Bel Canto, Part 1

Bel Canto, Part 1

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

Recently I’ve been watching a lot of Dark, now streaming on Netflix. It’s both an epic tragedy and a sci-fi Bildungsroman like Stranger Things or Back to the Future. I like it! Dark is just clever enough, creepy enough, “deep” enough to hit all my cultural receptors. What’s more, it has reminded me of how opera works.

Some back story: bel canto is Italian for beautiful singing. One undergraduate textbook describes it as

characterized by seemingly effortless technique, an equally beautiful tone throughout a singer’s entire range, agility, flexibility, and control of every type of melody, whether long lyrical lines or florid embellishment.*

For years I harbored little interest in bel canto, but thanks to the wonders of Blu-ray and Met Opera on Demand, I’ve taken baby steps toward better understanding it. Here’s what I stumbled onto last month by sitting through Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma: in the hands of Bellini (1801–1835), Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868), and Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848), bel canto celebrated and successfully renewed many older operatic traditions. (What a shock, right? Click here to watch the Met’s Norma with Sondra Radvanovsky and Joyce DiDonato. Or get the Blu-ray.)

The librettos of Handel’s operas, for example, largely function to set up a series of, well, situations. In each, a character must respond with an appropriate da capo aria, vividly expressing a single strong emotion. Bottom line, it doesn’t matter whether the plot is credible as long as it provides one situation after another that prompts an intense response from a principal singer.

Bellini’s Norma does that too. So do the operas of Rossini and Donizetti. So do the operas of Verdi and Wagner and Puccini.

Bellini and his peers did score one big advance over Handel: they replaced the da capo aria with a more flexible song structure, the cavatina-cabaletta. Within it, a singer typically opens with a slow-moving reflection (a cavatina), followed by a recitative in which she confronts her predicament and makes a decision. Then she finishes up, singing livelier music (a cabaletta) to seal the deal, end the scene.


“Casta Diva,” from Act I of Norma, follows the formula. In a cavatina, Norma, high priestess of the ancient Druids, calls upon the moon goddess to temper the zeal of her flock, all too eager to revolt against their Roman conquerors. In the recitative that follows, military fanfares ring through the woods as she bids her followers disperse. Norma promises that, once the gods command it, her voice will “thunder from the temple” and no Roman will escape their wrath. The Druids voice hearty assent, vowing that despised Roman proconsul Pollione will be first to go. Norma exclaims, “He shall fall! I shall punish him . . .” but in an aside she quickly admits to herself that “my heart will not let me.” As the cabaletta rushes onward, she fervently voices her secret hope that Pollione, once her lover, will return to her, and that on his breast she “will find life, homeland, and heaven.” (The audience already knows that Pollione has moved on, but Norma does not yet realize just how far.)

To recap: it doesn’t matter whether the plot is credible. Cavatina-cabaletta structure provides a succession of emotions—which do matter—carrying the storyline forward.

Bel canto composers also employed cavatina-cabaletta for duets, creating elegant, dramatically effective dialogues that resolve into upbeat conclusions. One such moment occurs in Act 2 of Norma. At this point, Norma and Adalgisa (Norma’s protégé, romantic rival, and BFF) have confided in one another regarding their experiences with Pollione. Together they struggle to determine a course of action. In “Mira, o Norma,” Adalgisa begins by asking Norma to consider the fate of her children by Pollione; they need their mother. She then brings the matter to a head, renouncing Pollione and swearing “to stay concealed with you forever.” Norma gratefully agrees, and as the cabaletta gets underway, she declares that “the world is large enough to be a shelter to both of us together.”

The cavatina of “Mira, o Norma” is often performed in concert without its cabaletta. In this clip from the Ed Sullivan show, Marilyn Horne and Joan Sutherland do it properly, i.e., with cabaletta. (You can hear the audience attempt to applaud at the end of the cavatina, but Horne and Sutherland use a bit of stage action to nip that in the bud.)


Norma is above all a drama about female friendship, exploring and encompassing loyalty, betrayal, and forgiveness. Its Adalgisa-Norma dialogues and duets are high points, contributing to more complete characterizations and offering the opera’s most satisfying music. On the other hand, Pollione comes off as a cipher whose personality in any performance depends largely on the imaginations of the stage director and singer.

