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Verdi, Wagner, And The Verismo School Part 1

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.

In Verdi’s case—especially in his later works, i.e., Aida and Otello—the sheer vocal power and stamina that is required is daunting. In Otello, particularly, his orchestration is of unprecedented complexity for Verdi, and the demands that he places on the tenor are such that only a few tenors since the opera’s creation have been successful in meeting it vocal challenges to the satisfaction of opera critics (Verdi’s final opera Falstaff shows his orchestration at yet a new level of sophistication, but the work does not pose the same level of vocal difficulty as does Otello). The opera features the dramatic tenor voice in the lead—ideally, one with a darkly rich, resonant tonal quality, a voice with explosive high notes, and one that can blast—trumpet-like—through a thick wall of orchestral sound. Some critics consider the Italian dramatic tenor Mario Del Monico (1915-1982) as the greatest Otello to date, although more recently, Spanish tenor and superstar Placido Domingo (born 1941) has made this opera his own.

Verdi gave the baritone—the next to lowest male voice—a new responsibility in his operas: to express the timeless needs, frustrations, and joys of the human race. For this purpose he created his “Verdi baritone.” The Verdi Baritone is admired for his extended high notes and squillo—vibrant ring. Because he often has to share center-stage with the tenor and soprano, he also has to have in his voice exceptional power and emotional drive; he must be an effective “character actor” as well. A good example of a Verdi’s Baritone is the character Iago in his Otello. Italian baritone Titta Ruffo (1877-1953), nicknamed Voce Del Leone (the voice of a lion) is perhaps the best example of a Verdi baritone (see his work in Un Ballo In Maschera).

Despite the increasing importance that Verdi gave to the orchestra in his later career, the voice was still primary in his operatic worldview (as always has been the case with Italian, operatic composers). Wagner went even further than Verdi, however, in reassigning a new place and function of the operatic voice. Indeed, Wagner’s operas emphasized the orchestra as much as the voice (and in his later operas, he composed even more domineering orchestrations). Beyond that, the vocal demands of Wagner’s music were such that he called into existence a new kind of voice—the Wagnerian voice—one defined by its immense size, dark resonance (especially in the low and middle voice), and sturdy durability.

The Wagnerian voice had to possess these dimensions because it had to compete with the symphonic-like content of Wagner’s overpowering compositions. However, at least as far as the Wagnerian tenor is concerned—the so-called “heldentenor” (German for heroic tenor)—high notes a’la Rossini or Verdi were not his forte. The greatest of all heldentenors is the vocally formidable Dane, Lawrence Melchoir (1890-1973). For the greatest of Wagnerian sopranos—and a singer famously renowned for her endless flow of powerful high notes—the vote usually goes to the Swede Birgit Nilsson (1918-2005), with the Norwegian Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962) a close second.

For all Wagnerian singers, it should be noted, exquisitely nuanced tonal qualities and sweetness of expression—these once cherished ideals of classic Bel Canto singing—did not have much purchase in Wagner’s new form of opera (what musicologists call “Music Drama”). The operas where we hear Wagnerian voices in full display areDer Ring des Nibelugen (often called The Ring Cycle), Tristan und Isolde, and Parsifal.

Gary Catona, photo by Issam Zejly



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