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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 6, No. 5

The transition from bel canto to dramatic opera

by Cťline Choiselat / February 1, 2001

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Italian opera traditionally enshrined the reign of the singer, and composers were forced to bow to this tyrantóa custom that reached its height in the eighteenth century. Remnants of it can still be found in operas of the early nineteenth century with the aria da capo, which made the singer the most important element.

As a result, composers had to submit to the singersí demands by providing scores that highlighted their technique, virtuosity, and individual vocal features, so that their performances would be as brilliant as possible. Generally speaking, Italian opera was defined by the aesthetic principle of bel canto (beautiful singing), and its direct outcome, the aria da capo.

The bel canto period lasted from 1680 to 1820, although we still speak of bel canto in works by composers such as Bellini, Rossini and Donizetti. The singers of bel canto considered it their right to adapt an aria to their range, add ornaments not in the score, or even insert pieces written by other composers to the point where the singers became co-authors of the work. This state of affairs revealed the singersí lack of interest in the libretto, which was sacrificed in favour of a musical pot-pourri. Rossini, who was tired of these goings-on and was the first to state specifically all the ornaments that were to be used, didnít manage to escape the singersí self-appointed role as editors.

Romantic era brings change

Change came with the onset of the Romantic era and the attraction of the Romantics for opera. Singers were obliged to respond to public demand for a genuinely dramatic work and not display their vocal acrobatics. The fact that opera had distanced itself from poetic declamation over time inspired a new concept of the librettistsí creative role. Now they were seen not merely as poets to be judged on the musicality of their texts, but as playwrights, creating plots, characters, and scenes. Today the art of the librettist is recognized as distinct from that of the poet, having its own demands, and entirely governed by music.

As a result the tyranny of performers gave way to the importance of the libretto and the music. Rossini was the first to rebel, followed by Verdi. The result was genuinely dramatic operaóthe opera of action. The battles of singers demonstrating their vocal prowess no longer satisfied the public. Instead of showing off their technique, singers had to try to move the public emotionally. From then on, singers were expected to express the feelings and passions of their roles, striving for psychological and dramatic truth to touch the audience.

Opera-goers no longer wanted to watch a stand-off between gods and heroes in a shower of allegories and symbols. Comic opera had already brought the stage and the audience closer to one another, but grand opera had to do this while satisfying the publicís contradictory demand for the spectacular, something almost impossible to combine with truly moving drama.

Understandably, librettists and composers turned to historical rather than mythological sources to solve their dilemma. They had to choose plots that would speak to the heart rather than the mind, and still convey lofty ideals (Verdiís choral music comes to mindóveritable hymns to the Risorgimento).

Verdi and the Risorgimento

The Risorgimento movement for Italian unity and an end to foreign occupation was at the heart of Verdiís artistic motivation. Through the use of choral music, he was able to touch the deepest, most nationalistic feelings in his audience. In Nabucco he transformed a biblical love story into a drama about a persecuted people under a foreign oppression that amounted to an anti-Austrian manifesto.

Verdi wanted his political ideas to be expressed not only in the orchestration but also in the libretto. He therefore had to be able to choose his librettos or call on librettists who shared his views. His aim was always the same: to adapt a libretto to represent current and recognizable Italian causes. In the interests of achieving this, he demanded total cooperation from his librettists, whom he chose personallyóa task normally reserved for the impresario. Verdiís considerable participation in the libretto is evidence that he, more than any contemporary composer except Wagner, was aware of how important the libretto was in opera.

Another aspect of Verdiís theatrical conception of opera is his interest in voices, which he felt must serve to highlight character and plot, rather than the music or the text. Dramatic truth, not vocal splendour, was what he was looking for. This was why he could refuse to have Eugenia Tadolini sing the role of Lady Macbeth, even though she was considered to have one of the finest voices in the world.

Verdi distanced himself from bel canto because he no longer wanted fine singing for its own sake, rather an expressive voice that would bring the role and the character to life. He inaugurated an interpretive tradition that was first exemplified in his works but spread to the entire Italian lyric repertoire. He worked closely with performers and was very insistent on respect for the score, all of which totally changed the approach to opera.

Verdi, who lived from 1813 to 1901, witnessed the rise of the greatest musicians of his eraóRossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. He saw them become obsolete, to be replaced by new maestros who tried to substitute symphonic art for melody and song. Composers like Richard Strauss, Schoenberg, and others in the twentieth century were the direct heirs of Wagner. Verdiís descendants were the great dramatic singers, from Caruso to Callas.

[Translated by Jane Brierley ]

The article is the first in a series celebrating the 100th anniversary of Verdiís death.

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