Why opera? 4 Bel canto


Bel canto

On 17 February 1959 a young Australian soprano made her debut in the title role of the bel canto opera Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti at Covent Garden.  A bad marriage leads to a murder at a wedding and the most celebrated Mad Scene in all opera.  This young woman darted and flitted about in a bloodstained shift, and struck amazing notes.  She generated intense excitement in the audience.  Almost no one had heard or seen anything like this.  The last act ended after the death of Lucia with what one observer called a ‘riot’.  The audience could not wait to give the Australian the biggest ovation heard at Covent Garden for years.  She seemed to be a different person through countless curtain calls.  She blew kisses to the crowd and that just made them hungrier.  Her reception was such that for the first time, the BBC changed its advertised schedule to broadcast the opera in full later that week.  A bright new star had erupted.  Well, you can’t hear Joan Sutherland on that debut night, but you can hear her nine days later on 26 February.  It is hard to know what is the more spine tingling – the singing or the audience reaction.

Bel canto means beautiful song or singing.  (An impresario would have to be a dill to offer mal canto.)  Sutherland would become a leading exponent of it for decades.  She was in some part responsible for its renaissance.  She had sought out Maria Callas in concert and in rehearsal as a model for her to follow.  The genre is associated with three Italian composers of what is called the Romantic period – Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini.  With its customary pithiness, the Rough Guide says that we are speaking of:

…. highly dramatic operas in which the bulk of the emotional freight was carried by the vocal line – whereas in German opera, the orchestra was emerging as the dominant partner.  At its weakest, bel canto amounted to little more than floridly pretty music applied to a weak plot and inane libretto, but although the hugely prolific Donizetti was culpable of spinning a fair amount of musical candy floss in his operas, the same could not be said of Bellini, who often applied himself assiduously to the setting of the texts he used.

The genre comes in and out of vogue and it is not currently heavily represented in Australia.  The work of Bellini did however influence Verdi and Puccini and Wagner always acknowledged the importance of Bellini to him.  It is still widely taught, especially in Italy, where it is put forward as a goal which all singers should seek to achieve.

Before looking briefly at the three composers, may I make two introductory observations?  First, when we talk of opera as an art form, we are speaking of at least two kinds of artist – those who compose the work, the composer and the author of the libretto, and those who perform the work.  The latter include the singers, the orchestra, the director, the conductor, the costuming and lighting people, and all of the other people backstage or the front of house.  There is obviously a great scope for differing levels of quality to be delivered.  The reference we have just made to the performance of Joan Sutherland can reveal the immense impact of a single performer who just hits everything right on the night.  The examples that we looked at in the last chapter show the high place of acting now in opera.  As we saw, Sutherland was not there to act.  She took the view that if you want to see acting, you can go to the theatre.  She had the horse power to deliver at the limit, and no one has everything.  She was in truth a freak, but very few opera performers can get away with that attitude now.  But the simple point remains that opera is one of the performing arts.

And all sorts of learning and training and experience goes into developing the art and craft required by singers.  Like the rest of us, they learn as they go.  In the DVD Three Legendary Tenors, Nigel Lawson said that Beniamino Gigli had learned every trick in the book.  The memoirs of Richard Burton are replete with references to actors who would steal the limelight or the scene.  (A major culprit was Michael Hordern.  You can see why if you recall him as Kate’s dad in the Zeffirelli Taming of the Shrew, or the way he deals with Parolles in Act 5 Scene 2 of the BBC All’s Well that Ends Well.  The sidelong glances come from an alchemy that cannot be taught.)  Callas taught master classes, but the one thing she couldn’t teach was how to be Callas.

Let me here say something about the role of the director in opera.  The Ring Cycle of Wagner is a massive project for any company.  The first two Australian Opera efforts were great successes, in no small part because of the role of Neil Armfield (whose production of the AO The Makropolous Case was terrific).

