Two new trends came along around the middle of the 19th century that essentially saved Opera and set the tone for the entire future of the form. The first, more down-to-earth of these developments was a style generally called Verismo, an Italian word that roughly translates as ‘realism’, but is perhaps better rendered in practice as “naturalism”. It had its roots in the mature works of our old friend Giuseppe Verdi, a man whose career straddles almost every Operatic format extant in his lifetime, as well as a few that he invented himself. Verdi started out writing in a fairly conventional Bel Canto vein, but soon started fiddling with the format. He took the more dramatic style of Bel Canto associated with Bellini and Donizetti a few steps further in works like Macbeth, where the music for Lady Macbeth was meant to be as ugly and visceral as possible, the opposite of traditional Bel Canto.
Still, Verdi’s early work contained more than its share of forgotten mediocrities, like his Joan of Arc Opera, Giovanna D’Arco, where he transformed the world’s most amazing female military figure into a simpering Romantic Opera heroine who doesn’t even try to defend herself when accused of fornication and who can faint on command. It wasn’t until the middle of his career, with Rigoletto, that Verdi truly blossomed into a Classical Music genius, refining his earlier innovations into a form that gave opera true dramatic naturalism for the first time. The word ‘Verismo’ hadn’t been coined yet, but Verdi was already pioneering the style. His previous show, the obscure Stiffelio (which was believed lost until the 1970s), had broken unsung but crucially important ground in naturalistic character dialogues, and Rigoletto took these ideas and ran with them.
Rigoletto had a rawness to its dramatic content unprecedented even in Operatic tragedy at the time, and put far more emphasis on complex multi-part musical monologues and dialogues than on conventional set arias (though it did manage to produce three massive ‘hits’ nonetheless: the ecstatic love song “Caro Nome”, the gorgeous quartet in the last act, and above all the villain’s “La Donne Mobile”, the melody of which I guarantee everyone reading this would recognize).
Rigoletto also turned Operatic convention on its head in a way that was unheard-of at the time by making its extremely sympathetic protagonist an old, hunchbacked baritone and its utterly loathsome villain a handsome young tenor. This, combined with the fact that the play’s source material involved the attempted assassination of a king, got Verdi into a brutal feud with the Austrian authorities in Italy at the time, who frankly seemed as bothered by his flipping of conventional hero-villain archetypes as by the main character’s attempted regicide. Thankfully, Verdi came out on top in that battle: while the setting and all the characters’ names were changed and the villainous King of France became the Duke of Mantua, the entire dramatic structure was otherwise preserved.
The source play was by Victor Hugo, whose works have proven particularly suited to the serious musical stage, as such modern adaptations as Les Miserables and the Hunchback of Notre Dame stage musical have shown. Verdi had adapted one of Hugo’s plays before, for his Opera Ernani, and Hugo had expressed an intense dislike for the Opera, claiming that it flattened out his complex story into a standard Operatic melodrama. Verdi must have been devastated by this, as Hugo was one of his favorite authors, but the truth is that the Operatic version of Ernani, despite some excellent tunes, was rather ridiculous and even nonsensical from a dramatic perspective. No such complaint could be generated about Rigoletto, which does flawless justice to Hugo’s style of brutally harsh yet painfully lyrical human drama, arguably even more so than the modern masterpieces mentioned above.
Even more visionary and generally ahead of its time was La Traviata, Verdi’s operatic adaptation of Alexander Dumas’ novel The Lady With the Camelias. It tells an archetypical story of a high-class prostitute who is redeemed by love (the title literally means “The Fallen Woman”), but tells in it what was then an ultra-modern fashion, so modern that even Twentieth Century Musical Theater would not really catch up to it until at least the Sixties. The story is at least theoretically set in then-current times, which was unheard-of in previous Operas, the treatment of the story details is surprisingly down-to-earth (to the point of the central couple having to worry about who’s going to pay their bills), and the lovers are ultimately torn apart by social and family pressures rather the usual artificial melodrama of the Operatic tradition. Granted, the leading lady is clearly already terminally ill with tuberculosis when the Opera starts, but the tragic cost of a few happy months with the man she loves due to his father’s selfishness is powerfully emphasized.
The score is also full of complex and unconventional musical sequences, including a multi-part aria for the heroine about determining the direction of her life that still seems strikingly modern in sentiment; a long duet sequence where the leading man’s father gradually manipulates the heroine into giving him up “for his own good”; her declaration of love just before she leaves, which condenses an entire love aria into a single outburst of passion less than a minute long; and what might be the single most vivid and truthful of all of Opera’s many extended death scenes.
