Bel canto and tradition: From the past to the future

7 Jun 2019

Victorian Opera's Artistic Director Richard Mills reflects on the origins, ideals and glorious legacy of the art of bel canto, prior to conducting the company's Heroic Bel Canto concert.

Gaetano Donizetti (by Joseph Kriehuber, 1842) and Gioachino Rossini (by Carjat, 1865) / Wikipedia

The essence of bel canto is Italian, but the precise meaning of the term is a little harder to define. The Oxford Dictionary of Opera says that it is: 

‘The traditional Italian art of singing in which beautiful tone, fine legato phrasing and impeccable technique are emphasized, though not at the total expense of dramatic expression.’

These words convey some – but nowhere near all – of the truth about the particular term. To understand it better it is necessary to pinpoint its origins, which are to be found in the Italian madrigal of the 1520s. This genre was formed from the confluence of a variety of factors: the edition of Petrarch’s sonnets by Pietro Bembo (1501); the Italian Renaissance interest in Italian as a vernacular language; and the composers from France and the Netherlands who migrated to Italy and brought with them the contrapuntal ‘know-how’ of the Franco-Flemish tradition – as exemplified by masters such as Ockeghem, Obrecht, and Josquin des Près.

One such Flemish-trained composer, Adrian Willaert, became the first organist of St Marks in Venice in 1527 and established the glorious traditions of that building which made possible the great works of the Gabrielli family, first Andrea, and then his nephew, Giovanni, some years later. The hallmarks of this late Renaissance public ecclesiastical style, rhythmic energy, polyphonic exuberance, and dramatic expression were shared by the corresponding domestication of these gestures in the madrigal, and its associated genres: the frottola, the ballata, the canzonetta, and the mascherata. This ‘house’ or chamber music was disseminated via the Italian printing presses all over Europe – beginning with the first collection of madrigals by Jacques Arcadelt, published in 1539, and proceeding via the mid-1500s with the achievements of Cipriano da Rore and later exponents such as Alessandro Striggio, Andrea Gabrielli and Luca Marenzio, who preceded the unique genius of Carlo Gesualdo whose mannered and extreme chromaticism astonishes even today.

The quintessence of bel canto: Joan Sutherland sings 'Bel raggio lusinghier' - Semiramide, Rossini.

The dynamic relation of melody and text we find in this repertoire in an atmosphere of intimacy – as vocal chamber music – in which felicities of vocal expression were shared and generated by the singers responding to each other in ensemble, introduces an element of performance energy which is so important for opera. These traditions of the polyphonic madrigal form part of the inheritance of Claudio Monteverdi – the first real opera composer.

Monteverdi wrote nine books of madrigals – which stylistically bridge the gap between the Renaissance and the Baroque. His fifth and sixth books of madrigals contain not only contrapuntal works but also pieces for solo voice and basso continuo – which exemplify the traditions of monody pioneered by the Florentine camerata, from the 1570s onwards. These focused on the declamation of text for single voice and accompaniment and were in turn inspired by the dramatic style of ancient Greece and inspired in turn the forerunners of Monteverdi, composers such as Caccini and Peri. All of these contrapuntal and monophonic traditions were present in the elaborate scenographic extravagances which were part of the wedding celebrations of Grand Duke Ferdinando de’ Medici and Christine of Lorraine in 1589. The event symbolised the wealth, power and cultural prestige of Florentine culture and the milieu in which the musical and dramatic genius of Monteverdi could find the inspiration to produce the first real opera, L’Orfeo (1607).

Thus, the energies which animate the later evolution of bel canto are nascent in its origins. The seamless marriage of the Italian text to musical gesture, the devices of vocal rhetoric – accents, messa di voce (or ‘swells’), variety of articulation, ornamentation, portamento (‘gliding’ from one note to the other) and the sense of declamation and dramatic purpose in the vocal text are all essential ingredients of the bel canto style – from Monteverdi in 1607 and before to Donizetti in the nineteenth century and beyond.  This vocal aesthetic, the marriage of text, harmony, melody, ornamental elaboration, and gesture, united in expressive purpose, prevailed through the seventeenth century. These traditions persisted until the late classical era, despite some reformation by the likes of Gluck, which were provoked in turn by a certain ossification found in the traditions of the Metastasian opera seria – a mannered style of opera in which formal convention triumphed over dramatic realism, and in which the ornamental vanities of singers often trumped the intentions of the composer.

