Rossini and Friends

George Fleeton

This is the redacted text of my pre-performance Talk given - in the Grand Opera House Belfast on 08th  May 2016 - before Lyric Opera Productions'Bel Canto Concert featuring Majella Cullagh, Hannah Pedley and Yung Woo Kim.

This was a Concert celebration of some of the keynote operatic music of Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and early Verdi.

It was subtitled ‘Great operatic queens in history’ because of the marked prominence, in the selection of music, of Elizabeth I, Anne Boleyn and Mary Queen of Scots.

Two hundred years ago Catholic censors in Italy were touchy about depictions of their royalty on stage, so our bel canto composers set their operas in Protestant England.

In my Concert Programme article (also published here at I covered the genesis, development and decline of early 19th century Italian  bel canto opera. 

And I described how the imaginations of our three seminal composers took European opera in a totally new direction, away and beyond the 18th century styles and models of Handel, Gluck and Mozart, to greener fields inhabited by Wagner, Verdi and Puccini a cataclysmic movement in music arts which has enriched beyond measure our experience of opera in performance in all its guises particularly in the last 70 years.

Bellini - 10 operas

Starting with the youngest and most short-lived of the three Vincenzo Bellini, 34 when he died, younger than Mozart, we had music from both La Straniera and Norma.

Straniera (Milano, 1829)has a story set in Brittany in the 14th century; Isoletta who has lost her lover to the wiles of a stranger, the future Queen of France, has a sad aria Ah, se non m’ami più, sung on the night by English mezzo-soprano Hannah Pedley, in a mood of gentle acceptance of her lot, but she manages to finish with a more up-beat cabaletta.

Norma (Milano, 1831) is of course a more familiar Bellini opera set in Roman-occupied Gaul c. 50 BC.

In the first aria we heard: Meco all’altar di Venere, Pollione the Roman Pro-consul is explaining his complicated love life, in that he has seduced the Druid high priestess Norma, fathered two children with her yet he now fancies one of the temple virgins, Adalgisa, but he’s worried about a dream he had in which Norma seemed to punish his infidelity; the tenor was Yung Woo Kim from South Korea.

Later in the evening Irish soprano Majella Cullagh sang Norma’s entrance aria, her hymn to the moon, Casta Diva, in which she prays in what Verdi called that ‘long, long, long melody’ that they can avoid war with the Romans, because of her complex and divided loyalties (referred to above).

This beautifully paced piece was illustrated with a film clip from Maria Callas’ first concert in Paris in December 1958.

Finally from Bellini’s pen, we had the Act 2 duet Mira, o Norma (‘look at your children and be moved by pity for them’) in which Adalgisa renounces Pollione and she and Norma swear to be friends until their last hour, fino all’ore estreme.

Donizetti - 65 operas

Maria Stuarda, Roberto Devereux, Anna Bolena and La Favorite were the four Donizetti operas which were chosen to be highlighted in this concert.

Mary Queen of Scots was the first of the great bel canto queens to feature; the original score for this opera by the way was not discovered until 1958, one hundred and twenty-three years after it had opened in La Scala when the first Maria was the great Malibran.

In her entrance aria, the cavatina which opened our concert in Belfast, Mary is preparing for her meeting with Elizabeth (historically that meeting never took place); it’s a larghetto aria, quite slow, with an elegant vocal line reflecting Mary’s mood and situation as Elizabeth’s prisoner: Oh nube che lieve; but, as she hears Elizabeth approaching, in her cabaletta: Nella pace del mesto riposo Mary sounds quite determined to confront her.

Roberto Devereux (Napoli, 1837) was the Earl of Essex, with whom Elizabeth I was in love; but he prefers Sara wife of the Duke of Nottingham, and we heard Sara’s melancholic romanza, a confident, effective piece All’afflitto è dolce il pianto; then later the impassioned duet between Elizabeth and Roberto: Un lampo orribile (‘a terrible flash of lightning flared before my eyes’) which concluded both the concert and the intense, fictional account of Elizabeth’s love for Essex.

