Bel canto for the Terr!f!ed
This article, herein slightly redacted, was first published in the audience programme
for Lyric Opera’s production of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia at the National Concert Hall Dublin on 12, 13 and 15 October 2019.
Il Barbiere is Lyric Opera’s first fully-staged bel canto production and
its first Rossini.
The company’s unbroken record, as our Friends will recall, dates back well over twenty years to a Traviata in February
Along the way both Donizetti and Bellini have featured in concert performances of Lucia di Lammermoor, L’Elisir d’amore
This production of Rossini’s Barbiere, plus Beethoven’s Fidelio on 22 and 23 February 2020, are brand
new offerings for our ultra-discerning and largely Dublin-based audiences.
We believe that, whether you are a bel canto veteran or a bel canto virgin,
perhaps a newcomer to opera in German, we can enhance and develop your experience of the finest Italian and German music from the Romantic period of the early part of the 19th century with crisp, confident productions, informative articles
and enlightening pre-performance talks: in other words, there is nothing to be afraid of.
Mozart and da Ponte’s operatic comedy of manners Le nozze di Figaro (1786) was a breakthrough opera, a major musical advance on anything, indeed everything
that had preceded it on European stages in the 18th century; and we note, en passant, that tenor Michael Kelly from Dublin sang the two roles of Basilio and Curzio at its first nine performances in the Vienna Burgtheater, conducted by his young
friend Wolfgang Amadeus.
Thirty years after that capolavoro Rossini’s knockabout commedia dell’arte, Il Barbiere
di Siviglia, opened at Rome’s Teatro Argentina and it recounted the adventures of the younger Almaviva, Rosina, Figaro, Bartolo and Basilio, who had all featured as more mature characters in that earlier Mozart opera.
Many years later Verdi would describe Rossini’s opera as having an ‘abundance of true musical ideas’, and Beethoven admired it too, although he was jealous of Rossini’s
popularity; and with good cause, I’d say, for Barbiere is innovative and inventive in its deployment of the orchestra resulting in a work of incredible musical energy; for instance, aficionados claim that nine of the most popular moments in
all opera are packed into less than forty minutes of music during Act 1.
The showy overture for instance is quite off the peg: Rossini had used it twice
before; he claimed to have written the opera in two weeks, under pressure from the Argentina – this is most unlikely, I think; and from day one his singers had no qualms about taking over an aria and decorating it to suit themselves –
he didn’t mind.
Rossini is the composer historically credited with the revitalisation of Italy’s musical culture – la rinascita dell’ arti musicali – exactly two hundred years ago.
By the time of Barbiere, and after sixteen earlier operas, he had developed a flexible, to-formula compositional style (which widely encouraged imitation) for both comic opera
and some grandiose melodramma.
To say the least, Rossini’s influence on innovation and imagination in opera across Europe was as profound
as that of Mozart, a few decades earlier, especially in and through that defining genre of Italian musical Romanticism which we know and applaud today as ‘Bel canto’, even though that expression was not widely used until at least fifty years later.
Most associated with advancing and enhancing the Romantic ideals of bel canto were Donizetti and Bellini: the former writing some very intense material where the
bulk and burden of the emotional baggage was carried by the vocals; the latter applying himself studiously to the musical settings of more melancholic libretti offered to him by Italy’s most prolific poet of that era, Felice Romani.
us watchers in the dark, even at its simplest bel canto can mean several things but at core it is music which concentrates on beauty of tone and timbre in virtuosic singing - com’è scritto! (as Toscanini insisted).
What then defined this new world of bel canto, especially its comic operas, when Rossini finally cracked it with his 17th opera Il Barbiere in February 1816?
For starters, lots of good tunes and plenty of laughs; later there would be tragic narratives aimed four-square at our emotions, unlike the 18th century’s
operatic approach of purging our souls with pity and terror.
