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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. High-tension emotions such as unbridled erotic desire, blind jealousy, and bloodthirsty revenge often colored these works. As a result of more visceral themes, verismo singers had to possess highly emotional voices, ones capable of exploring, with artistic shading, bigger, more effusive emotions on the one hand, and inward, often darker, emotions, on the other. This development in opera signified yet a further evolution of the meaning of Bel Canto vocal style.

By the end of the 19th century, the male singers—basses, baritones, and tenors—had finally come into their own. Operas by Verdi and his fellow Italian composers and Wagner, for instance, typically had a masculine orientation with heroes and villains gaining all, or most, of the attention. With virility now in full display, it was only natural that singers would be called upon who could deliver the requisite vocal and emotional drama.

Francesco Tamagno (1850-1905) may have possessed the most massive dramatic voice in modern tenor history; more so than Enrico Tamberlik, he was all voice. Even if he was, again not unlike Tamberlik, not gifted in the art of vocal delicacy and flexibility, at least he could deliver the decibels and gut-wrenching pathos, which was always a crowd pleaser. He too had, once again like Tamberlik, high Cs and high C sharps galore. Because of the immense size of his voice, and his gift of emotional intensity, he was the next step in the dramatic tenor tradition that began with Donzelli, refined by Nourrit, incidentally redirected by Duprez, and further advanced by Tamberlik. Verdi caste Tamagno as Otello for the opera’s debut, for his voice not only possessed the explosive torque and piercing tonal resonance that Verdi required, but the composer also believed that the tenor, by natural temperament, could also be a convincing mouthpiece for the raw, unfettered intensity that defined the emotional core of Otello’s character (Verdi’s high expectations were not met, however, and concluded that the tenor did not have sufficient nuance in his singing to capture the totality of Otello’s character). We can hear Tamagno, albeit imperfectly, on wax recordings to get an idea of how he sounded and what all the excitement was all about e.g.,Ora Per Sempre Addio, from Otello.

Polish tenor Jean de Reszke (1850-1925) was the most celebrated and “elegant” tenor of his time (he was admired for always singing in “good taste”). Unlike his contemporary rival Tamagno, he sang a wide repertoire—from Italian and French operas to Wagner’s early and later works (e.g., Lohengrin and Trisan und Isolde, respectively). His enormous success in singing operas of such wide vocal and dramatic requirements is a testimony to his vocal resourcefulness, musical acumen, and artistic flexibility, and his immaculate handling of languages made all his ventures all that more praiseworthy. Despite the preeminence of Jean de Reszske in the latter part of the 19th century, however, he was not a transitional tenor, the one singer, in whose throat—and heart—the modern meaning of Bel Canto was to take new form. This designation would go to Enrico Caruso.

Gary Catona, photo by Issam Zejly



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