operatic stars as Enrico Caruso, Rosa Ponselle and Titta Ruffo developed vocal techniques which harmoniously managed to combine fundamental bel canto precepts with a more 'modern', straightforward mode of ripe-toned singing when delivering verismo music, and their example has influenced operatic performers down to this day (see Scott).
Notes and references
- "Verismo" in Stanley Sadie (ed.) The New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians, London: Macmillan/New York: Grove, 1980, vol 19 p.670, ISBN 1-56159-174-2
- Mallach, Alan (2007). The Autumn of Italian Opera: From Verismo to Modernism, 1890 - 1915. Lebanon, NH: Northeastern University Press. p. 42 et seq.
- "Cio' che prepara e pensa Umberto Giordano". La Stampa. May 17, 1905.. Verismo composer Umberto Giordano told an interviewer in 1905: "The meaning of these words (vero and verismo) needs to be defined once and for all" ("Bisognerebbe adunque definire una buona volta il valore di questi vocaboli.")
- "Cio' che prepara e pensa Umberto Giordano". La Stampa. May 17, 1905.
- Fisher, edited by Burton D. (2003). Puccini's IL TRITTICO. Miami: Opera Journeys Pub. ISBN 0-9771455-6-5.
- Carner, Mosco (1985). Giacomo Puccini, Tosca (Reprinted ed.). Cambridge [Cambridgeshire]: Cambridge University Press. p. 6. ISBN 0-521-22824-7.