“This is What They Mean When They Say ‘Bel Canto’”

Norma PreConcert Lecture

Chi non ama Vincenzo Bellini non ama la musica.”—Arrigo Boito

Google Translate renders the Italian bel canto—pathetically—as “nice singing.” Better translated as “fine singing” or “beautiful singing,” the phrase gives its name to a movement of early nineteenth century Italian opera—brought to its apogee by Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini—in in which credibility takes a back seat to pure vocal glory. It was Bellini’s work on display as the LA Opera opened its season on Saturday, November 21 with Norma, a three-hour celebration of some of the most beautiful singing—and most accomplished singers—one can find on the stage today. This was definitive bel canto. LA Opera pulled out all the stops in securing four great singers for the principal roles, led by Angela Meade in the title role. In fact, in his pre-concert lecture conductor James Conlon gushed that he’d never seen a Norma with a finer collection of vocal stars.

Bel canto opera is not for everyone. Its stop-everything-and-just-sing quality can feel silly to those who prefer the through-composed works of Wagner and late Verdi. “what is Kerman’s version of the vivid continuous dream?” In his classic The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, novelist John Gardner makes the case that what readers are looking for is a chance to enter a “vivid continuous dream,” and anything a writer does to remind the reader that she is reading breaks the flow of that dream—to the detriment of pleasure and satisfaction. The artificiality of the bel canto opera’s construction—now we’re talking, oh wait, I have a strong emotion, here comes an aria—can have the effect of jarring the audience out of the dream. By contrast, consider the two of the most beloved songs work at the end of Verdi’s Otello. Desdemona’s lovely arias are 1) The Willow Song played as a song that she is recalling from her youth and singing to her, and 2) a Ave Maria, a heartfelt prayer sung as she senses her impending death. Bellini felt no anxiety about breaking the flow of the drama with a show-stopping aria. In Bellini, when a character experiences a strong emotion, times stops so she can sing.

LA Opera’s production is unapologetic, reveling in bel canto glory and giving its star performers, especially Meade and her amazing fellow soprano, the mezzo Jamie Barton, freedom to play, to show off the range and sweetness of their voices. And here it works. In fact, according to Bellini biographer Leslie Orrey, purveyors of bel canto opera have nothing for which to apologize: “The cavatina-cabaletta structure, though abused as was the da capo aria of previous operatic generations, was a legitimate one; provided that it arose out of the dramatic needs of the libretto it was psychologically right, and agreed better with the Italian view of opera than a more homogenous construction would have done. The Italians valued variety of pace more than unity of style, and if we find longueurs in their concerted finales the fault lies in the imperfections of the particular work we are listening to rather than in the ground plan of the form.” In Norma, the beautiful singing is the featured attraction, and the pair of duets in which the sopranos play off of one another in joint celebration of vocal beauty and coloratura fireworks is itself worth the price of admission.

The evening featured some of the most beautifully singing I’ve ever heard live. Leaving Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with a head full of Bellini’s melodies, it was easy to agree the assessment of Verdi’s great librettist, Arrigo Boito, that “Chi non ama Vincenzo Bellini non ama la musica.”