The more dramatic sister of the lyric soprano is the spinto soprano, not quite a full-on dramatic soprano, but possessing a combination of qualities of both the lyric and the dramatic sopranos. Spinto literally means “squeezed” or “pushed” in Italian, and her roles can be found in a particular period of Italian opera, from the later operas of Verdi through the verismic outbursts of Puccini, Leoncavallo, Giordano and Mascagni. Indeed, spinto-soprano roles are, along with her brother the spinto-tenor, generally associated with this particular period of Italian opera.
Vocally, the lyric-dramatic soprano requires a steelier sound than lyric sopranos, so as to compete against the heavier orchestration of these operas. Most sopranos who sing this repertoire venture into it from the lyric road, but there is a price to pay: the loss of some lyricism in the voice. Once a soprano ventures here from the lyric repertoire, those lyric roles she may have sung will prove more difficult for her.
Tosca has proved a mainstay of the operatic repertoire, and is the epitome of a spinto’s dream role. It has even attracted dramatic mezzo-sopranos to its roll-call of honour – sometimes more successfully than sopranos - and the opportunity to perform one of opera’s greatest soprano arias, “Vissi d’arte”, cannot be underestimated. But Tosca is really the ideal vehicle for the spinto soprano.
As a role, it has great dramatic, as well as musical, potential. It requires a consummate actress, possessing a voice capable of sustaining all the venom and angst that precedes this famous aria during Act II. And there is still the duet and Finale of Act III to think of. As a character, Tosca is a fine example of a “diva” – loving, passionate, fiery, jealous and kind. She is, of course, a singer and she behaves as most would imagine a diva would. Her moods swing violently between tenderness and rage, with such sudden outbursts that it’s a wonder Cavaradossi has stuck with her for so long. The duet in Act I shows off her tremendous love for him, and also her inherent jealousy at the mention of Countess Attavanti – a ploy Baron Scarpia uses to his own ends later on.
Her scene in Act II with Scarpia requires the most careful concentration by the soprano – she still has her lyrical aria to come – and it is here that the true dramatic and vocal attributes of a lyric-dramatic soprano will come to the fore. That stronger, “squeezed” sound, less attractive maybe than the warmth of a real lyric, will carry our soprano through this daunting section, and yet allow her enough in reserve to sing “Vissi d’arte” with beauty and refinement. (Listen to Renata Tebaldi’s recording on Decca with George London and Mario Del Monaco for a perfect example of a spinto singing this role.) A lyric would have come unstuck in the preceding pages, and a dramatic soprano would not be able to produce the lyrical qualities required in the aria – it is this that makes the lirico spinto the ideal voice for this role, and why its challenges can only really be met by this type of singer. Along with its dramatic and vocal potential, we can easily see why it is a dream role for this voice type.