Photo by The Pirates of Penzance, 2017. Photo by Cory Weaver.

The Bel Canto Tradition

Though operas have been performed in many languages, the language that first comes to mind when one hears the term “opera” is Italian. Maybe it’s all those vowels, especially at the ends of words. Maybe it’s the fact that it sometimes seems only a slight exaggeration to say that writing Italian poetry is easy because every word rhymes with every other word. But there’s something about the Italian language which seems to lend itself to beautiful music.

Whatever the reasons, opera originated during the Baroque period, as the artists of that time sought to revive and update the drama of the ancient Greeks. Music, they believed, could intensify the emotional impact of a dramatic presentation. While various forms of musical dramas had existed for some time, the art form as we know it originated about 1600. The earliest known reference to the term “opera” occurs in 1647.

Though today we usually think of opera as a form of musical expression, the creators of the first operas were unanimous in their belief “prima la parole, dopo la musica” (“first the words, then the music”). Music was there to support the drama, not the other way around. Listen to the works of Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), for example, and one often waits in vain for a recognizable melody. While we sometimes think that modern composers are simply following Wagner’s lead in de-emphasizing arias and other set pieces in favor of a more dramatic style, they are actually returning opera to its roots. Until late in the 18th century, it was not unusual for librettists, rather than composers, to receive top billing, whereas over the past two hundred years, it has been rare for a librettist to get even equal billing. (This, of course, differs from the practice in operetta and the Broadway musical, where the names Gilbert, Hammerstein, and Lerner are as well known as Sullivan, Rodgers, and Loewe.) One of opera’s first superstars, in fact, was the librettist Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782), whose poetic dramas were frequently set to music by several different composers.

Gradually, however, composers realized that while dialogue could help advance the plot of a drama, solo arias could better develop the complexities of their characters. Hence was born the form called opera seria which was structured largely on lengthy sections of recitative and “exit arias,” a convention whereby a character would sing an elaborate aria only when he or she was ready to leave the stage.

Whereas opera seria developed from the highbrow traditions of Renaissance court theater, a parallel tradition of opera buffa was developing out of the traditions of the commedia del arte, the improvisational comedy popularized by strolling companies throughout Europe. Singing in such operas was generally less ornamental and more direct than in opera seria, and comic touches were often provided by rapid “patter” songs. Most of the pre-Verdi Italian operas which are still performed with any frequency today are from the buffa genre, including the works of Donizetti and Rossini, as well as Mozart’s three collaborations with Lorenzo da Ponte. In fact, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor is the only non-comic opera from this era that still has a large public following.

Lucia, in fact, represented a new trend in opera (popularized also by Bellini), the romantic opera – a serious opera which broke with the traditions of opera seria. In romantic opera, as the name implies, there was more focus on raw emotion and less on classical decorum. Mad scenes became great showpieces for sopranos with a dramatic flair. Thus the stage was set for the intense dramatic operas of Verdi and Puccini.

The era in which Donizetti composed his major works is frequently known as the bel canto era, though the term itself came into being years later, in 1858, when Rossini lamented that the bel canto tradition no longer existed. Meaning literally “beautiful singing,” the term is generally associated with, in the words of Owen Jander (professor of music, Wellesley College), “a naturally beautiful voice that was even in tone throughout it full range, careful training that encouraged
effortless delivery of highly florid music, and a mastery of style that could not be taught, but only assimilated from listening to the best Italian exponents.” It is also frequently associated with coloratura, the sort of vocal acrobatics which have made superstars of so many sopranos throughout the ages.

During the bel canto era, the importance of set pieces, such as arias and duets, increased, leading to the term “number operas” – operas in which individual sections could be identified as independent units. Since the conventions of Italian opera (in contrast to those of France, Germany, and the United States, for example) called for continuous music rather than spoken dialogue, recitatives were used to tie the numbers together.

While several Italian and French composers were influenced by the bel canto style, today we tend to associate the term with three men – Vincenzo Bellini, Gioachino Rossini, and Gaetano Donizetti. (There are elements of bel canto in Verdi as late as Rigoletto, but he is not generally associated with this “school.”)

Eventually, bel canto singing gave way to the more dramatic verismo style, featuring heavier voices better able to be heard over the increasingly larger orchestras. During the second half of the 20th century, bel canto singing made a comeback, championed by a number of sopranos who made a specialty of this period. Soprano Maria Callas was foremost in the bel canto revival, but Beverly Sills, mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, and soprano Dame Joan Sutherland also played a major part. In recent years, Kansas City’s Joyce DiDonato has been instrumental in reviving a number of almost forgotten bel canto masterpieces. While the more “serious” operas of the era appeal primarily to fans of this style of singing, the comedies of Rossini and Donizetti remain among the most popular such works ever written.

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