Enrico Caruso began as a lyrical tenor in the late 19th and the first several years of the 20th century (the lyrical tenor voice is relatively light as compared to “heavier” voices). His voice, however, became deeper, more powerful and resonant as his career unfolded. When he reached full artistic and tonal maturity toward his mid to late forties (1913-20), his new “dramatic tenor” voice caused both amazement and controversy. How could Caruso’s voice resemble a baritone’s in both its color and energetic substance, yet could also have, when artistically required, the range, agility, and smooth, silken finish of a highly polished lyrical tenor?
After Verdi, between the years 1875 to 1900, an entire generation of composers (mostly Italians) came along who continued to reshape opera by giving it true, earthy passions and plots. Giacomo Puccini (La Boheme), Georges Bizet (Carmen), Ruggiero Mascagni (Cavalleria Rusticanna), and Pietro Leoncavallo (Pagliacci) are the most important creators of the Verismo school of opera—operas that were meant to be true-to-life.
If Rossini, with his innovations, caused the door of operatic change to fly open, it was with Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) in Italian opera and Richard Wagner (1813-1883) in German opera, that the door came off its hinges. Both composers wrote denser, more complex music where the melody lines were dictated by the music (the composers) with even greater fidelity than it was with Rossini. It also followed that Verdi and Wagner asked something more from their singers.
As far as the evolution of the tenor voice is concerned, Gilbert-Louis Duprez’s contribution is both momentous and mildly humorous. In a word, he was the first famous tenor in history to sing a high C (C5), full voice, without resorting to falsetto tones. While singing in Rossini’s opera William Tell, and being fearful that his small voice would not be able to perform adequately a difficult passage, Duprez decided to go for broke: “It required the concentration of every resource of will and physical strength. So be it, I said to myself, it may be the end of me, but somehow I’ll do it. And so I found the high C…” This impulsive act of vocal desperation changed the history of the tenor voice (non-Wagnerian) forever.
Tenors have always been a part of opera even during the rule of the greatest castrati, but the preference at the time was for the “cut” male. In the early 19th century, however, there were a number of gifted tenors that began to have success in the principle roles and even had the great composers write for them. Giovanni-Battista Rubini (1795-1854) was unique among them. He was the first “uncut” male to garner the international reputation normally reserved for the best castrati. Besides being an excellent, natural musician, he famously mastered a vocal technique that gave him excellently-produced falsetto-like tones for his brilliant high notes, which allowed him to execute castrato-like embellishments. On the other hand, it was his wonderfully elegant vocal phrasing where Rubini really excelled and where he made the greatest impact, especially on other musicians like the iconic pianist from Hungary, Franz Liszt (1811-1886). Rubini was both a return to an earlier form of vocalism as well as a harbinger of things to come.