Lucia di Lammermoor. The Elixir of Love. Norma. What’s one major thing these masterpiece operas have in common? They are all part of the “bel canto” tradition of early 19th-century Italian opera. “Bel canto” directly translates into “beautiful singing,” but the movement is so much more than the beautiful arias that define it.
The titans of bel canto – Vincenzo Bellini, Gaetano Donizetti and Gioachino Rossini – composed music that requires performers to have a number of vocal skills at their command: full, rich and even vocal tone; smooth, fluid musical phrasing; and tremendous vocal agility (the ability to sing a lot of fast-moving notes in a single phrase). These abilities come more naturally to some singers than to others, but even for those gifted singers who were born for bel canto, it still takes a lot of hard work in the rehearsal room to make it sound effortless. The words we use to describe bel canto may sound like gibberish if you don’t study voice, but I can promise you that the difference is quite clear. Check out Maria Callas performing “Casta diva” from Norma below and then contrast it with a non-bel canto piece: Birgit Nilsson singing “Allein, weh ganz, allein” (an early 20th-century German aria with vastly different vocal challenges) from Richard Strauss’s Elektra.
Still hungry for more information on bel canto? We’ve collected some great reference material to give you a taste of the bel canto movement below, including our top 5 bel canto operas to know.
Bel Canto: Audiences Love It, but What Is It? – via The New York Times
New York Times Chief Music Critic Anthony Tommasini discusses the history of the bel canto we know and love.
Talk Like an Opera Geek: Savoring The Bel Canto Sound – via NPR Music
It’s easy for opera fans to toss around the term “bel canto.” It’s much harder to actually define it. Literally, bel canto means “beautiful singing” in Italian, but it’s so open-ended that it’s come to mean anything from the lyrical trend in Roman cantatas from the 1640s to any particularly lovely snippet of vocalizing from any era. And then there’s the inverse of bel canto — “can belto” — a handy put-down to be flung at any singer who just stands and barks.
Top 5 Bel Canto Operas to Know
Norma – Bellini’s vocal fireworks of an opera finds the beauty in the sisterhood of two druid priestesses during the Roman occupation of Gaul. This is the opera where you can hear the famous “Casta diva.” See Angela Meade’s emotional performance of the aria below (before you see it live at LA Opera starting on November 21).
Lucia di Lammermoor – Donizetti’s darkly romantic tale of family honor, betrayal and madness is the epitome of bel canto romantic tragedy.
The Barber of Seville – Rossini’s comic masterpiece about clever barber Figaro, who helps the dashing Count Almaviva win the heart of spunky Rosina, whose doddering guardian is determined to marry her himself.
The Elixir of Love – One of Donizetti’s most heartfelt romantic comedies, The Elixir of Love tells the tale of a country boy who sets out to win the heart of a socialite with the help of a magic potion.
Daughter of the Regiment – Another great Donizetti comedic opera, the French- language Daughter of the Regiment is another fantastic example of dazzling bel canto vocal fireworks. It follows the story of two star-crossed lovers who strive to be together, despite the barriers between the military and high society. Check out Pavarotti’s great rendition of “Ah! Mes amis…Pour mon ame” below, including his nine high C’s.