Nellie Melba (right) with her teacher Madame Mathilde Marchesi. Source: Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

In the Mozartian canon, however, the ideals of bel canto were given a new manifestation through a new literature of genius. All the features of Baroque opera remain present; such as aria, recitative, duets, ensembles and ornamentation. – but realigned by a uniquely human creative force, which laid the foundations for the bel canto school of the nineteenth century found in Bellini, Spontini, Rossini, and Donizetti – and, subliminally, also in Wagner and Verdi.

What exactly are these ideals and how are they reflected in vocal techniques?

Well, I suppose the ideals can be easily summarised as beautiful singing at the expressive service of text, melodic gesture, and drama. These ideals are supported by a vocal technique that emphasises:

  1. Breathing
  2. Resonance
  3. Vowel formation and attack
  4. Sustained tone
  5. Legato
  6. Portamento
  7. Messa di voce, or spianata di voce
  8. Agility

One of the earliest teachers of the later traditions of bel canto, Anna Maria Pellegrini Celoni (1777–1820) wished her students to achieve:

the voice sonorous, robust, spacious, elastic, obedient, and agile; capable, in sum, of any expression whatsoever, so that even in the midst of other voices and various instruments, it makes itself heard easily, and distinguished not by its hardness, as so often happens, but by the beauty of its formation.”

She inherited the schoolings of Tosi (1653–1752) who was the first to advocate on the uniting and blending of head and chest voices, and Mancini (1714 – 1800) – both castrati and the first to systematise vocal techniques of the bel canto style. Celoni’s methods were inherited by Manuel Garcia (1775–1832) and his son Manuel Patricio Garcia (1805–1906). Manuel Patricio had two sisters, Maria Malibran and Pauline Viardot. Malibran was a favourite of Rossini and enjoyed great success in operas by Bellini and Donizetti. Viardot was similarly famous, and also a fine pianist and a friend of Chopin.

One should, in passing, note the influence of Bellini on Chopin, Liszt and Wagner, and the way in which even composers such as Fauré and Saint-Saëns subsumed and appropriated the melodic materials of the bel canto style into their own compositional craft.

The quintessence of bel canto: Joan Sutherland sings 'O Luce di quest'anima' - Linda di Chamounix, Donizetti

Manual Patricio passed on his pedagogy to Mathilde Marchesi (1821–1913), who taught Nellie Melba, Emma Calvé and the teacher of Joan Sutherland’s mother, as well as Mary Garden (the first Mélisande), Australian Ada Crossley, and Estelle Liebling (1880–1970) who taught Beverly Sills and Meryl Streep as a young girl. I should also note the legacy of Giuditta Pasta (1797–1865) for whom Bellini wrote La sonnambula and Norma. She taught Carolina Ferni who taught Eugenia Burzio (1882–1922) who was a leading exponent of verismo – but whose art was firmly founded in the techniques of bel canto.

Another of Manuel Patricio’s students, Anna E. Schoen-René (1864–1942), also studied with Pauline Viadot. Schoen-René emigrated to the USA where she taught Margaret Henshaw (1909–1997) who, in turn, taught Vinson Cole, Matthew Polenzani, Michael Sylvester, Laura Aiken, Teresa Stratas, and Nancy Maultsby – well-known opera stars of today.

These are all fascinating examples – rich in humanity and anecdote – of the persistence and revitalisations of great singing traditions across time and space. In our Heroic Bel Canto concert you will hear two of the greatest of the current generation of European bel canto artists: Australian Jessica Pratt (fresh from the signal honour of a recital at La Scala) and Daniela Barcellona.

These artists, along with our own Carlos E. Bárcenas and our young artists, have all been formed by the traditions of bel canto – rich in history but with an enduring vitality grounded in the reality of singing, and producing artistry which will continue to delight audiences for as long as we appreciate the beauty of the opera and the human voice. 

Dr Richard Mills AM
Artistic Director, Victorian Opera

Jessica Pratt © Alessandro Moggi

Victorian Opera performed Heroic Bel Canto as part of Season 2019.