Bel canto is Italian for ‘beautiful singing’ or ‘beautiful song’, and Vincenzo Bellini was the grand master of this wonderfully melodic style of opera.
Most of Bellini’s operas were composed over just 10 years before his premature death at the age of 33, yet his work was hugely influential. The London critic Tim Ashley describes his work as:
‘…as much admired by other composers as he was by the public. Verdi raved about his ‘long, long, long melodies …’ Wagner, who rarely liked anyone but himself, was spellbound by Bellini’s almost uncanny ability to match music with text and psychology. Liszt and Chopin professed themselves fans. Of the 19th-century giants, only Berlioz demurred. Those musicologists who consider Bellini to be merely a melancholic tunesmith are now in the minority.’
However, the term Bel canto only started to be used in the early 1860s when writers used it nostalgically to describe a manner of singing from the early part of the 19th century. Bel canto first started to appear in dictionaries after 1900.
In 1824 Bellini’s presented his first ‘half-serious’ opera Adelson e Salvini. Featuring an all-male cast of fellow students, it proved to be so popular in the Conservatory that it was performed every Sunday for a year!
Bellini’s first professionally staged opera was in 1826 in Naples with Bianca e Fernando. It was originally called Bianca e Gernando because ‘Fernando’ was forbidden as it was the name of the heir to the throne!
Bellini’s first real success was with Il Pirata which was premiered in 1827, and was ‘sung to fifteen full houses’.
It was also the making of the tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini who was celebrated for his ‘dual personality as a singer and actor, something never expressed before!
Bellini did well with La Straniera in 1829. However, Zaira was the composer’s first serious setback later that year at the inauguration of Palma’s new opera house. Set during the crusades and based on Voltaire’s play, the composition was rushed to meet the deadline of just one month – although some say Bellini was constantly seen in cafes around the city rather than composing!
Despite another tight deadline from Venice of just 45 days for I Capuleti e Montecchi – and a struggle with his health due to the winter weather, the opera was a great success.
Bellini seems to have caught the crest of a wave of fashion for his 1831 opera La Sonnambula. Audiences were fascinated by any works which explored the theme of sleepwalking so this was an immediate hit.
At its 1831 premiere the opera reached new triumphal heights with universally positive press reactions. Russian composer, Mikhail Glinka wrote: ‘the singers themselves wept and carried the audience along with them’.
And of course this is the opera you can see on 21-23 February with Bath Opera’s innovative production at the Roper Theatre.
A string of successes followed with Norma in 1831 for La Scala. This opera is regarded as perhaps the best example of the Bel canto genre. Dramatically set is Roman occupied Gaul, it tells the story of the Gallic uprising against the occupying force.
Beatrice di Tenda in 1832 was followed in 1825 by the final masterpiece of Bellini’s career – I Puritani.
This rumbustious tale of Roundheads and Cavaliers was a fitting, if premature, conclusion to his work. After the Paris premiere Bellini reported to Florimo…
‘The French had all gone mad; there were such noise and such shouts that they themselves were astonished at being so carried away … In a word, my dear Florimo, it was an unheard of thing, and since Saturday, Paris has spoken of it in amazement.’