Verdi did have one frustrating quality even in his mature career, however…he would, on occasion, deliberately select poor librettos in order to prove he was God by turning them into great Operas. Il Trovatore and La Forza del Destino both feature some of Verdi’s most thrilling music…the former an insanely tuneful collection of hit arias written in a kind of Operatic proto-Rock-n-Roll and the latter an ecstatic string of faux-liturgical music to compete with the greatest Classical masses…but their plots are so patently absurd that even Verdi’s genius can’t make them entirely convincing. These works are certainly still enjoyable and even thrilling, but they somewhat undercut the principles of naturalism and realism Verdi was trying to bring to Opera: you can’t really have Verismo (or even proto-Verismo) without a credible plot.
The work that is generally considered to have solidified the Verismo revolution, however, is Carmen. The one real success by a composer who died shortly after its release, Carmen is one of the most popular Operas in existence, but it doesn’t really follow the standard Operatic format. It was an ‘Opera Comique’, one of the many Opera-lite subgenres that forsaged the existence of the Broadway musical, and it features relatively simple song structures and melodies for an ‘Opera’, as well as a fair amount of spoken dialogue (in the more authentic productions, anyway; many productions use recitative written by another composer after the actual composer’s death, but that practice has become increasingly frowned upon in recent years). This is a large part of why this piece would become a success on Broadway in the 1940s, albeit in an English translation and an updated setting, under the title Carmen Jones.
Carmen differs from other operas in more than just its structure. It deals with simple, ordinary people, tells its tale of love and obsession with comparatively few of the usual operatic flourishes, and is totally unsentimental, featuring highly flawed, even unsympathetic characters who provoke fascination more than emotional involvement. The title character is certainly a fascinating figure, strong-willed, complex, and utterly fearless, but she’s also a cold-hearted, manipulative maneater who pursues her own pleasure without really caring who she hurts. Her short-lived love interest Don Jose is even more unsympathetic…he comes across as a pathetic weakling who allows his obsession with Carmen to destroy both their lives, and the fact that he ultimately kills the person he claims to love makes his ‘love’ for her come across as more of a twisted obsession. And the only other characters of any consequence are the insipid ingenue Micaela and the obnoxiously egotistical toreador Escamillo, leaving this as an Opera entirely without conventionally sympathetic characters. This is not especially uncommon in later operas (the Modernist era produced so many works in that vein that they almost became a cliché), but the only example I can think of prior to Carmen was The Coronation of Poppea, and that was back at the very first inception of the operatic form.
But what was most influential about Carmen was its dramatic naturalism. The material is rawer and earthier than the vast majority of Operas until that point in history, with a tone of gritty realism that seemed gigantically groundbreaking at the time for the stylized, florid field of Opera. In any previous opera, a Prima Donna who was stabbed would have sung a five-minute aria before expiring, but when Carmen is stabbed, she simply screams and collapses.
That said, the biggest reason Carmen has remained such a staple of the operatic repertoire has little or nothing to do with all those innovations. This is, quite simply, probably the most tuneful Opera ever written (its only conceivable competitors for that title being Gounod’s Faust and Verdi’s Il Trovatore). At least three of the tunes (the “Habanera”, the “Toreador Song”, and the theme that opens the Overture) are in the category of Classical tunes that even people who never listen to Classical Music will instantly recognize, and several of the other themes come close to that status as well. The music makes occasional concessions to its Spanish setting, such as the use of Spanish dance styles like the Habanera and Seguidilla, but most of it pretty much sounds like the French composition it actually is. That said, with a score this magnificent, no-one has ever been inclined to complain.
Ironically, the first production of Carmen, while not quite the disastrous flop some make it out to be, was a distinct commercial and critical disappointment, and the composer, Georges Bizet, died in despair two months after the premiere, thinking what he rightly saw as his magnum opus had been rejected by the world. But if he had just survived a few months longer, he would have seen it take the world by storm…it only took about six months from the date of its premiere for the world to come to their senses and realize this was a world-changing masterpiece.
These techniques were picked up by Italian composers. Two of the most popular names to come out of this period, and certainly the most respected by the Verismo genre purists (even if, in both cases, their popularity stems from a single lone success in a career of otherwise abject failure) are Mascagni and Leoncavallo. Mascagni’s alternately melodious and authentically coarse local-color tragedy Cavalleria Rusticana is notable for being the only major Opera title to combine all of the elements that are pre-requisites for being called Verismo according to the aforementioned purists. That’s not to dismiss the work, though: it doesn’t approach the dramatic perfection of Carmen, which was what Mascagni was going for, but the melodies are often lovely, the tone is impressively raw and unsentimental, and the ambience of the setting is captured to an amazing degree.
