Cultured shouting it’s not

George Fleeton

This article was first published in the souvenir Programme for Lyric Opera Productions’ Bel canto Concert given at the Grand Opera House Belfast on 08 May 2016.

"In opera it is the singing that must move people to tears, must make them shudder and die’’ (Bellini).

Tre maestri

Rossini is the composer historically credited with the revitalisation – la rinascita - of Italy’s musical culture particularly in the 1820s.

By then he had developed a flexible, to-formula compositional style (which widely encouraged imitation) for both comic opera and grandiose melodrama.

To say the least, Rossini’s influence on the development of opera across Europe was profound especially in and through that defining genre of Italian musical Romanticism which we know and applaud today as Bel canto.

Most associated with progressing the Romantic ideals of bel canto were Donizetti and Bellini: the former writing enhanced melodramas where the bulk and burden of the emotional baggage was carried by the vocal line; the latter applying himself studiously to the musical settings of the many libretti offered to him by Italy’s most prolific poet of that era Felice Romani.

Even at its simplest bel canto can mean several things; this Concert celebrated one of those: music which concentrates on beauty of tone and timbre and virtuosic singing, com’è scritto! as Toscanini insisted.

Bel canto

So what defined this new world of bel canto, especially the comic operas, when Rossini finally cracked it exactly 200 years ago with The Barber of Seville, his 17th opera?

Lots of good tunes and plenty of laughs – for starters; later there would be tragedy aimed at our emotions, unlike the earlier 18th century intention of purging souls with pity and terror.

While bel canto operas initially used secco recitative to advance narrative plot points, the composers now introduced ariosos, cavatinas and cabalettas to set-piece arias in which the singers could detour around the story-line and show off before re-joining ensembles 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, the tussle between sopranos and tenors competing on the high wire.

So the treatment was new: 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 be when at its zenith.

Bellini however did not embrace these innovations as whole-heartedly as Donizetti.

The younger, less prolific composer favoured the melancholic side of life in his bel canto pieces, writing long engaging tunes for young ladies who had lost their senses through sleep-walking (Amina) or gone crazy with love (Elvira).

Donizetti was the most robust of the three of them: funny, touching and tragic in a majestic output of 65 operas.

By the end of their respective careers, the characters in their operas had come closer to reflecting the foibles and expectations of contemporary society and were no longer the mythological or classical hero-symbols of 18th century opera seria and singspiels.

Indeed Donizetti overlapped Verdi for a while and the influence of the bel canto tradition extended to Verdi’s earliest work.

Come the late 1840s Bellini had been dead over ten years, Rossini was still alive but mentally and physically unwell (he had not composed an opera since 1829) and Donizetti’s syphilis had more than softened his cough.

By then audience tastes and opera practices were changing fast in post-revolution Europe and bel canto just melted away in the heat of the serious business of grand opera in France, your man in Germany (whose gesamtkunstwerk ruled there supreme for 40 years) and his exact contemporary, the mature Verdi who, when he wasn’t farming, dominated opera in Italy for 50 years.

La rinascita di bel canto

Thus crowded off the operatic agenda for decades - and until the dominance of Puccini and Richard Strauss had tailed off in the late 1930s - it was not until just after World War II that bel canto pushed its way back centre stage, largely because relatively few new operas were being written and fewer still had awakened much lasting enthusiasm; meanwhile the burgeoning opera industry needed material.

That’s when far-sighted and lateral thinking conductors interested in fresh repertory, such as Tullio Serafin and Richard Bonynge, and a new generation of virtuoso singers – inter alios di Stefano, Tebaldi, Callas, Sutherland, Caballé, Horne, Ricciarelli, Carreras - were mentored and cast to embrace and to excavate the bel canto repertoire from near oblivion; these new voices learned to conceal ecstatic feelings beneath serenity of expression with elegant phrasing and lots of fioritura and so the vogue was quickly established; Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini became the stalwarts of programmes and seasons in the big houses and their work seeded the growth of opera festivals; for instance there have been thirty of their operas performed at Wexford since 1951, a festival which specialises in opera rara.

The Lyric Opera concert in Belfast highlighted some of the historical regals who featured in those bel canto operas: Elisabetta, Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, to whom we added Norma.

Distance still lends enchantment to this music, itself haunted by the ghosts of Maria Malibran, Isabella Colbran and Giuditta Pasta, as we continue to take renewed pleasure in mellifluous, well-behaved tragedies and the ambiguities and manic escapism, the energy and the musical allure of bel canto opera.

Coda: operatic gold

Of the one hundred and fourteen operas composed by the three bel canto maestri may I recommend a dozen quintessential titles for your consideration (before you set off to discover the other one hundred odd)?

Those twelve capolavori are Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, La Cenerentola and Guglielmo Tell; Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore, Maria Stuarda, Lucia di Lammermoor and Don Pasquale; Bellini’s Il Pirata, La Sonnambula, Norma and I Puritani.

Then ask yourself can the singer become the character? Is the music a seamless flow from a fictional soul to an enraptured audience? - in ‘melodies’, remarked Wagner,‘ lovelier than one’s dreams’.

Like chinese boxes Rossini’s lifespan (1792-1868) totally embraced Donizetti’s, whose own lifespan (1797-1848) in turn totally enveloped Bellini’s (1801-35): the babushka dolls of early 19th century European opera, comfortable with one another, mutually supportive and jointly as innovative as Handel, Gluck and Mozart were in their day.

Both Bellini and Rossini died in Paris, while Donizetti died in Bergamo, where he had been born.