Maria Stuarda

Bel Canto Then and Now

by Robert Holliston

Any discussion of Donizetti's musical characteristics must begin with bel canto, or "beautiful singing," a term which encompasses not only a school of Italian operatic composition but a technical approach to singing and even the delivery of Italian text.

Historically we encounter the term for the first time in mid-17th century Italy, where a highly idiomatic and technically systematic approach to vocal writing and performance had developed since the early days of the Florentine camerata. It didn't become widely used, however, until a century or so later, during the heyday of Handel and the international star system, those charismatic (sometimes notorious) sopranos and castrati whose mastery of vocal technique remains the stuff of legend. Thus many historians will point out that the operas of Monteverdi, Cavalli, and Piccini – to say nothing of such foreigners as Handel, Gluck, and Mozart – contain vocal writing that is bel canto in virtually every aspect.

The majority of opera-goers, however, identify the term bel canto primarily with a generation of Italian-born composers working in the first few decades of the 19th century, and specifically with the mighty triumvirate of Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868), Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835), and our man of the hour, Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) who among them produced no fewer than 116 operas.

As the eighteenth century drew to a close, Italian opera – once the predominant style in houses throughout much of Europe (always excepting France) – had become only one of several national schools, among which it was the least susceptible to the radical changes, challenges, and seductions of the Romantic movement. In Vienna, where a large community of Italian operatic artists worked and flourished, the two decades from 1790 to 1810 saw productions of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte and Beethoven's Fidelio; important new works were also produced in Paris. In Italy this was a relatively stagnant period in opera – not in terms of quantity but of advanced ideas. Moreover, opera was the only important Italian musical outlet at this time outside of the church; such a situation inevitably encourages a conservative attitude.

Therefore the distinction between opera seria and the less formal opera buffa prevailed in Italy until well into the new century. Opera seria, as defined by its guiding genius Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782), recognized only three types of solo song, beginning with recitativo. This is a kind of heightened speech in which the words are sung but the rhythm is meant to imitate that of spoken Italian (i.e., there is no regular, dance-like meter). There are two types of recitativo, depending on how the singer is accompanied: secco (accompanied only by chords played on the harpsichord with the bass line emphasized by a bass clef instrument such as the cello); and accompagnato (the vocal line is accompanied – or at least punctuated – by the orchestra). After that, the solo aria, during which the singer was rarely interrupted.

Although the greatest 18th-century opera serie – those by Handel and Mozart – are genuine masterpieces still produced today, the rather strict formal pattern became somewhat constraining, and as the 19th century progressed was modified by a more or less thorough intermingling, in the same scene, of several soloists and different types of solo song, more ensembles, choruses, and orchestral passages, the whole being organized on a broad musical-dramatic plan.

Recitativo secco becomes less and less prominent, although it's featured in many important bel canto works (eg., Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia and Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore). A useful and versatile construct inherited from the 18th century (eg., the three great collaborations of Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte) was the scena ed aria for a single soloist, which consisted of a recitativo accompagnato followed by an aria. Often the aria itself was in two parts: a slow or slowish expressive section followed by a faster, concluding section often featuring rapid passagework in the vocal line. These distinct sections are often called the cavatina and the cabaletta; this type of aria structure outlived its roots and can be found in Verdi (La traviata) and Stravinsky (The Rake's Progress).

In later life, while mourning its loss even in Italian opera, Rossini commented on the essential components of bel canto singing:
a) the Instrument – the voice – the Stradivarius, if you like;
b) technique –that is to say, the means of using the Instrument – and the intensive training necessary to sustain a long, legato, espressivo line as well as the agility demanded by faster coloratura writing;
c) innate taste and feeling – or Style. Rossini emphasized that this really cannot be taught, but must be acquired as the novice listens to and studies great singers. "Style is Tradition."

Although the term legato is frequently used by musicians to suggest an overall quality of smoothness, the word itself means "tied – or bound – together," and in this context refers to the binding together of pure Italian vowels – so named because their pronunciation follows that of Italian pronunciation and because they are "pure" monophthongs (i.e., the are not blended together with other vowels to form diphthongs in the manner of English words such as "weight" or "how"). A strand of sustained vowels – only minimally interrupted by the consonants – is the essence of vocal line, and produces the limpid diction so characteristic of Italianate (as opposed to, say, German or English) diction.

Equally important was equality of timbre throughout the range (or registers) of the voice. Coloratura really just means "colouring," although for many years the term has referred to rapid, virtuosic passagework and also to the high soprano voice type associated so frequently with florid display (this is misleading, as one encounters coloratura writing for all voice types in the bel canto repertoire).

