Bel canto

Bel canto

Bel canto (Bel-Canto) (Italian, "beautiful singing"), an Italian musical term, refers to the art and science of vocal technique which originated in Italy during the late seventeenth century and reached its pinnacle in the early part of the nineteenth century during the Bel Canto opera era. Rossini (1792–1868), Bellini (1801–1835), and Donizetti (1797–1848) best exemplify this style, which flourished from approximately 1805 to 1830. Some have credited the 17th-century composer Pietro Cavalli with introducing bel canto, but his smooth and flowing melodic lines belong to a different style from a different era.

Bel canto singing characteristically focuses on perfect evenness throughout the voice, skillful legato, a light upper register, tremendous agility and flexibility, and a certain lyric, "sweet" timbre. Operas of the style feature extensive and florid ornamentation, requiring much in the way of fast scales and cadenzas. Bel canto emphasizes technique rather than volume: an exercise said to demonstrate its epitome involves a singer holding a lit candle to her mouth and singing without causing the flame to flicker. [Brown, M.A., 1894]

Aside from the bel canto era and the bel canto style of opera, singers can use a bel canto method of singing even in verismo, Wagnerian, Verdian, and modern styles. Geographical studies suggest that the Italian bel canto technique, like the similar method which formed in Spain, is likely to have developed from the Ancient Vocal Method, a vocal technique that evolved within the ancient cultures of the Middle East and Mediterranean. Some ethnomusicologists may support this fact. Miguel Fleta was regarded by his native Spain as the "Lord High Keeper of the Seal of the Ancient Method". Fleta's voice was rich and farily powerful; qualities that seemed to assist his miraculous facility in pianissimo, coloratura, range, legato, and messa di voce. (His operatic career was short, however, because his voice became chronically unsteady.) Other singers with powerful voices who have used the bel canto technique include Lillian Nordica (1857-1914), Florence Austral (1892-1968), Johanna Gadski (1872-1932), Eva Turner (1892–1990), Rosa Ponselle (1897-1981),Elena Nicolai (1905–1993), [ Todor Mazarov] (Masaroff) (1907–1975), Ghena Dimitrova (1941–2005) and Maria Caniglia (1904–1979).

While historians typically date the bel canto period to the early 19th century, the term itself did not come into common usage in its current sense until the middle of the 19th century. At that time composers such as Wagner began to call for larger, more dramatic voices, "but he intended for those voices to retain the bel canto approach; to sing his operas as one would sing Bellini's Norma. However, the practice at the Bayreuth Festival in the period after Wagner's death was to declaim his scores with an unmusical emphasis on the articulation of consonants in the libretto, thus giving rise to the so-called "Bayreuth bark"."Jacocks (2007)] Opponents of this trend complained, with Rossini: "Alas for us, we have lost our bel canto."

The sopranos Maria Callas (1923–1977), Joan Sutherland (1926– ) and Montserrat Caballé (1933– ), and the mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne (1934– ) probably best exemplify the bel canto singers of the post-war period. (Virginia Zeani (1925– ) and Leyla Gencer (1928–2008), both bel canto sopranos of significant ability, made fewer recordings and thus their fame suffered by comparison in America.) In more recent years, June Anderson has had considerable success in Europe and the United States, focusing almost exclusively on soprano roles in the bel canto repertoire.

For many years, few tenors sang bel canto: Alfredo Kraus (1927–1999) has been a good instance of them; however, since the débuts of Salvatore Fisichella, Chris Merritt and Rockwell Blake they have started to reappear. Some commentators regard Raúl Giménez, Juan Diego Flórez and William Matteuzzi as skilled contemporary bel canto tenors; other commentators demur, however, given the clear and distinct differentiation between the bel canto "technique" and the bel canto "repertoire" (the latter of which the said tenors sing often and successfully). [See Ciampa, "The Twilight of Belcanto," Prologo.] Although he was not an opera singer per se, tenor Mario Lanza (1921–1959) also employed the bel canto technique to his singing, especially in the earlier part of his career.

Video Examples

* [ Edita Gruberova, Bellini's I puritani]
* [ Mariella Devia, Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor]
* [ Salvatore Fisichella, Bellini's I puritani]



* "Bel Canto: A Theoretical and Practical Vocal Method". Mathilde Marchesi. Dover (1970) ISBN 0-486-22315-9
* "Bel Canto". James A. Stark. University of Toronto Press (2003) ISBN 0-8020-8614-4
* "Bel Canto: Principles and Practices". Cornelius L. Reid. Joseph Patelson Music House (1950) ISBN 0-915282-01-1
* "Extracts From Vocal Art" by M. Augusta Brown, in "The Congress of Women", Mary Kavanaugh Oldham (ed.), Chicago: Monarch Book Company (1894), p. 477. Available online from the [ University of Pennsylvania] Digital Library (accessed 26 April 2007)

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