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Magda, Magda, Magda, the Queen of Verismo

By April 1, 2018March 16th, 2023No Comments

What is Verismo and who was Magda Olivero?
First, let me say that no one can really agree what verismo is.  Below is a “median” definition.  I am going to post certain arias (and a religious piece) by Magda Olivero directly below this.  She sang for 50 years.  She died at 104, and there are videos of her on youtube where she appeared in her 80s, and even a few where she sang at her 100th birthday.  She was a miracle of singing.  She did sing in the verismo style, defined below, so she may sound different than the more bel canto singers I have posted, but she was amazing.

The story of this opera is convoluted, even for a verismo opera.  Suffice it to say that Maddalena de Coigny, an aristocrat at the time of the Terror, is pleading for her love for André Chénier, a poet used as a ploy by a character called Gérard.  You may be familiar with this aria from the movie “Philadelphia” as sung by Maria Callas.  I am a Callas addict, but no one sings this aria like Magda.

La mamma morta m’hanno
alla porta della stanza mia
Moriva e mi salvava!
poi a notte alta
io con Bersi errava,
quando ad un tratto
un livido bagliore guizza
e rischiara innanzi a’ passi miei
la cupa via!
Bruciava il loco di mia culla!
Così fui sola!
E intorno il nulla!
Fame e miseria!
Il bisogno, il periglio!
Caddi malata,
e Bersi, buona e pura,
di sua bellezza ha fatto un mercato,
un contratto per me!
Porto sventura a chi bene mi vuole!
Fu in quel dolore
che a me venne l’amor!
Voce piena d’armonia e dice
Vivi ancora! Io son la vita!
Ne’ miei occhi è il tuo cielo!
Tu non sei sola!
Le lacrime tue io le raccolgo!
Io sto sul tuo cammino e ti sorreggo!
Sorridi e spera! Io son l’amore!
Tutto intorno è sangue e fango?
Io son divino! Io son l’oblio!
Io sono il dio che sovra il mondo
scendo da l’empireo, fa della terra
un ciel! Ah!
Io son l’amore, io son l’amor, l’amor

They killed my mother
at the door of my room
She died and saved me.
Later, at dead of night,
wandered with Bersi,
when suddenly
a bright glow flickers
and lights were ahead of me
the dark street!
I looked –
My childhood home was on fire!
I was alone!
surrounded by nothingness!
Hunger and misery
deprivation, danger!
I fell ill,
and Bersi, so good and pure
made a market, a deal, of her beauty
for me –
I bring misfortune to all who care for me!
It was then, in my grief,
that love came to me.
A voice full of harmony says,
“Keep on living, I am life itself!
Your heaven is in my eyes!
You are not alone.
I collect all your tears
I walk with you and support you!
Smile and hope! I am Love!
Are you surrounded by blood and mire?
I am Divine! I am oblivion!
I am the god who saves the World
I descend from Heaven and make this Earth
A heaven! Ah!
I am love, love, love.”


This is Magda from 1938 singing Liù from Puccini’s Turandot. Liù, Calaf (the hero) and Timur are in the midst of a processional to the execution of the Prince of Persia who attempted to win the Princess Turandot by answering three riddles. If he had given the correct answers, he would have married the Princess, but the price for incorrectly answering them was death. During the processional, Calaf catches a glimpse of Turandot, falls in love with her immediately, and decides to attempt to answer the three riddles. Liù sings this aria to beg him not to risk his life for the Princess.

Signore, ascolta! Deh!, signore, ascolta!
Liù non regge più!
Si pezza il cuore! Ahimè,
quanto cammino
col tuo nome nell’anima
col nome tuo nell’labbra

Ma se il tuo destino,
doman, sarà deciso,
noi morrem sulla strada dell’esilio.
Ei perderà suo figlio…
io l’ombra d’un sorriso!

Liù non regge più!
ha pietà!

My Lord, hear! Ah, sir, listen!
Liu can no longer bear it,
it breaks my heart!
I have walked so far
with your name in my heart
with your name on my lips

But if your fate
is decided tomorrow
we’ll die on the road in exile.
He will lose his son . . .
And I, the shadow of a smile!

Liù can no longer bear it
Ah! Have mercy!