Il Pagliacci had one of the finest librettos of any Opera in the Verismo extended family (its author, Leoncavallo, had already been a professional Librettist before he started composing), exceptionally tightly-written, full of intelligent thoughts on the intersection of a performer’s work and their private life, and with a devastating emotional impact, especially in the final scene. However, while it certainly had a number of take-home tunes (particularly “Vesti di Gubbia”, which became one of the all-time hit tunes of the Italian Operatic catalogue), the music as a whole was slicker and more conventional than that of Cavalleria Rusticana, and didn’t always manage to match the impact of the story to which it was set. Despite these very different emphases in terms of their strengths, the two Operas have been performed so often on the same bill (an obvious expedient, as neither is long enough to provision a full evening at the Opera, and they still match each other better than most other popular Operatic one-acts), that most of the world has by now come to view them almost as a single Opera, referred to colloquially as Cav/Pag.
The real defining genius of the Italian school of Verismo Opera, however, was Giacomo Puccini, despite the fact that many of the particular brand of Opera snobs devoted to that movement would refuse to associate him with it. This is partly because he proved, contrary to popular belief at the time, that you could have Verismo naturalism without including violence or eschewing conventional sentiment, as in his Magnum Opus La Boheme.
The fact that La Boheme is one of the world’s two most popular operas (together with Verdi’s Aida) can certainly be attributed partly to the fact that it is so amenable to cast and stage by opera standards that you can pretty much put it on in a barn. After all, Linda Ronstadt once sung the role of Mimi, and while by all accounts she didn’t do a very good job, the fact that she could hit the notes at all shows how much easier La Boheme is to sing than your average opera.
But despite the generations of opera snobs who have turned their noses up at this work, the piece has charms and even glories quite apart from its ridiculous ease of production. For one thing, this is the only operatic tragedy I know of that is basically a comedy in its first two acts. This is hardly an uncommon construction for plays, and is by no means unheard-of in musical theater (witness such titles as Camelot and Into the Woods), but operatic tragedies are nearly always tense and dramatic from the very beginning. Even La Traviata, Boheme’s most direct predecessor at bringing organic drama to the opera genre, features a heroine who is quite transparently going to die from the first curtain, something La Boheme downplays for its own consumptive heroine. The untroubled romantic bliss and abundant humor of the first half helps give a far greater impact when the story turns to heartbreak, because we’ve seen these people when they were genuinely happy and thus really feel their sense of loss.
For another, despite not featuring the brutal violence that is supposedly a crucial feature of the genre, Boheme represents the ultimate achievement of the Verismo school. After all, the real goal of Verismo was to capture the realistic existence of ordinary, everyday people, and then to exalt their feelings and problems with the same operatic lyricism previously reserved for larger-than-life characters. Well, Boheme does this better than any other opera, elevating simple young love and heartbreak among impoverished would-be artists to a sublime and epic beauty.
This of course leads us to the biggest reason Boheme is popular—the music. The big arias are ravishing and, for all their utterly accessible wealth of melody, deceptively sophisticated, but Puccini also excelled in creating elaborate musical scenes, something he is rarely credited for. The second act of the opera, for example, is essentially all one unified dramatic scene made of flowing melody, with even its big aria, the legendary “Musetta’s Waltz”, being seamlessly woven into the overall structure. Puccini also made perhaps the most impressive use of reprise in all of opera, giving the central lovers a deathbed duet made up almost entirely of echoes of their ecstatically romantic music in the first two acts. This makes the scene far more touching than any other death duet composed of entirely new music could be, and it genuinely feels like a real conversation between a loving couple about to be parted forever.
Puccini, despite never getting much respect from the critics, would produce two more of Opera’s genre-defining megahits, Madame Butterfly and Tosca. Madame Butterfly is by far the most sophisticated of the early-career Puccini works, with a complex tragic heroine at its center, an especially loathsome villain who happens to be exactly the kind of handsome young tenor usually seen as the hero, and a score with singable yet surprisingly complex melodies and even a few Far Eastern inflections to match its Japanese setting. The Opera has been interpreted by some (including director Ken Russell) as some kind of treatise on ‘the clash of East and West’, but one of Puccini’s most refreshing qualities is that he didn’t ‘do’ abstract themes; his Operas are solely about the characters in question, their actions, and their feelings.
Tosca is rawer, quite a bit more violent, and more like the usual idea people have of Verismo…it’s not subtle by any means, and the Opera snobs have a particular hatred for it, but it features some of Puccini’s most memorable melodies and some of Opera’s most gloriously over-the-top characters. The treatment of Scarpia, one of the most loathsome villains in all of Opera, is especially striking; Puccini gave him an unbelievably ravishing and erotic musical setting for the scene where he tries to blackmail Tosca into sleeping with him by threatening the life of her lover, in a strikingly ironic device that is a clear predecessor to Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.