1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die
As you would imagine, opera is broken up into loads of smaller subgenres from different eras. Vincenzo Bellini, a 19th century composer and the subject of today's post, was one of the the biggest names in the bel canto generation.
Opera is also one of those genres that I know very little about, therefore I had to do some research to figure out just went into the style of bel canto. I didn't find out much. Scholars and experts all seem to be at odds with their own definitions of the movement, to the point that I can only confidently define bel canto as "the period of Italian-style opera that was predominant between 1750 and 1850." The name itself translates to "beautiful singing," which tells you very little in the context of opera. As for actual distinguishable qualities that set it apart from other Italian styles? Good luck. The only quality that all the experts seemed to agree on was a strong emphasis on legato, or the tying-together of musical notes. This characteristic will come back when we look at the true star of today's post, Maria Callas. But first, a look at Bellini.
Bellini is probably the second biggest name in the bel canto (behind Gioachino Rossini), and realistically he probably would have risen to greater heights if he had lived past the age of 34. The composer was controversial because of almost constant harmonic shifts. This tendency is what has brought so many women, not just Callas, attention for playing the title character in "Norma." As Callas' famous performance of the aria "Casta Diva" from the opera indicates, the role is one that requires a huge range of vocal flexibility from the lead. The character of Norma is one as well suited as any for dramatic shifts in tone however, making her an ideal subject for Bellini.
The plot is somewhat the reverse of Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus." Norma is the high priestess of the Celtic druids, and lover of Roman conquerer Pollione. When she finds out that Pollione is planning on running away with Adalgisa, a young priestess, Norma threatens to kills her children. Adalgisa prevents that, but the druids burn Pollione and Norma joins him on the fire. The moods of Bellini's music jump around easily.
Moon, although he classifies "Norma" under Bellini's name, spends the crux of his entry praising Callas for her abilities in the role, and her vocal performance is certainly more enticing than Bellini's composition when you listen to the recording. Callas is one of the most established names in modern opera. Even as a child I was familiar with Callas' name, because she was one of the old-timey musicians that my grandfather would bring up on countless occasions (not as often or as old as Enrico Caruso, but still). Callas' mentor Tullio Serafin described her voice type as a "natural high soprano," or in other words, somewhere that was so in-between it allowed her to cover the ranges necessary for the works of Bellini.
I was surprised to find out that her voice was controversial among critics, and considered "ugly" by some. To me, if you're singing opera, you probably have a nice voice. My girlfriend, who has some experience in theater, frowned at my computer as the album played and described it as "shrill" at times. The word I wrote down in my notes was "piercing," which may just be a nicer way of saying the same thing. At any rate, Callas does seem to have a lesser degree of control than Cecilia Bartoli, who we looked at before.
Bel canto isn't my thing. I'm much more into more contemporary opera. If you're in the same boat as me, listening to this three hour recording is going to be tough. Take a listen to "Casta Diva," and hopefully you'll get a bigger kick out of it than I did.
INTERESTING FACT: Callas was involved in a lengthy affair with shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, which ended when he took interest in the recently widowed Jacqueline Kennedy.