Verismo, which in this context means “realism,” is the name for a movement that arose in opera near the end of the 19th century. Composers of versimo operas chose realisting settings, often depicting the struggles and drama of common people. In this they were reacting against the grandiosity and mythological focus of Romanticism. Verismo, like Impressionism, is part of the transition from the Romantic to the Modern era and could justifiably be studied as part of either period. Just as we studied Beethoven in the Classical era and Schubert in the Romantic era, we will examine verismo opera (and one of its greatest practitioners, Giacomo Puccini) in our study of the Romantic period and Impressionism in our study of the 20th century.
In opera, verismo (meaning “realism,” from Italian vero, meaning “true”) was a post-Romantic operatic tradition associated with Italian composers such as Pietro Mascagni, Ruggero Leoncavallo, Umberto Giordano and Giacomo Puccini.
Verismo as an operatic genre had its origins in an Italian literary movement also called ‘verismo’ (see Verismo (literature)). The Italian literary movement of verismo, in turn, was related to the international literary movement of Naturalism as practiced by Émile Zola and others. Like naturalism, the verismo literary movement sought to portray the world with greater realism. In so doing, Italian verismo authors such as Giovanni Verga wrote about subject matter, such as the lives of the poor, that had not generally been seen as a fit subject for literature. A short story by Verga called Cavalleria rusticana (“Rustic Chivalry”), then developed into a play by the same author, became the source for what is usually considered to be the first verismo opera: Cavalleria rusticana by Mascagni, which premiered on 17 May 1890 at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome. Thus begun, the operatic genre of verismo produced a handful of notable works such as Pagliacci, which premiered at Teatro Dal Verme in Milan on 21 May 1892, and Puccini’s Tosca (premiering at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome on 14 January 1900.) The genre peaked in the early 1900s, and lingered into the 1920s.
In terms of subject matter, generally “[v]erismo operas focused not on gods, mythological figures, or kings and queens, but on the average contemporary man and woman and their problems, generally of a sexual romantic, or violent nature.” However, two of the small handful of verismo operas still performed today take historical subjects: Puccini’s Tosca and Giordano’s Andrea Chénier. “Musically, verismo composers consciously strove for the integration of the opera’s underlying drama with its music.” These composers abandoned the “recitative and set-piece structure” of earlier Italian opera. Instead, the operas were “through-composed,” with few breaks in a seamlessly integrated sung text. While verismo operas may contain arias that can be sung as stand-alone pieces, they are generally written to arise naturally from their dramatic surroundings, and their structure is variable, being based on text that usually does not follow a regular strophic format.
The most famous composers who created works in the verismo style were Giacomo Puccini, Pietro 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.
The term verismo can cause confusion. In addition to referring to operas written in a realistic style, the term may also be used more broadly to refer to the entire output of the composers of the giovane scuola (“young school”), the generation of composers who were active in Italy during the period that the verismo style was created. One author (Alan Mallach) has proposed the term “plebian opera” to refer to operas that adhere to the contemporary and realistic subject matter for which the term verismo was originally coined. At the same time, Mallach questions the value of using a term such as verismo, which is supposedly descriptive of the subject and style of works, simply to identify an entire generation’s music-dramatic output. 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 addition, there is disagreement among musicologists as to which operas are “verismo” operas, and which are not. (Non-Italian operas are generally excluded). Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, 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. Because only three verismo works not by Puccini continue to appear regularly on stage (the aforementioned Cavalleria rusticana, Pagliacci, and Andrea Chénier), Puccini’s contribution has had lasting significance to the genre.
Some authors have attempted to trace the origins of verismo opera to works that preceded Cavalleria rusticana, such as Georges Bizet’s Carmen, or Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata.
The verismo opera style featured music that required singers to more declamatory singing, in contrast to the traditional tenets of elegant, 19th century bel canto singing that had preceded the movement. Opera singers adapted to the demands of the new style. 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).