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Reclaiming bel canto

By Stephen Raskauskas

Filled with vocal pyrotechnics, infectious melodies, and riveting drama, bel canto operas like Rossini’s The Barber of Seville have delighted audiences for more than 200 years. Though artists and audiences are more enthusiastic about bel canto opera now more than ever, many works by Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, and their contemporaries languished on library shelves until recent decades. This season, Carnegie Hall continues its tradition of presenting bel canto works performed by the repertoire’s leading interpreters.

Rossini 300x377 public domain

Rossini famously lamented, “Alas for us, we have lost our bel canto,” towards the end of his career. Though the art of bel canto—which literally means “beautiful singing”—may not have been lost, the composer was likely reacting to changing tastes at the time. Since bel canto operas feature florid singing above all else, some mid–19th-century critics dismissed them as more decorous than dramatic. Wagner, in fact, developed his style of composing for the voice, which is much more forceful and speech-inflected than it is melodious, as a reaction against Italian bel canto. Describing any musical style is difficult. But if we compare all singers to athletes, we could say singing Wagner is like running a marathon, whereas singing Rossini is more akin to gymnastics. The two singing styles require different kinds of strength and control, and few singers can compete in multiple events at the operatic Olympics.

Maria Callas 300x400 public domain

Diva Maria Callas shocked audiences in 1949, however, when she performed in Wagner’s Die Walküre and Bellini’s I puritani during the same season. Possessing the stamina to perform Wagner’s more than five hour opera and the precision to sing Bellini’s elaborately ornamented arias, Callas challenged stereotypes that persisted for more than a century about bel canto singing. The great soprano Montserrat Caballé said that Callas “opened a new door for us, for all the singers in the world, a door that had been closed. Behind it was sleeping not only great music but great ideas of interpretation.” Callas, Caballé, and other singers of the same generation proved that the bel canto roles are just as demanding dramatically as they are musically.

Carnegie Hall has been home to all the great bel canto singers past and present, and has been integral to the revival of this repertoire. Callas made her Carnegie Hall debut in Bellini’s Il pirata in 1959, and performed bel canto favorites at the Hall during her farewell recital 15 years later. Caballé’s performance in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia at Carnegie Hall in 1965 earned her a 25-minute standing ovation, launching her career to new heights.

As part of her Perspectives series this season, Grammy Award–winning mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato returns to Carnegie Hall to celebrate the beauty of bel canto in a performance with The Philadelphia Orchestra.

“It's truly the most challenging music for me to sing, and I love it for that reason.”
 

“One of the thrills of singing bel canto, as well as one of its great challenges, is rising to the overwhelming vocal demands of this music,” Ms. DiDonato explains. “Its very label bel canto requires a level of beauty that is not always of this world. Part of the joy of this period of music is witnessing the voice do extraordinary things. As singers, the genre requires that we have vocal command over everything—dynamics from feather pianos to radiant fortes, a vocal range that plunges the depths and leaps to the heavens—all while tossing in expressive trills, rapid coloratura, and melting legato so that the emotional journey of the character comes to vivid life. It’s truly the most challenging music for me to sing, and I love it for that reason.”

Singers today understand that in order to respect a composer’s original intentions, ironically, they often need to perform off the page. Just as pop singers add variations to make a song their own, opera singers in centuries past added embellishments to their arias to heighten the drama and display their skills. In addition to small variations, singers in bel canto operas are expected to add grand flourishes called cadenzas. If a single note in a score by Rossini is marked a piacere (“as you please”), a singer could easily insert dozens and dozens of notes in its place. Artists relish the flexibility bel canto operas afford them, since they can perform the same music, potentially, anew every night.

Though performers nowadays enjoy revitalizing operas from the standard repertoire, they also eagerly explore lesser-known works and composers. Ms. DiDonato’s recently released album, Stella di Napoli, for example, includes an excerpt from Pacini’s opera of the same name. Were it not for her, only connoisseurs might know this incredible music. Similarly, consummate artists like Angela Meade, Dalibor Jenis, and John Osborn dazzled critics in Rossini’s rarely performed Guglielmo Tell (William Tell) with Teatro Regio Torino last May. Though the overture is one of the most popular pieces of classical music, these singers make a compelling case for reviving the opera in its entirety more often, including a complete concert performance at Carnegie Hall this month.

Since Rossini sighed that bel canto was lost long ago, he would be pleased that his music has been reclaimed with such fervor in the 21st century. The art of beautiful singing itself, it seems, has been revived alongside bel canto repertoire. And, with divas of the digital age—Ms. DiDonato among them—connecting with new audiences around the globe through live broadcasts, this glorious repertoire will thrive for generations to come.

Stephen Raskauskas has provided articles and libretto translations for the Lyric Opera of Chicago and served as an editor for the Bärenreiter Work of G. Rossini.



DiDonato
Joyce DiDonato
Wednesday, March 18 at 8 PM
The Philadelphia Orchestra

A highlight of Joyce DiDonato’s Perspectives series is this celebration of music from the bel canto era. Curated by the mezzo-soprano, this evening of arias, ensembles, and orchestral selections ranges from Rossini and Bellini to surprising gems by lesser-known composers of the time. Joining The Philadelphia Orchestra is a lineup of well-known bel canto stars: soprano Nicole Cabell, tenor Lawrence Brownlee, and conductor Maurizio Benini.