Bel Canto opera has been a cornerstone of my repertoire ever since my professional career began. Most of the roles I've performed more often fall into this style of repertoire: Dottore Malatesta, Rossini's Figaro, Belcore, and so on. It also happens that it's one of my favourite musical genres to listen to, partially because despite being considered by many as not complex enough or as a mere vehicle to display a singer's virtuosity, the truth is that it's an operatic style which offers almost limitless ways of expressing feeling: its formulas allow both the utmost joy and the depths of madness.
Because it's a genre so close to my heart, I've been thinking for a while about dedicating a series of posts to the many questions I ask myself when I'm performing or preparing this repertoire: is what I'm doing stylistically accurate? Is this cadenza within the style of this composer? How far can my rubato go in this phrase? Should I cut the repetition of the cabaletta like most people do? It must be there for a reason...
I often ask myself these questions and wonder what would have the performance of this repertoire been like back in the XIXth century. We've come such a long in terms of our understanding of the Baroque and Classic repertoire, largely due to the incredible Musicological work done by people like Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Sir John Eliot Gardiner or René Jacbos, yet, Bel Canto interpretation still feels a little bit stuck in the 1950's most of the time.
This brings me to the first question I'd like to reflect upon on this first post: how much have the Verismo and Wagnerian aesthetics prevalent in the 1950's influenced the way we look at and perform Bel Canto?
The conductors I have mentioned above have all fundamentally changed the way we approach Mozart, Bach or Händel. If we remember the old readings of Le Nozze di Figaro, or of Messiah by conductors like Böhm or Karajan, we come to the realisation that the way this repertoire was performed in the 1950's and 60's, was closer to Wagner or Strauss with their enormous orchestral means, than what would have been the orchestral ensemble of a Baroque/Classical theatre and orchestra.
Below you'll find two interesting examples: first, the Ouverture of Bellini's Norma conducted by Tulio Serafin in the 1950's, and then a more recent recording on period instruments which will allow you to see how not only the overall sound but also the possibilities of dynamics and articulation that different instruments offer.
If we compare what we now usually hear in the performance of a Mozart opera - period instruments and a generally more "sparkling" approach to the music - we realise how much the aesthetics of the "big music" were intrusive to the true nature of these works.
The same thing applies to Bel Canto. The genre had fallen out of fashion by the end of the XIXth century and it wasn't until the 1950's that people like Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Tulio Serafin or Richard Bonynge started presenting these works to the public again. Yet, these revivals (not necessarily by the mentioned artists) often sounded like slightly florid Verismo, with a vocal delivery that was closer to the one needed to match larger orchestral ensembles, and not necessarily exploring the refined and intimate emotions of Bel Canto's lighter style. Because this heavier delivery was what was expected of singers when performing Puccini or Giordano, the emphasis on agility wasn't as great as it once was and in many of these revivals, many virtuoso sections were often cut in order to accommodate these heavier voices.
Despite some attempts at reconstituting what would have been the true style of performing Bel Canto, musicians as a whole have not yet managed to establish a re-imagining of the aesthetics performing this repertoire as what's been done with the Classic or Baroque. Why, is an elusive question.
The sources definitely exist: composers' letter reporting not only the rehearsal process but also the composition of the works and their relationships with the singers, exist in abundance. We have written records of the ornamentation and embellishments used by the great singers, which provide us a tremendous insight into how the variation of written music would work. Also chronologically and in terms of the development of expression in music, Bel Canto is a much closer relative of Classicism than it is of Verismo.
Yet, despite this fact we are still, up to this day, using for instance, cuts in challenging agility sections of some operas which were instated in the 1950's because singers with heavier vocal emissions weren't always able to cope with florid singing. We're also still very often seeing many a cabaletta sung twice (as written), without ornamentation of the repetition because "it's not written". Yet we know for a fact that singers did ornament repetitions (and not only repetitions...).
Why is it that Bel Canto sill hasn't, somehow, found its "true colours"?
I'll leave you with this question and please feel free to use the Connect section to get in touch with your thoughts on the matter! I would love to hear from you.