While bel canto operas initially used recitativo secco, with harpsichord,
to advance certain plot points in the narrative, Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini soon factored ariosos, cavatinas and cabalettas in to set-piece arias where the singers could detour around the story line, embellishing the music at will, flamboyantly
showing off, before re-joining the ensemble where the others, if they didn’t seem to be doing much, were at best wondering what they should be doing during the sensational vocal antics of the principals, those tussles between soprano and
tenor competing on the high wires.
The treatment was new (I wonder would Mozart have even recognised it?): a style of song in which the singer was free
to play about in extravagant patterns in order to show how impeccably trained and how beautiful the voice could sound when at its zenith.
By the end of
that particular rinascita (early 1840s) the characters in bel canto operas had come closer to reflecting the foibles and lifestyles of contemporary society and they were no longer the mythological or classical hero symbols of 18th century
opera seria and singspiel.
However, come the late 1840s, audience tastes and opera practices were changing fast in post-revolutionary
Europe, and bel canto just melted away in the serious heat of some unprecedented operatic developments: first, the onset, thanks to Meyerbeer, of Grand Opéra in France (‘there is no success like excess!); then the single-minded
burgeoning of our friend in Germany whose gesamtkunstwerk ruled supreme for forty years; and finally the matching dominance of his exact contemporary Verdi who, when he wasn’t farming in the Po valley, was reaping the harvest of his
operas at La Scala and elsewhere for fifty years.
Thus crowded off the operatic agenda for nearly a hundred years - and until the dominance
of Puccini and Richard Strauss had tailed off in the late 1930s - it was not until after World War Two that bel canto opera pushed its way back centre stage.
That’s when far-sighted, lateral thinking conductors and stage directors were seeking fresh repertory (Serafin, Bonynge; Visconti, Zeffirelli), and a new generation of virtuoso singers, attracted to its possibilities (Callas, Sutherland, Caballé,
Horne, Ricciarelli – to mention only the ladies), were mentored and schooled both to embrace and to excavate the bel canto repertoire from near oblivion.
Although Rossini had re-imagined and renovated Italian comic opera, the works of the bel canto composers had waxed but then largely waned for about a century.
Isn’t it ironic that Rossini’s own recipe for tournedos (fillet steaks with artichoke hearts, foie gras, truffles and Madeira sauce) has had better luck than many of his operas?
Il Barbiere flies the flag for all thirty-nine of his works; it’s an invaluable introduction to bel canto for those of a nervous disposition, and should be quickly followed
up, in my view, with L’Italiana in Algeri, La Cenerentola and, for an astounding contrast, Guglielmo Tell.
Exactly halfway through his life (after he had written his mammoth Tell for Paris in 1829) Rossini abandoned
the art form at which he had excelled, and to which he had brought bucket loads of discipline and structure, and took early retirement in Bologna where he lived quietly for nearly forty years, cooking tournedos and going steadily potty.
The imaginations of three such seminal, contemporaneous composers took European opera in a totally new direction, away from and beyond the wonderful 18th
century styles of Handel, Gluck and Mozart, to greener fields that would be inhabited by Wagner, Verdi and Puccini, for bel canto opera was a cataclysmic movement in music arts and it has enriched beyond measure our collective and individual experiences
of opera-in-performance, in all its guises, particularly in the last eight decades when so much of that repertoire has been revived and restored to us.
with the melancholy embedded in Bellini’s music, and the urgent and historic melodramas of Donizetti, it is Rossini who emerges as the most entertaining maestro of comic opera.
All three composers collectively and separately help to define bel canto: rich melodies, extended musical phrasing, some very high notes, lots of melodramma expressed through stirring tunes, explosions of virtuosity, patters,
cavatinas and cabalettas; and we must never forget that, without the passion and the insights of Callas and Sutherland and Bonynge and Visconti in reviving this colossal songbook in the 1940s and 50s, it would be impossible for us today to know,
understand and love - to appreciate, produce and recreate on stage - the legacy of bel canto opera.