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

Rossini and Operatic Conventions

L’Italiana in Algeri represents two important trends in the history of opera – the opera buffa, which determines the structure of the opera, and the bel canto, a term given to the style of singing.

Opera buffa was a highly stylized form of comedy which originated in the early eighteenth century and flourished in the final decades of that century and on into the early nineteenth century. It had its origins in the commedia del arte, a form of improvisational comedy popular in the Renaissance, which could be seen as the forerunner of today’s improv comedy. (Movie fans may recall the appearance of such a troupe in Bergmann’s The Seventh Seal. Some critics have seen the Marx Brothers as the literary descendants of this style.) Commedia del arte performers also appear in two well-known operas: the play-within-a-play in Pagliacci and the strolling comedians who interact with the more serious characters in Ariadne auf Naxos. One feature which opera buffa inherited from commedia del arte was the use of comic types such as the attractive young lovers, the trusted confidante, and the blustering old man, generally a bass, referred to as a basso buffo. These operas generally depict the triumph of clever young people over their foolish elders.

Perhaps the most important innovation introduced by opera buffa was its focus on elaborate ensembles. In opera seria (serious opera), the most popular genre of opera prior to the introduction of the buffa form, the focus was on solo arias which would give singers the opportunity to display their vocal skills. In opera buffa, the composers who were most admired were those who could keep several melodic lines in play, advancing the plot by having several characters express their conflicting emotions simultaneously. Opera critic Michael Tanner attributes the strength of Rossini’s ensembles to the fact that “However much Rossini’s characters may loathe one another…they love collaborating,” giving these numbers an “incremental forc not to be found in Mozart’s operas, where the characters maintain their individuality rather than joining their voices for purely musical effect.”

The buffa style unfortunately belonged to a brief period of time. No one writes such operas today, though some of Gian-Carlo Menotti’s operas in the mid-twentieth century (The Old Maid and the Thief, The Telephone, and Amelia Goes to the Ball) have some buffa elements. One composer who was greatly influenced by Rossini was Arthur Sullivan, whose patter songs such as “Modern Major General” appear to be modelled on those found in Rossini’s comic operas.

As for the style of singing, Rossini was the first major composer of the bel canto, literally “beautiful singing,” era. There was no actual “bel canto school.” In fact, Rossini coined the term in 1858, when he lamented that this style of singing no longer existed – he did not care for the harsher sounds of Wagnerian opera. Opera historian Owen Jander describes bel canto as “a naturally beautiful voice that was even in tone throughout its 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.” Such singing made more vocal demands on singers than the operas of earlier composers, such as Mozart. One feature of such operas was the coloratura style, with its vocal pyrotechnics which has made superstars of numerous sopranos down through the ages.

Bel canto also allowed singers some latitude to improvise, much like a modern jazz singer, though Rossini felt that the trend had gone too far. It was reported that when Adelina Patti sang an aria from The Barber of Seville for Rossini, he replied, “Who wrote that piece you just sang?”

For several years bel canto was decried as old fashioned, but it was rediscovered in the later part of the twentieth century, championed by singers such as Beverly Sills and Joan Sutherland, under whose influence audiences have been able to rediscover several long-neglected works of the major bel canto composers.

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