There’s more to Bel canto than those three, but the repertory of companies like Seattle Opera usually include operas by Gioachino Rossini (everyone loves his Barber of Seville, and we’ve done his Italian Girl in Algiers and La Cenerentola), Vincenzo Bellini (we’ve done his Norma and I puritani) and Donizetti (look at Seattle Opera’s Facebook Photo Albums for a retrospective with photos of the five Donizetti operas we’ve produced). Once you’ve learned what to listen for in Bel canto generally, spend some time figuring out the differences between these three great composers--and what makes each of them great.
A nineteenth-century cartoonist has Rossini, who retired at the age of 40 after writing 40 operas in 20 years, waltzing away with a sack of money from the Paris Opéra, which is burning to the ground now that he has abandoned it.
Classical. According to most historians of music, the Classical period gave way to the Romantic period in the early nineteenth century. Bel canto opera straddles that shift. Rossini, whose great operas were written between 1813 and 1829, is best considered a Classical composer--in fact he quit writing operas, at age 39, because he couldn’t do the new Romantic thing that had become so trendy. Listen for Classical values in Rossini’s music: balance, symmetry, clarity, simplicity, formal grace and elegance. None of that Romantic emotional sloshing to be heard here!
Bravura performances. All of Rossini’s operas set up the singers as sports stars, showing off their special skills and ability to perform technically difficult bravura singing. Mediocre performers need not apply. What’s more, because Rossini’s Classical period music doesn’t teem with personal emotion, if the audience is going to invest emotionally in the drama they’ll need charismatic performers up there onstage to care about.
(Marilyn Horne, in a showpiece aria from Rossini's The Siege of Corinth)
The Rossini Crescendo. Rossini’s favorite musical trick is the crescendo, meaning “start soft and get loud”. He uses it most often in his comedies, to accompany increasing mayhem and craziness onstage. In The Barber of Seville you’ll hear several great Rossini crescendos, most famously Basilio’s “Slander” Aria, in which an enormous musical crescendo imitates the effect of an entire town rejecting and ostracizing an individual who gets slandered.
(Crescendo from end of Act One of La Cenerentola)
A more recent cartoonist has Bellini lighting the fire that will purge the Druid village of the sinful Norma in his most famous and popular opera.
Sweet melancholy. Unlike Rossini, Bellini excelled at indulging our emotions musically. All of his operas gravitate toward the same emotion, a Romantic sentiment which was culturally central when his music was all the rage in the 1830s: that sweet, sad, soft, sentimental melancholy of early Romanticism. It’s not about tragedy, it’s too pastel for that. It can feel like yearning, but it’s not a Wagnerian yearning for transcendence, it’s more like homesickness. Romance in Bellini is a gentle thing, more about the feeling you get when my breath tickles the hair on the back of your neck than interactions between other body parts.
All about the breath. Giuseppe Verdi made a telling, if not entirely charitable comment, about Bellini: “Bellini is poor, it is true, in harmony and orchestration, but rich in feeling and in an individual melancholy that was all his own. Even in his less familiar operas, there are long, long, long melodies such as no one ever wrote before his day.” The immense length of Bellini’s florid melodic lines--often compared to those of his great friend, Chopin--is one of the key identifying features of his music. It requires supreme breath control to sing these long lines, and many music historians have pointed out that Wagner got the idea of “Endless Melody”--not to mention those shattering, orgasmic climaxes that enormously long lines make possible--from listening to and conducting Bellini, his favorite composer.
(Jane Eaglen singing "Casta Diva" from Norma.)
Musical quality varies. Verdi’s point about Bellini’s harmony and orchestration is well-taken (although if Verdi had died at age 34, like Bellini, we’d be making the same complaint about him); Bellini’s operas, when they’re good, are better than Rossini’s or Donizetti’s, and when they’re bad, they’re worse than those guys. In the same exact scene, he gives us both Norma’s astonishing entrance aria “Casta Diva”, excerpted above, and the extremely dippy “March of the Druids”:
(March of the Druids from Norma.)
Best-known for Lucia di Lammermoor and her beloved mad scene.
Catchy tunes. Before Verdi came along, Donizetti was the greatest tune-smith of Italian opera. He excelled at writing quirky little melodies that stick in your ear, the first time you hear them, and never go away. They might not be long and florid, like Bellini’s melodies, or graceful and elegant, like Rossini’s; but each one has an individual character which makes it memorable.
(Marilyn Horne singing "Il segreto di esser felice" from Lucrezia Borgia.)
Music specific to words. Again paving the way for Verdi, Donizetti’s music flows from the words more directly than was the case with Rossini or Bellini. “Give me a laundry list and I’ll set it to music,” Rossini was known to say, and sometimes you wonder if he’d even read the words before he wrote the music. And Bellini’s melodies are often so long you can’t understand the words. But in his greatest moments, Donizetti exploited music’s ability to add meaning to text. Listen, for example, to the great burst of sunshine through gloom that comes when Nemorino, who’s been languishing in unrequited love for most of The Elixir of Love, finally realizes that Adina does love him: “M’ama, si, m’ama, lo vedo!” (She loves me, yes, she loves me, I see it!)
(John McCormack singing "Una furtiva lagrima" from L'elisir d'amore.)
Easy come, easy go. Donizetti was extremely prolific, having written some 75 operas in the space of about twelve years. (When he heard that Rossini had written The Barber of Seville in two weeks, Donizetti reportedly asked, “What took him so long?”) There have been those who accuse Donizetti of failing to achieve the classical elegance of Rossini, or the exquisite sensibility of Bellini--complaints that his music is coarse, or vulgar, or cheap. Perhaps it is ostentatious, gaudy, even tacky; but if you can sing Tonio’s aria from La fille du régiment, with its 9 high Cs in a row, any audience will love you.
(Pavarotti singing "Ah, mes amis" from La fille du régiment.)