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Monday, August 20, 2012

Brass Tacks: Bel Canto

Our series on Opera Styles visits Italy in the early 19th century.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Anna Netrebko's appearance in I puritani at the Met touched off a surge of interest in bel canto style.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2006 The Metropolitan Opera.

Bel canto (the term simply means "beautiful song") refers to an Italian opera style that placed a heavy emphasis on the voice over the music, allowing sopranos and tenors plenty of room for florid display and vocal fireworks. Bel canto operas are usually tragedies--the term for Italian comic opera is opera buffa.

(The opposite of "bel canto" is when singers yell over an orchestra, an approach known to opera wonks as "can belto.")

The bel canto style evolved from the baroque opera seria, and dominated the stages of Italy's opera houses until about 1840. In those years, Italian opera was ruled by three men: Giaochino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini. Rossini and Donizetti wrote both comedies and tragic operas. Bellini wrote only tragedies. It should be noted that there were other important composers in the bel canto style (Cherubini, Spontini, Mercadente, but these are the three whose music remains popular today.)

Arguably the most famous bel canto aria: "Il dolce sono." This is the "Mad Scene" from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.

Performance by Natalie Dessay © 2010 The Metropolitan Opera.

Key characteristics of bel canto singing include lighter voices, with sweet, high ornamentation for the soprano and a tenor who can produce a high C without punching out the note from the chest. Melodies are memorable and accompanied simply. The emphasis is on the voice leading the orchestra rather than the other way round.

As in baroque operas, Italian arias of this period follow a strict form. The numbers are usually divided into two parts, the cavatina, which allows the singer to express emotion in a long, slow melodic line. The cabaletta follows, an expression of intense emotion through a faster tempo, more elaborate ornamentation and opportunity for vocal display. Bel canto arias also feature vocal cadenzas which allow the singer a chance to either add their own ornamentation or follow the composer's exact instruction.

One of the most famous bel canto arias: Casta diva from Bellini's Norma:

Performance by Montserrat Caballe © 1974 Thèatre Antique d'Orange.

Opera in the 19th century was popular entertainment, which meant that composers had to crank out newly commissioned works at a frantic pace. Rossini, who wrote 28 operas before retiring at the ripe old age of 39, would regularly recycle arias and overtures from one work to another. Donizetti banged out 75 operas in 30 years--an astonishing feat. Bellini wrote only 11, but died at the age of 35.

In the 1840s, the rise in popularity of the "heavier" operas of Giuseppe Verdi, the demand for French grand opera and a change in singing styles led to the end of the bel canto craze. However, the efforts of 20th century divas like Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills led to a revival of interest in these classic works, helped by the prominence of the recorded music industry.

Verdi's operas are not considered bel canto works but he does incorporate the style, as in this example:

 "Caro nome" from Act I of Rigoletto,
performed here by Edita Gruberova. footage © 1988 Decca Classics.

In recent years, a revival of interest in the early Italianate tenor style led by singers such as Rockwell Blake, Juan Diego Flórez and Lawrence Brownlee contributed heavily to a bel canto resurgence. Artists are recording rare works by Rossini and Donizetti, and shows by all three composers attract the finest singers looking to make their mark.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.