Italian Opera in the Romantic Period

Italy has a unique personality during the mid-and late Romantic period in that its compositional output is strongly associated with one particular genre: opera. Although other genres were present in Italy too, I associate Romantic-era Italy with Rossini, Verdi and Puccini. All of these composers are associated almost exclusively with opera, and they are responsible for a huge proportion of the operas most performed and recognized today. Even if you know very little about opera, whatever operatic singing you have heard is probably an excerpt from a Rossini, Verdi or Puccini opera. Today, we will pick up where we left off; Rossini had left a strong legacy in Italian opera writing and Verdi would take this style, run with it, and add even more emotion and depth. Puccini would create a new style of Italian opera altogether.

Guiseppe Verdi: an Italian Hero

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) was as passionate about his country as he was about composing, and communicating this message in music was part of his legacy. Italy was a series of small city-states when Verdi lived, and he felt deeply about the need for Italy to be a unified, proud nation. In some of Verdi’s most famous operas, such as Nabucco and Rigoletto, choruses (numbers in which the entire cast sings together) refer openly to how Italy should be united and proud. Because of Verdi’s strong connection to this political cause, he is still considered a national hero. His music is played on holidays and at patriotic events.

Verdi is also a transitional figure between the Rossini-style, segmented opera format, and the through-composed methods used by Puccini later. Remember that, even as far back as our initial Baroque opera post, opera had become traditionally segmented into arias, solos for the singers, and recitative, where plot moved forward, dialogue happened, and the singers’ virtuosity and lyricism weren’t as featured.

Rossini took this to the extreme in his separation of recitative and arias (remember when Figaro stopped the plot of Barber of Seville for several minutes to brag about his barbering skills?). Verdi’s early operas carry this influence; some of the most well-known tunes in opera are from solo canzone in these operas. Canzone (literally “song” or “ballad” in Italian) are lighthearted and frivolous in contrast to the slow, lyrical aria. Here are some examples of the greatest hits you may not have realized were written by Verdi.

Rigoletto: La Donna è Mobile

You’ll recognize this famous canzone from the opera Rigoletto. The english title means “Woman is Fickle;” the tenor vents his frustration at how unpredictable and complicated women are, yet how much he loves flirting with them anyway!

The most interesting thing about this canzone is that, in the introduction, Verdi makes an unusual choice to omit the last bar of the theme and leave the audience in expectation through silence. It is a unique tactic to drive the music forward. You’ll hear this happen again in the next excerpt as well; one could consider it one of Verdi’s quirks!

La Traviata: Libiamo ne’ lieti calici

Again, you will likely have heard this famous duet many times before. It’s another wildly famous canzone that has become a stand-alone excerpt. In context, this drinking song is from the middle of Verdi’s opera La Traviata. It is a duet between Violetta, the main character, and her love interest Alfredo, shortly after meeting at a party. Alfredo’s friend convinces him to show off his voice to impress Violetta, and this is what he sings. Eventually, they both sing together, and their love story has begun.

Note that this a quite a realistic setting, literally singing to show off one’s voice. Opera was slowly becoming more of a realistic art form and Verdi’s works moved gradually toward this new style, called verismo, throughout his composing career. By listening to Verdi’s early, middle and later work, you can hear the movement from aria-recit-aria format toward a format in which the plot line takes more precedence over the format of the opera’s music. Where there are silly songs such as Libiamo, it’s likely because they actually make sense in the plot. We’ll see how Puccini takes this verismo style a step further.

Giacomo Puccini: Taking Melodrama to its heights

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) is another major figure in opera writing, having composed some of the other most popular operas in history such as La Boheme, Madame Butterfly, Tosca and Turandot. His operas also have many excerpts that are performed often in recitals and pops concerts, such as:

Turandot: Nessun Dorma

Sung so often by itself, few listeners know the context of Nessun Dorma. Knowing it makes the experience of listening to it much more meaningful.

A nameless prince, in love with the cold-hearted Princess Tuandot, has passed the three impossible tests required to marry her. However, she still doesn’t want to marry him. He gives her a chance to escape, saying that if she can guess his name (which she doesn’t know) by morning, she can execute him, but if she can’t, she has to marry him. She orders her servants to work tirelessly through the night to find the name of the Prince, ordering that “nobody sleeps” until it is found. The prince sings this aria while hearing all of this happen in the palace around him.

This is an example of the through-composed “Verisimo” style. The first two phrases of the aria, in which the tenor repeats “nessun dorma,” he is imitating the calls that he hears in the palace around him, reacting to his environment. His aria begins properly only after a few lines of commentary on the sounds he is hearing.

La Boheme: Che gelida manina

This aria is also fairly wall-known, but I chose to mention it not because of its fame but because it exemplifies the verismo-style writing that Puccini developed. There’s no particular place where this aria “starts” in terms of the singer standing at the front of the stage and starting the solo. He still has to say lines in a recitative-style, taking to his co-singer in stage, while the aria has already started. The first feeling of an aria-style solo is already the refrain, the most famous part of the aria, but it has already been evolving naturally out of dialogue for several minutes.

The context of this opera is that Rodolfo, a bohemian artist, meets his neighbor Mimi, a fellow free spirit, when she knocks on the door asking for a candle. She is clearly cold, malnourished and this candle is probably her only source of light and heat. Rodolfo takes pity on her and, because it’s opera, falls instantly in love with her too! In this aria, Rodolfo pities her cold hands and takes her inside, shows her around his flat and introduces himself to her.

Both Rodolfo and Mimi are poor, and the entire opera centers on the life of impoverished characters. This subject matter in itself is in the verismo style; operas previously didn’t highlight lower class as subject matter but instead told un-relatable tales of princes, aristocrats and mythological characters. Puccini’s choice to set this opera in a slum, and focus on the misery caused by poverty, was significant. In the subject matter and in the format of the music as it evolved from the dialogue, Puccini aimed to make the opera more realistic and emotionally powerful as an art form.

If you’d like to hear more beautiful opera writing, I would recommend the following clips from both Verdi and Puccini:

Verdi‘s opera Don Carlo has many beautiful standalone moments, such as this one, “Dio, Che Nell’alma Infondere Amor,” a duet. It’s not even a duet between lovers; the main character has hit rock bottom after many dubious acts earlier in the drama, and his only friend comes to encourage him to get it together and face the enemy alongside him. It’s a testament to friendship.

Puccini’s opera Tosca depicts yet another tragic love story, this time with a Romeo-and-Juliet twist of trickery and misunderstanding. Mario and Tosca are in love, but the corrupt Scarpia wants Mario dead and Tosca for himself. Tosca forms a plan to fake Mario’s execution that, unsurprisingly, ends up being a real execution. In this aria, Mario has been imprisoned and faces the (un)real execution. He seems to know the plan won’t work, and bitterly reflects on his memories with Tosca as his execution grows closer.

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