Earlier Anna Bolena had continued our acoustic gallery of historical queens: Anne Boleyn (Elizabeth’s mother) and Jane Seymour (mother of Edward VI) were the second and third wives respectively of Henry VIII; at the start of the opera Jane was simply Anne’s lady-in-waiting.

Giuditta Pasta first sang the role of Anna in Milano in late 1830; and Callas famously resurrected it there in 1957.

Dio che mi vedi in core (‘God who sees into my heart’) is the duet in which Anna and Giovanna/Jane, the two rivals for Henry’s affections, confront one another in a highly charged exchange, at odds with one another even in their music until it is pulled together and tightened up in the stretta, the musical climax.

Then in Anna’s mad scene: Al dolce guidami, when Henry refuses to pardon her, she sings of happier days and asserts her strength of character before her execution.

La Favorite is much later Donizetti, a grand opera, written for Paris in 1840; at this point Bellini was dead five years and Rossini had not written an opera in over ten; but Verdi had just written his first two, and was feeling his way, after some personal tragedies, to Nabucco.

We had one piece from La Favorita: Ferrando a young monk in Compostela is in love with Léonore, mistress of the king of Castile and this was Léonore’s aria O mio Ferrando, melodically generous and concluding with a bravura cabaletta, fast and brilliant.

Rossini - 39 operas

After the melancholy embedded in Bellini’s music, and the urgent and historic melodrama of Donizetti, we reached back into the Rossini repertoire, he who - of the three highest profile bel canto composers - is the most entertaining maestro of comic opera.

This was illustrated during the Talk by a second film clip from Callas’ 1958 concert in Paris at which she sang and clearly enjoyed doing so Rosina’s aria Una voce poco fa from ‘Il Barbiere di Siviglia.’

At our Grand Opera House concert, from Semiramide,first sung by Rossini’s wife Isabella Colbran at La Fenice in 1823, we had the queen of Babylon’s brilliant cavatina: Bel raggio lusinghier; Semiramide is delighted the young commander of her Assyrian army is back from war; for she is in love with him (‘A beautiful ray of hope has shone for me at last’), but she doesn’t realise he is her son…

Early Verdi was not quite forgotten; our Korean tenor took us through that wonderful piece from the beginning of Ernani (Venezia, 1844) as the title character sings to his bandit gang about his troubled love life: he is a duke in disguise, in love with Elvira who is about to wed her elderly unprepossessing guardian Don Silva; echoes there surely of Rosina and Bartolo in ‘Il Barbiere’?

Lastly, there were also three orchestral pieces played by the Lyric Opera Orchestra, concert master Elaine Clarke, conductor John Gibbons:

-the overture from Rossini’s Tancredi, a heroic melodramma set in Sicily a thousand years ago (Venice, 1813);

-the ballet music for the witches in Verdi’s Macbeth, something which he added to the opera for its performances in Paris many years after its first outing in Firenze in 1847;

-and an overture which Rossini unashamedly used for two contrasting operas: ‘Elizabeth Queen of England’ in Naples (1815) and ‘The Barber of Seville’, twenty weeks later in Rome (1816), to make the point, he claimed, ‘that a good tune shouldn’t go to waste, for isn’t music remarkably ambiguous in its conveying of emotions?’

And finally, just what is bel canto?

No easy definitions but in the light of the performances we witnessed in Belfast we noted the rich melodies, the extended musical phrasing, some very high notes, and lots of melodramma expressed through stirring tunes, and explosions of virtuosity; and then afterwards we remembered that, but for the efforts of Callas, Caballé and Sutherland in reviving this songbook after WW2, it would have been impossible to know, love and understand bel canto and impossible to produce concerts such as this.

The Concert in Belfast was designed and directed by Vivian Coates, and we offer our most sincere thanks for audience support for our efforts to keep great music alive in what are difficult times for the arts in this country, north and south.

Lyric Opera’s next production will be three performances of Bizet’s Carmen (Paris, 1875) in the National Concert Hall Dublin on 15th, 16th and 17th October.

Note: a cavatina is a short aria in a single section without da capo or repeat; and a cabaletta is the fast, brilliant last section of a showpiece aria.