Let me give an example of where a director can really get offside with at least some of the audience.  The 2006 Salzburg Figaro had Nikolaus Harnoncourt with the Vienna Philharmonic, and a cast that included Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, Anna Netrebko, and Christine Schafer (this time as a more orthodox Cherubino).  A Bentley cast for the Rolls Royce of operas.  But the director, a man called Claus Gutt, decided that they needed help.  He would improve on Mozart.  He put on a fairy.  A young man in the same schoolboy clothes as Cherubino, with two white wings attached to his back, wonders about casting spells and shedding feathers.  I regard this interference as an outrage.  Yes, Raphael put two putti in one of the most sacred paintings in western art – but they were Raphael’s putti.  This director had no right to second guess the greatest composer ever, and this act of defilement spoiled the whole show for me.

The New York Times did not mention this outrage, but they got another one:

In Act II, when Susanna and the Countess start dressing Cherubino in girl’s clothing, the game gets out of hand: the women fondle Cherubino like some boy toy, and all three wind up rollicking on the floor atop a fur coat. 

That’s what my kids used to call ‘gross.’  We have to put up with this kind of callous arrogance with Shakespeare.  In my view, it should carry jail time.

The problem may be not just the competition in Europe, but the sheer number of performances of the most popular operas.  Wagner is routinely treated in a way that would have horrified him, but if his operas were performed now as he wanted them performed, not many would turn up.  I recall hearing Simone Young give a talk before Tristan und Isolde.  She said that many Germans inclined to the view that a show might be thought to be a flop in Germany unless there were as many raspberries as cheers.  It’s very sad if Mozart has to put up with that sort of nonsense.

The second point is that although I have seen and enjoyed the operas I will refer to in this chapter, which contain some of the best known songs on the concert stage, this kind of thing is not really my cup of tea.  Well, there had to be a let-down after the descent from the Everest of Mozart, but you can sense the coolness in the guide I have referred to.  Even the more prosaic Oxford Dictionary of Opera refers to the ‘traditional Italian art of singing in which beautiful tone, fine legato phrasing, and impeccable technique are emphasised, though not at the total expense of dramatic expression, as some of its greatest exponents, above all Callas, have demonstrated.’

It rather reminds me of some batsmen in cricket who think that style is everything.  It’s not – their job is to make runs.  We go to the opera to be entertained – but to be entertained by the drama in the music, not by vocal pyrotechnics.

Well, I have made my disclaimer, but any introduction to opera, even one as short as this, must look at bel canto.  And, as indicated, we will come across some of the best known songs of all opera.  And if you like a good serve of Italian melodrama, or if you just want to wonder at the range of the human voice, it would be hard to think of anything better than the Mad Scene from Lucia.  And just spare a thought for those sopranos coming on who see and hear how high Joan Sutherland set the bar for everyone else that night at Covent Garden.

Now, for the bel canto composers.  Gioachino Rossini (1792 to 1868) became a national treasure in Italy, a place that he would cede only to Verdi.  His parents were both musicians, and he quickly learned a number of instruments – by the age of fourteen, he had learned the horn, violin, cello, and harpsichord, and he had sung professionally, and written a cavatina in the buffo style.  Within three years of starting at the Bologna conservatory, he had composed his first opera.  He had written ten of them by the time he turned twenty-one.  His first comic masterpiece was L’italiana in Algeri.  He tried tragedy with Otello – but the Italians were not then conditioned to Shakespeare, and they didn’t like the unhappy ending – which was replaced with the Rome revival.  His enduring prize is The Barber of Seville, which again features the Figaro of Beaumarchais.  It in fact got a stormy reception, but it soon recovered and it is in a lot of top tens today.  For whatever reasons – perhaps he had just run out of steam – Rossini retired from conducting at the age of thirty-seven.  Stendhal had said of him: ‘The glory of the man is only limited by the limits of civilisation itself, and he is not yet 32.’  But for his last 39 years, he wrote no more opera.