A bel canto opera with stronger male leads is Anna Bolena, one of three Donizetti operas based on stories of England’s Tudor Queens. Anna features a randy but imperious Henry VIII, untroubled by his newfound passion for Jane Seymour and growing coolness toward Anne Boleyn, his queen. Having succumbed to Henry’s advances, Jane nevertheless feels guilty and is disturbed by his dark threats toward Anne. In this opera, Donizetti’s first great international success, numerous episodes reveal his innovative treatment of bel canto style.


This complete YouTube video of a now-classic Wiener Staatsoper production is also available as a Blu-ray disc with superb sound and video quality. Or consider David McVicar’s Met HD production, available here. At the Met, Marco Armiliato’s incisive conducting brings out every flash of drama, and Netrebko again offers her signature portrayal, superbly supported by the Met Chorus. Sadly, neither the Met’s Jane nor its Henry offer the more complex, convincing portraits created by Garanča and D’Arcangelo for Vienna.

A tasting menu: (1) In Anne’s first cavatina “Come, innocente giovane” [19:03] she reacts to a ballad offered by her household musician Smeaton. The song has touched her unexpectedly; she mourns her lost loves and the hollow splendor of the throne. As fanfares sound, she moves to dismiss her courtiers and calls Jane to her side. In a moderately paced, intimately scored cabaletta, she warns her lady-in-waiting of the hazards that await any woman who allows ambition to triumph over personal honor. Jane exclaims to herself, “I haven’t the courage to speak,” and the courtiers, knowing of Henry’s infidelity, echo her. The music accelerates, ending the scene with a burst of theatrical energy. (2) What follows [27:00] is nominally a duet for Jane and Henry. Yet instead of singing together, they conduct their indelicate negotiations by trading insults and accusations. It’s a prime example of Donizetti’s talent for depicting violent confrontations, which erupt regularly in his operas.

(3) An aria finale for Anne occupies the last twenty minutes of the opera [2:43:10], stretching the always-elastic boundaries of Italian solita forma to the limit. It’s basically a lengthy pair of repeated cavatinas with martial interruptions, ending in a hysterical cabaletta, formidably difficult to sing, a fine early example of the many mad scenes that Donizetti and his peers would create for their prima donnas. (Fun fact: the roles of Norma and Anna were written for the same 19th-century soprano, Giuditta Pasta.)

You may have noticed we didn’t touch on Rossini or on bel canto comedy, which are one and the same for many opera buffs. That’s only because I’ve run out of space. We’ll return soon with lots of Rossini, including the single funniest, sexiest bel canto opera ever.

In the meantime, let’s circle back toward Dark. Richard Wagner, who gave us Tristan und Isolde and the Ring cycle, also gave us a word for the DNA of such entertainments.

That word is Gesamtkunstwerk. Kunst = art; Werk = work; gesamt = united or complete. Wagner sought to fully integrate music (both orchestral and vocal), narrative, costumes, lighting, set design, and special effects (i.e., anything else). They had to be conceived and presented altogether, because no single component was nearly as effective by itself.

Early in its run, Dark was criticized for propagating “overcomplicated” plot lines. One critic wrote, “It asks us to follow its threads as far as we can bear, but in the end its problems may not be worth solving.” I think this rather misses the point. Dark is not about problem-solving. Indeed, it offers a wide array of patently insoluble problems.

Dark’s time-traveling characters are caught repeatedly in impossible vises, some of their own making, some not; some quotidian, some cosmic. Much as in Norma or Anna Bolena, these threads present an endless succession of wrenching conflicts and choices. We empathize with Jonas, Ulrich, Katharina, Hannah, or Claudia as we might with Jane or Anne or Adalgisa. In Dark, the casting, cinematography, sound design, cuts/dissolves, and fragmented storylines combine to create an engrossing total experience. And, as in Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini, plenty of erotic friction pushes these stories on their way.

So does bel canto also exemplify Gesamtkunstwerk? No, it does not — we don’t live in an either/or universe. If you like beautiful singing, you’ll like bel canto opera regardless. Stay tuned.

* Burkholder et al., A History of Western Music, 8th ed., Norton 2010; edited for clarity.

Header image: Detail, The Ballet from “Robert le Diable” by Edgar Degas, 1871.

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