Ave, verum corpus
Natum de Maria Virgine,
Vere passum immolatum
In cruce pro homine,
Cujus latus perforatum
Fluxit aqua et sanguine,
Esto nobis praegustatum
Mortis in examine.
O Jesu dulcis, Ah! Jesu pie
O Jesu pie

Hail, the true Body,
born of the Virgin Mary,
who having truly suffered,
was sacrificed on the cross for mankind,
whose pierced side
flowed with water and blood:
May it be for us a foretaste
in the trial of death.
O sweet Jesus, Ah! holy Jesus
O holy Jesus

In opera, verismo (Italian for “realism”, from vero, meaning “true”) was a post-Romantic operatic tradition associated with Italian composers.  Verismo as an operatic genre had its origins in an Italian literary movement of the same name. This was in turn related to the international literary movement of naturalism as practiced by Émile Zola and others. Like naturalism, the verismo literary movement sought to portray the world with greater realism. In doing so, Italian verismo authors such as Giovanni Verga wrote about subject matter, such as the lives of the poor, that had not generally been seen as a fit subject for literature.

A short story by Verga called Cavalleria Rusticana (“Rustic Chivalry”), then developed into a play by the same author, became the source for what is usually considered to be the first verismo opera: Cavalleria Rusticana by Mascagni. Thereafter, verismo produced a handful of notable works such as Pagliacci, and Puccini’s Tosca. The genre peaked in the early 1900s, and lingered into the 1920s.

In terms of subject matter, generally verismo operas focused neither on gods, nor on mythological figures, nor on kings and queens, but on the average contemporary man and woman and their problems, generally of a sexual, romantic, or violent nature. However, two of the small handful of verismo operas still performed today take historical subjects: Puccini’s Tosca and Giordano’s Andrea Chénier.  These composers abandoned the “recitative and set-piece structure” of earlier Italian opera. Instead, the operas were composed, with few breaks in a seamlessly integrated sung text.  While verismo operas may contain arias that can be sung as stand-alone pieces, they are generally written to arise naturally from their dramatic surroundings, and their structure is variable, being based on text that usually does not follow a regular verse-repeating format.

The most famous composers who created works in the verismo style were Giacomo Puccini, Pietro Mascagni, Ruggero Leoncavallo, Umberto Giordano and Francesco Cilea.

The term verismo can cause confusion. In addition to referring to operas written in a realistic style, the term may also be used more broadly to refer to the entire output of the composers of the giovane scuola (“young school”), the generation of composers who were active in Italy during the period that the verismo style was created.

The verismo opera style featured music that required more declamatory singing, in contrast to the traditional principles of elegant, 19th century bel canto singing that had preceded the movement. Opera singers adapted to the demands of the new style. The most extreme exponents of verismo vocalism sang habitually in a loud fashion, often forfeiting legato to focus on the passionate aspect of the music. Such great early-20th century international operatic stars as Enrico Caruso, Rosa Ponselle and Titta Ruffo developed vocal techniques which harmoniously managed to combine fundamental bel canto precepts with a more ‘modern’, straightforward mode of ripe-toned singing when delivering verismo music, and their example has influenced operatic performers down to this day.

Magda Olivero

Magda Olivero, stage name of Maria Maddalena Olivero, (March 25, 1910 – September 8, 2014) was an Italian operatic soprano. Her career started in 1932 when she was 22, and later took her to opera houses around the world.

Life and career

Born as Maria Maddalena Olivero in Saluzzo, Italy, she made her operatic debut in 1932 on radio in Turin radio singing Nino Cattozzo’s (1886–1961) oratorio, I misteri dolorosi.  She performed widely and increasingly successfully until 1941, when she married and retired from performing. She returned to the stage ten years later, at the request of Francesco Cilea, who asked her to sing again the title role in his opera Adriana Lecouvreur.

She sang in Cherubini’s Médée (in the Italian version) at the Dallas Opera in 1967 and in Kansas City in 1968. In 1975, Olivero made her début at the Metropolitan Opera in Tosca. Her performances at the Met at the age of 65 were met with wild applause from audiences. Her last performances on stage were in March 1981 in the one-woman opera, La voix humaine by Poulenc, in Verona; her stage career ending at age 71, after spanning nearly 50 years. She continued to sing sacred music locally and, well into her eighties, made a recording of several arias. Recordings exist of many of her performances of both full operas, arias and scenes.

Olivero died at 104.  She made occasional singing appearances well into her nineties.