Among the qualities of fine coloratura singing are the ability to maintain a single vowel throughout an elaborate run, and the absence of intrusive aspirants or "aitches." At all times the technique of singing is rooted firmly in the two separate yet co-ordinated functions of breath and support. Vocal training was intense and thorough in Rossini's (and Donizetti's) day; it demanded great patience. During the first three years of study a pupil might learn only exercises or vocalises that imparted correct vowel placement and agility, mastery of fast ornaments, scales and arpeggios, various trills, etc., with a further three years devoted to putting all of these components together.

Unsurprisingly, then, the focus of bel canto opera is on the singing. First, there is considerable variety in the declamation and accompaniment of Donizetti's recitatives, allowing the fundamental storyline to be conveyed not only succinctly and economically, but with arresting drama. But of course what reigns supreme in a bel canto opera is melody, and Donizetti was blessed with a seemingly inexhaustible and richly varied supply. Whether slow, lyrical, and expressive, or fast, dramatic, and fiery, this composer unerringly comes up with exactly the right tune for each dramatic situation, providing the singer with opportunities to display not only character, but artistry. (The early 19th-century bel canto composer, like his 17th-and 18th-century counterparts in the world of Italian opera, allowed and even expected his singers to "improvise" additional embellishments and ornamentation, sometimes to the extent of re-writing the vocal line entirely. Whether this practice was embraced or tolerated by the composer is a matter for conjecture, although I suspect it was more the latter than the former.)

The Italian opera orchestra, from its earliest days, functioned primarily as an accompanist, supporting and enhancing but never competing with the onstage singing and action. As the 19th century progressed, German composers in particular tended to assign to the orchestra a dramatic role equal to that of the voice; this was never the case with Italian composers, not even Verdi, not even Puccini. True, there are occasions (beginning with Monteverdi's Orfeo of 1607) when the accompaniment depicts or underscores the action or text as only an orchestral instrument can; other instances in which the composer asks for a banda, or onstage ensemble to create the illusion of a house band in a party scene. But these are exceptional cases, reserved only for special – and appropriate – occasions. This is not meant to imply that Italian opera accompaniments are dull or merely serviceable. Due largely to the influence and example of Johann Simon Mayr (1763-1845), a German-born composer who spent most of his life in Italy – and who was Donizetti's teacher – Italian pit orchestras became richer in sonority and texture, using woodwind and brass instruments to an extent hitherto unheard-of, and not only in overtures and set pieces, but also in accompaniments.

There must be many reasons why bel canto opera fell out of favor in the latter part of the 19th century. It was an inevitable casualty of the Romantic era's loudly-proclaimed search for "truth" in art – and perhaps after Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti there was no more, stylistically, to be said in this idiom. Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) inherited much from these three composers, and without ever entirely abandoning their principles, expanded on them to an extent unimaginable in the century's early decades. New music in a wide variety of genres was being produced in more countries than ever before (Italy continued to produce her most notable masterworks in the sacred and operatic fields alone) and by the end of the 19th century, due in great part to the stupendous innovations of Richard Wagner (1813-1883), the Germanic-Viennese school of composition was almost universally regarded as the apex of accomplishment. Finally: if, as Rossini insisted, the qualities of vocalism we associate with bel canto were an intrinsic part of "tradition," we must acknowledge that, as younger artists in pursuit of the new come to the fore, traditions must be set to one side, albeit temporarily.

Now, in the 21st century, the term bel canto is usually uttered with more than a hint of nostalgia for a long past "Golden Age" of singing, a past dimly recalled, scratchily recorded, and (perhaps) idealized. Certainly when I think of the paradigms of bel canto singing, the names that come to mind are few and from a previous era: Rosa Ponselle, Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballé, Marilyn Horne. All of these singers sang other repertoire, but to me they were at their greatest in Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi (keeping in mind that I know them all only through recordings).

The mid-20th-century resurgence of interest in bel canto traditions owes an incalculable debt to Mme. Callas (although the diva's more rabid fans should be reminded that she did not accomplish this feat single-handedly; her allies include that maestro of maestri, Tullio Serafin). However, without the contributions of the other great artists on my list (and many . . . well, several) others, the interest might have been short-lived.

In any case, it wasn't a truly exhaustive revival: Gaetano Donizetti was the most prolific of bel canto composers, completing some 66 works, and most of these continue to languish in obscurity. But unquestionably – despite all the vicissitudes that have plagued our beloved, recalcitrant, obstreperous, impossible art form since the first public opera house opened in 1637 – the works in our permanent repertoire include L'elisir d'amore, Don Pasquale, La fille du régiment, and Lucia di Lammermoor, operas by Donizetti that will be performed as long as some people want to sing them and others want to listen. It looks as if Maria Stuarda is well on her way to joining them, and all of us involved in Pacific Opera Victoria's first ever production of this masterwork will do whatever we can to help!

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