Following up on the first post of this series about the interpretation of Bel Canto repertoire, I thought that in order for us to fully understand this musical style and why it is so important, it's necessary to understand the context in which it was created. While I won't go into thorough details about European History in the XIXth century, there are a few things in terms of the Opera business at the time that help us understand why this music is the way it is.
The most important thing (which also happens to be the most fascinating) is that it's the XIXth century that marks the birth the rock star as we know it today. The figure of the virtuoso that moves a legion of fans across an entire continent.
What about the castratti? Yes, true. The castratti were the first vocal superstars but it's not until the XIXth century that we see the appearance of things like artist merchandising and collectibles being sold to the fans. The fact that Opera was the mainstream entertainment of the time facilitated this to an extent that simply wasn't there yet during the Baroque period. The XIXth century also brought technical advances in many areas of human civilisation which enabled the rise of these incredible figures.
Also, Opera itself had changed quite a lot. Romanticism allowed composers to write music which was more expansive and more dramatic than the Baroque musical language allowed and the audience's tastes were changing towards something which was much more visceral than the stylised mythological Baroque dramas. This allowed composers and interpreters to create characters that the audiences could relate with more immediately and on a more human level and it is in this context that we find the fascinating figures of virtuoso singers like Maria Malibran, Giuditta Pasta or Rubini.
Figures like these singers were in such demand that very much like what happens today with modern Rock and Pop stars, they shaped the business they were in: composers would write roles with them specifically in mind and portraying characters which would heighten their status with the audiences and give them perfect showcases for their strengths. They would also re-write roles which might have been written for a rival with a different voice type, because audiences wanted to see them singing that specific role.
In this context, we find singers coming up with all sorts of tricks to affirm their position. Linking now with the some of the questions that took me to start this series of blog posts, we come to the subjects of cadenze and ornamentation. A cadenze is a section of an aria where the singer signs unaccompanied by the orchestra and where they can show their virtuosity.
Composers did their best to write cadenze that would at the same showcase the singer's prowess but also not interrupt the drama too much: it is, after all, a moment where everything stops and you listen to the singer. However, and without advocating for gratuitous show-off, these singers had to deal with the huge expectations that audiences had for them so, most of the times, they resorted to their own books of cadenze which they wrote themselves and which highlighted their vocal assets. They would insert these instead of what the composer wrote and adapt it to whichever key the aria was in.
Of course this would lead some hilarious situations where you can literally use the same cadenza for an array of different arias, but it was the way that they found to appease the audience's insane appetite for vocal pyrotechnics. Below is an example of different variations for a Donizetti aria.
It was also no unusual for singers to compose themselves arias to replace the music originally written by the composer when that music didn't really suit them that well. Maria Malibran was a good composer in her own right, performing her own compositions in her concerts alongside arias from the operas she interpreted.
Below is an example of how she changed the music for Adina's main scene in 'Elisir d'Amore for something that suited her voice better than what Donizetti wrote. There is a recording of the whole Malibran scene on Cecilia Bartoli's Maria album, but on the excerpts below you'll find only the different versions of the cabaletta: Mariella Devia sings the Donizetti version, Joan Sutherland the Malibran creation.
For the modern interpreter performing this repertoire in a context which is much different than the original, raises a lot of questions: on one hand as you could see above, we have written records of all these incredible variations that these singers used, on the other, the audience is no longer seeking the sort of gratuitous virtuoso displays of the past.
However, it puts us in a position where we have so much choice and so much information that we can really approach this repertoire in a creative and different way than that which has been the norm so far.
I will leave you with these thoughts and examples for the time being and, as usual, please get in touch with your feedback and questions.