Rossini was nothing if not Italian.  He was also a famous food tragic. Not only did he come from an area where food was central to life, but he went to a school in Bologna, that was known as La Grassa, or ‘The Fat One.’  Then he moved to Paris. His life was spent in the most famous food cities in Europe.  His modest upbringing made him value the pleasures of fine food.  He adored truffles and foie gras.  Recipes are still being attributed to him even now.

He had a long running feud with another composer, Meyerbeer.  The latter would send two well-dressed gentleman to every performance of a Rossini opera.  They had to sit in the most observable box and fall asleep after fifteen minutes – to be woken by the usher at the end.  Rossini sent Meyerbeer some tickets – the best in the house – with a note that ended: ‘Shortly before the end of the performance I shall have you waked.  Your true admirer, G Rossini.’  It’s hard not to like a dude who has that kind of sense of humour.

Leigh Hunt described Rossini’s operas as ‘the genius of sheer animal spirits.’  We know that Stendhal, the great novelist, was a fan, but so too was D H Lawrence, and he was no lightweight.

I love Italian opera – it’s so reckless.  Damn Wagner, and his bellowings at Fate and death….I like the Italians who run all on impulse, and don’t care about their immortal souls, and don’t worry about the ultimate.

Some might say the same for Scuderia Ferrari – at least on a bad day.

When it comes to recordings of bel canto, two pairings tend to dominate – Callas and di Stefano, followed by Sutherland and Pavarotti.  For The Italian Lady in Algiers, you can catch the overture played by the wonderful Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Georg Solti.  (Just where do they get their white ties laundered?)  You will recognise the style if not the tune.  You can get the Finale to Act I from the Met Centennial in 1983.  For a composer who worked at a whirlwind pace, this music is amazingly intricate.

For The Barber of Seville, you can get one of the great pairings of opera – Callas and Tito Gobbi (at least on EMI).  The opera has edges of commedia dell’arte.   You can watch the indecently good looking Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky having a whale of a time entertaining a Montreal concert crowd with the famous ‘Largo al Factotem.’  Again, it’s hard to see what is more affecting – the performance or the crowd, which erupts like kids at a birthday party – and they know how to stand in North America.  You can get the pairing of the whole opera with Callas and Gobbi live at La Scala in 1956.  There are also many other arias and couplings from this opera from these two including ‘Una voce poco far’ and Figaro’s aria above.  This Italian, Tito Gobbi, was the outstanding opera actor of his time, and some of his pairings with Callas will never be forgotten.

Gaetano Donizetti (1797 to 1848) comes to us as a sad character.  If you look at his portrait, you may see a withdrawn, anxious character, someone down on his luck.  If you look at a portrait of Bellini, you see assurance and breeding, nobility even.  Heine called him a ‘sigh in silk stockings’ – which is one up on what Napoleon said of Talleyrand.  He produced a massive seventy-three operas – it is very hard not to debase your currency at that rate of printing.  His syphilis helped to send him mad, and he wound up in an asylum.

Yet The Oxford Dictionary of Opera is sympathetic.

…Donizetti is the most important direct forerunner of Verdi.  The tunefulness of his 70 stage works, not to mention their superiority, even at their most erratic, over most contemporary operas, long ensured their place in the repertory; and in modern times, they have won new audiences for their dramatic power as well as for their melodic charm and skilful stagecraft.

We have looked at Sutherland in Lucia.  You can get her at later times in the same role.  You can hear Callas and Di Stefano at La Scala in 1953 for the whole opera.  There is also a better recording of the pair at Berlin with Von Karajan.  There is stunning vision of Anna Netrebko at the Met if you want to be brought up to date – stunning to the eye and ear.

Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I never met – but they do in Maria Stuarda and there is the mother of all catfights.  You may care to watch Joyce Didonato rehearse and talk about her role in one of those HD broadcasts from the Met.

L’elisir d’amore is full of songs the most famous of which is ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ (‘A furtive tear’).  You can hear Pavarotti either in concert or, when he was younger, and softer, and when the engines fired on all cylinders, in the theatre.  The effort and strain are palpable, and the crowd goes wild.  You should also listen to the great Caruso.  The differences are remarkable.  You can also get Netrebko and Villazon in a duet.

