The Greatest Hits of Bel Canto

I don’t intend to delve into more bel canto in future sessions, so let’s get the greatest hits out of the way here, even if most of these were composed during what I consider to be the Romantic Period.  To me, they sound purely classical in any event.

First up is Donizetti’s Fille de Regiment from 1840. The remarkable tenor Juan Diego Florez is still performing this, more than a decade after he set the opera world on fire with his Ah! Mes ami, a famous tenor arias that features nine high Cs. There is nothing like a high C, whether in the tenor or soprano line—they cut through the orchestra and the chorus like nothing else. Most tenors cannot sing that high; those who can, struggle to hit even one. This single song has nine of them in rapid succession (although the last one is traditionally interpolated for dramatic effect—it is not in the score).

This was the aria that Pavarotti sang in the 1960s that earned him the sobriquet “King of the High Cs”. But his remarkable gifts aside, Pavarotti’s voice showed considerable strain when he reached for those notes. Not so Florez. Musicologists liken him to the tenor Donizetti was composing for, hypothesizing that there hasn’t been a tenor like him for 100 years or more. If you are inspired to go to the opera—go see him. We will not see his like again in our lifetimes. When he sang this aria for the first time at the Met, he was given a rare standing ovation and was allowed to sing a reprise—18 high Cs in all. It was the first time the Met had allowed a reprise. La Scala followed suit, as did every major opera house in the world, breaking many long-held traditions. It was a major event. I was fortunate to be there for opening night—having been tipped off by the Met’s Jonathan Friend at a patron function the year before. The first two high Cs come at the 6:00 mark in the attached, with the interpolated ninth sustained at the 7:00 mark. Incredible.

Gaetano Donizetti, Fille du Regiment, Ah! Mes ami:

Next, we have Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma from 1835.  The soprano aria Casta Diva is one of the most famous arias in all of opera.  But it is not worth enduring sitting through Norma for—the paradigm of dull bel canto opera.  Every famous soprano, from Maria Callas to Joan Sutherland has sung Norma.  Here is one of the best sopranos of today tackling this aria, the epitome of bel canto:

Vincenzo Bellini, Norma, Casta Diva:

Live, and when sung correctly, the pianissimo notes seem to float above the orchestra to the furthest reaches of the house.  Incidentally, this is a perfect example what amplification completely destroys—the technique needed to sing so softly, yet project above a full orchestra and across a huge auditorium. I think I’ve talked myself into getting $25 rush tickets the next time Norma returns.  Mercifully, Casta Diva is in Act I.  I can leave at the intermission.

Finally, back to Donizetti for the famous “mad scene” that concludes the tragic tale of Lucia di Lammermoor, a rare gem of the bel canto period. A bit of background on this performance. The Russian soprano Anna Netrebko burst onto the scene in 2005, becoming within a few short years the top attraction at opera houses worldwide. Possessed of a crystal clear, luxurious soprano, she was made for bel canto. Better yet, she formed a partnership with young Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon, their voices as perfectly suited to each other as Sutherland and Pavarotti were half a century ago. Opera had found its new golden couple and the Met, eager to capitalize on this sensation, booked them for Lucia. Tickets sold out like a Rolling Stones concert.

Opening night was a patrons’ gala, which we attended.  The opening scene features Lucia strolling through the Scottish woods, happening upon Villazon’s Edgardo—resulting in one of the more beautiful duets in opera.  Immediately, I sensed that something was off.  I had been playing their disc of duets nonstop for weeks and knew their version of this duet extremely well.  Something wasn’t right.  What wasn’t right became apparent in the next scene when Villazon’s voice cracked.  Noticeably.  He soldiered on.  The third act, which opens with Edgardo alone in his castle, was the most painful experience I have ever had in art.  Villazon’s voice cracked several times, he was unable to sing most of the notes, and finally stopped singing altogether.

To put this into context, it is rare enough to hear a single wrong note in an entire production.  This was an aria made up of only wrong notes.  The Met’s director came out on stage to say that Rolando was ill and doing his best.  He should have allowed the cover to come on for him after Act I.  Whether or not the Met forced him on stage in hopes of avoiding a PR disaster of him cancelling on a gala night we will never know, but his voice was completely ruined and he never really recovered.  I recall in shame thinking that this was the first time I was happy that Lucia murdered Edgardo at the end.  Just tragic.

Gaetano Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermor, The Mad Scene:

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