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Throwback Sunday: Young Artists Sing Bel Canto

This Sunday, August 17, the 2014 Glimmerglass Young Artists, having spent the summer performing music from the last 100 years, will go back in time to the nineteenth century to perform music of the bel canto masters, Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini.

The term bel canto, which simply means “beautiful singing,” has been used to describe the standards of operatic singing technique since the beginning of the art form in the 17th century. Each century, and audience, had its own requirements and standards specific to its time. In the 17th century, the clear enunciation of the text and proper use of ornaments were the benchmarks of good singing, while, in the 18th century, the superhuman virtuosity of the castrati was the pinnacle of bel canto singing.

However, when most opera lovers hear the words bel canto, they immediately think of the operas by the Italian composers Gioachino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini, whose careers, spanning from Rossini’s first opera in 1810 to Donizetti’s last in 1848, delineate the bel canto era in opera history. The music of these composers demanded that a singer, like an athlete, be trained to fulfill any demand that the part demanded: legato — the smooth connecting of one note to the other — and quick and accurate coloratura, impeccable breath control, elegant phrasing, infallible musicianship that allowed the singer to improvise embellishments, and, an intelligent mind could employ all these effects to bring the character to life.

Gioachino Rossini wrote his first opera, The Marriage Contract, in 1810, when he was just 18 years old. By the time he retired in 1829, he had written 39 operas including the comic The Barber of Seville, the Biblical drama Moses in Egypt and the French grand opera William Tell. During his short but prolific career, Rossini became the don of Italian opera, inspiring a generation of imitators and establishing a new type of opera that showcased the dramatic virtuosity of the singers. Even in comic arias, like the famous “Una voce poco fa” from The Barber of Seville, Rossini used his trademark coloratura to show two sides of Rosina: her youthful docility and her manipulative cunning.

The Italian opera industry in the first half of the 19th century was as much of a machine as the Hollywood movie industry, with hundreds of operas being produced every season by composers of all abilities. Some stood the test of time, while most were quickly forgotten. Gaetano Donizetti is one of the few composers who was able to shine from under Rossini’s shadow. Donizetti’s early operas relied heavily on the Rossini model, but he distinguished himself as a composer of individuality and promise with his Anna Bolena in 1830; however, it is Lucia di Lammermoor and his comic operas like The Elixir of Love and The Daughter of the Regiment that have carried his reputation into the 21st century.

The youngest of the three bel canto composers, Vincenzo Bellini was also the most innovative. While Rossini was retiring and Donizetti was still imitating Rossini, Bellini was experimenting with ways of using music and melody to tell a story. Starting with Il pirata in 1827, his melodies were expunged of the Rossinian filigree, unless the drama called for it. Amina’s Sleepwalking Scene from La Sonnambula begins with a simple melody, plaintive and heartbreaking, but when Amina’s lover returns to her, Bellini employs ecstatic coloratura to show the change in her emotions. Bellini also began using what Verdi later called “reminiscences,” which functioned somewhat like Berlioz’s idée fixe and Wagner’s leitmotifs. In fact, Bellini was the only composer of Italian opera whom Richard Wagner didn’t think was a complete hack; Wagner so admired Bellini’s opera Norma that he often conducted it in the beginning of his career and even wrote an alternate aria for the title character’s father. Bellini’s endless melodies can be heard in Wagner’s music from The Flying Dutchamn to Parsifal.

The influence of the bel canto composers continued into the 20th century. When Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal were writing Ariadne in Naxos in 1912, Strauss suggested that Hofmannsthal study the structure of the soprano arias from Lucia di Lammermoor and La sonnambula so that he would know how to map out the text for Zerbinetta’s aria. Even Tobias Picker’s An American Tragedy, written in 2005 and revised for Glimmerglass this summer, shows traces of bel canto. When Sondra Finchley tells Clyde about the liberating feeling of diving into a lake, Picker adorns her line with snippets of coloratura not heard elsewhere in the opera. Conversely, Roberta Alden’s letter to Clyde at the beginning of Act II is one long, melancholic phrase after the other.

The 2014 Glimmerglass Young Artists sing selections from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Bellini’s La sonnambula, among many others, this Sunday, August 17 at 5:00 p.m. For tickets, click here

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