Vincenzo Bellini (1801 to 1835) is a very different proposition, but as you can see, he died young, Keats young.  He left ten operas – the other two were in their thirties by then.  He sought to focus more on the drama.  Wagner said that Bellini was all heart – ‘he is one of my predilections because his music is strongly felt and immediately bound up with the words.’  Bellini even saw himself in much the same way as Beethoven – the instrument of a greater force.  It was said that Chopin’s long melodies owed a lot to his admiration of Bellini.  He fell ill and died alone in Paris.  At the Requiem mass at the Invalides, Cherubini and Rossini each held a corner of the shroud.

The best known opera is Norma.  Wagner said he hoped Isolde would become his Norma.  You can have Sutherland in Sydney, or Callas with Corelli at La Scala.  The Rough Guide says that Corelli’s part:

….is one of the most moving examples of heroic tenor singing on record.  If you think Pavarotti is exciting, listen to this – Callas rarely came so close to being outshone by her leading man….Callas’s voice is not what it was , with some shrill high notes and plentiful outbreaks of the notorious late Callas vibrato, but as a singer-actress, she has no equal…’

That is a sensible critique.  You can also see an astonishingly statuesque Netrebko sing the famous aria ‘Casta Diva’ in concert, and compare this to the stage versions of Montserrat Caballé, the powerful Spanish singer who was a gun in Bellini roles.  The trouble with Norma is a bit like the trouble with Shakespeare’s Cymbeline.  It’s set among pagans; the names are dumb; and the plot is dumber.

For La Somnambula, try Nathalie Dessay at the Met with some very imaginative staging.  It is a very evocative reading of ‘Ah! non credea mirarti’ and a beautiful example of bel canto.  You may wish to see the same artist entertain the crowd with a song and dance routine to the folksy ‘Ah! Non giunge.’  This is an artist working at her limit, and getting her reward from the audience.

Natalie Dessay had some issues with her voice, but she had a vital and perky presence on the stage.  This lovely French born woman started off in dance but having discovered her voice, she became a greatly loved coloratura on both sides of the Atlantic.  She left the stage at about the same age as Renée Fleming, and for similar reasons.  After a Carnegie Hall concert in 2017, The New York Times said:

Ms. Fleming, 58, and Ms. Dessay, 52, faced the same problem over the past decade or so.  Their voices didn’t much darken or deepen in their 40s, leaving them basically stranded in the ingénue roles they’d been singing since they were young.  This was a particular frustration for Ms. Dessay, whose specialty was cute, spunky girls whose vocal lines exploded into stratospheric coloratura, the likes of Zerbinetta in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos.

L’elisir d’amore was done by the AO in an Australian setting in 2015.  Lucia was, I think, last done by them in 2012, with Emma Matthews.

Well, that is the intro to bel canto.  I enjoyed this part of the journey more than I thought I would, but now it is time for Italian opera royalty.

Before coming to that, may I for completeness mention two works by Italian composers who were anything but bel canto?  Leoncavallo (1857 to 1919) and Mascagni (1863 to 1945) wanted realism – opera verismo.  The first wrote I Pagliacci and the second wrote Cavalleria Rusticana.  Each is a short one act affair, with plenty of vendetta.  They are commonly paired on the one program, although in the reverse of the order above.  ‘Veste la giubba’ is the famous aria from the first and ‘Mama quel vino generoso’ from the second is popular with concert audiences.  There are plenty of versions of each in full.  You might for example take the Zeffirelli film of the first with Domingo, although you may want to catch Jonas Kaufman rehearsing the aria.  For the second, you can again get a Zeffirelli film, and listen to the aria sung by Kaufman and Corelli.  (Do you think it may help if you are Italian to sing these numbers?)

Each of Mozart and Wagner is in a class of his own, but when we get to dedicated opera composers in the great tradition, there is only one king.

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