What is Bel Canto?

Stephen Johnson gets to grips with classical music's technical terms

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What is Bel Canto?
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BEL CANTO: ‘Beautiful Singing’. If only it were that simple. As so often with artistic concepts, bel canto bears out a remark by the decidedly non-operatic Joni Mitchell: ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.’

It was only in the mid-19th century that bel canto first became a hot topic for discussion, and then largely because so many people were determined to show what it wasn’t. 

So what wasn’t it then? Most late 19th-century authorities are clear that it isn’t ‘Bayreuth Barking’: the Wagnerian style that lays stress on clarity of diction rather than, or at the expense of, smooth legato.

Others contrasted it with the deplorable new habit of Italian tenors delivering their high ‘C’s with full chest tone rather than ‘falsetto’. Others insist that it is absolutely at odds with the ideals of contemporary ‘voice production’ training – a kind of ‘natural’ style which began to die the moment singers started thinking about their larynxes and chest muscles.

‘Natural’ may be the last word that comes to mind listening to Cecilia Bartoli’s breathless high-speed contortions to the phrase ‘non più mesta’ in Rossini’s La Cenerentola, but something like that may well be what these people meant. 

It got more complicated when musicologists started using the same term to describe the kind of smooth, flowing lyrical style that emerged in the late 17th-century operatic works of Carissimi and Cesti, in contrast to the rhythmically free, text-dominated ‘recitative’ style of early opera.

Now if you used the term ‘bel canto’ it was no longer clear whether you were talking about the latter, the arioso style of Rossini, Bellini or Donizetti – or indeed the kind of elaborate ornamentation expected by some when the first section of an 18th-century da capo aria was repeated. 

But maybe a polarity is emerging. If you’re an expression-first opera composer then bel canto is probably the last thing on your wish list. True bel canto would then be best suited to those who go to operas as connoisseurs to a wine tasting.

The voice is paramount; plot, character and meaning can just get in the queue. Think of the ‘Et incarnatus est’ in Mozart’s Mass in C minor: the soprano’s high-arching cadenza on ‘et homo fa-’ is so deliciously protracted that by the time she gets to the ‘-ctus est’ you’ve probably forgotten there were words at all.

Disgraceful, from an ecclesiastical purist point of view; the trouble is, it’s also heart-stoppingly gorgeous.

This article was first published in the March 2012 issue of BBC Music Magazine

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