»  National Review Online

October 26, 2001

  Bellini? — Aaaaaaaah!

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On Tuesday night I went to the opera to see Norma. What follows here is not exactly a review. I know my place, and I leave serious musical commentary to my colleague Jay Nordlinger, who does it superbly well (see almost any issue of The New Criterion). This is more in the nature of what I think is called "a personal appreciation." But allow me to make myself clear.

I came to opera fairly late in life. I had no childhood training in music and did not spend much time listening to serious music until my late twenties. By that time it was too late to develop the really serious powers of discrimination that enable one to tell the difference between a superb performance and a merely good one, though I can tell a good one from a thoroughly lousy one well enough. There is no use fretting about this: those are the breaks, and I take what pleasure I can in music, and am grateful for it.

The only music that gives me much pleasure is vocal music. Oh, I can sit down and enjoy a piece of instrumental music, but I rarely bother to do so. For me, music is almost nothing without voices. I don't know why this is, and I am not going to bother trying to figure it out or apologize for it. I just give the little time I can spare to music I have found appealing. What I find particularly appealing is bel canto opera, and most especially the operas of Vincenzo Bellini. My attitude to opera is roughly as follows: Opera? — yes. Italian opera? — oh yes. Bel canto — oh yes indeed! Bellini? — Aaaaaaaah!

I had better explain about bel canto and Bellini. Bel canto — literally "beautiful singing" — is the style of opera that flourished in Italy during the first part of the nineteenth century, and is associated most particularly with the composers Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti. This period, especially the early part of it, was one of terrific vitality and creativity in Italian opera. Every Italian town had its opera house, and going to the opera was the great social occasion for Italians. There is a funny scene in Berlioz's Memoirs when he attends a performance of Donizetti's L'Elisir d'amore at Milan in 1832: "I found the theater full of people talking at the top of their voices, with their backs to the stage; the singers all the time gesticulating and shouting in eager rivalry. So at least I judged by seeing their huge open mouths, for the people made so much noise it was impossible to hear a sound beyond the big drum. In the boxes some were gambling, and some were having supper …"

Berlioz added, however, that the Italians did occasionally listen, when a song caught their attention. To get that attention, the singers of the bel canto era developed dazzling powers of vocal agility and ornamentation, and it is that agility more than anything that characterizes the bel canto style. This was, above all, the age of the singer. Composers, conductors and musicians were considered very secondary to the enterprise. (Which is one reason why, to this day, a lot of conductors regard bel canto with disdain, and at least one maestro actually refuses to conduct it.) Many bel canto operas have a cheerfully thrown-together quality. Librettos were often rudimentary — a good many of them would be failed if presented as exercises in junior high school short-story composition. In Bellini's La straniera, for example, the following happens: The jealous Arturo, misunderstanding a meeting between the heroine and her brother, accuses the brother of being his rival. He stabs the brother, who falls into a lake. Apprised of his error by the girl, he throws himself into the lake to save the brother. Both men disappear beneath the waters. The heroine picks up Arturo's sword and calls for help. People come running and, seeing her with the bloody sword, charge her with murder. At her trial, Arturo suddenly rushes in ("oppressed and gasping"). He confesses to her brother's murder. While everyone is stunned by this, the brother walks in. "A God came to my aid," he explains.

As with the words, so with the music. Rossini used the same overture for three different works. Operas were frequently written for a particular singer, then re-written for other singers in later productions, usually in different cities. The relationship of composer to singer in bel canto opera is captured very precisely by a usage of Bellini's. In a letter to a friend he describes the writing of an aria for the tenor Rubini. The verb he uses is provare, which is also the Italian word used by tailors to describe the fitting of a suit. (Speaking of which, the fee Rossini received for The Barber of Seville was four hundred scudis — equivalent to about $8,000 in today's money — and "a nut-brown suit with gilt buttons.") L'Elisir d'amore was written, words and music both, in two weeks from a standing start. Bel canto opera was all about the singers, the singers.

Bellini stands a little apart from this. His prominence was not helped, as Rossini's was, by coming into the field early; nor was it helped, as Donizetti's was, by overwhelming productivity. (Scholars are still arguing about how many operas Donizetti wrote. Grove lists 66, not counting re-writes and revisions. He seems to have written two operas just for the fun of it, without having any commission for them. Neither was performed until modern times.) Bellini came to fame by sheer quality. He died young, a few weeks short of his 34th birthday, having written only ten operas, each of which he created slowly and painstakingly, with great effort. Two were immature pieces; two were duds; three were good workmanlike bel canto operas, with passages of great beauty; two were superb, though with some flaws; one was a work of towering and unblemished genius.

That one was Norma, the opera I saw on Tuesday. As you can tell from the above, I was pre-disposed to enjoy it under pretty much any circumstances. Apart from worshipping Bellini (my novel Fire from the Sun ends with a perfomance of Norma), I don't get to the opera much, living as I do out in the burbs, so I treasure any time I can spend in an opera house. I am, in short, rather easy to please, a state of mind that is much assisted by the price of opera tickets nowadays. Tuesday's cost me $155, though admittedly that was a very good seat. When I spend that much money, I am very reluctant to admit to myself that it was wasted. Opera houses don't give refunds for crappy perfomances.

Notwithstanding all of which, I turned up at Lincoln Center with low expectations. Norma is a ferociously difficult role to sing, and very few sopranos can rise to it. According to the reviewers (the ones in The New York Times and New York magazine, anyway) English soprano Jane Eaglen had not risen to it. Eaglen is a heroic soprano, a hochdramatischer sopran in the German fach system of voice classification, with enough power in her voice to sing over the massed orchestration required by Wagner. The Norma role is for a dramatic coloratura soprano, a somewhat different species of fauna, accustomed to pay more attention to vocal agility, ornamentation, and sweetness of timbre than to sheer power. The Times man grumbled about Eaglen's incompetence in the pianissimo passages. He further declared the costumes "dreary and nondescript" and the stage set a complete failure — at the premiére, he reported (this is a new production), the audience booed the production team when they tried to take a bow.

A lot of people who go to the opera are over-influenced by reviews. They read in the Times that Ms. Eaglen was not up to the role, and they thereupon make up their minds to come out of the performance saying to each other: "Oh, she wasn't up to it." Being of the I-don't-know-much-about-music-but-I-know-what-I-like school (and, see above, being blessedly free of those powers of fine discrimination that qualify one to be a paid critic — how did that princess in the Princess and the Pea story ever get a good night's sleep?) I cheerfully ignore this stuff. I read the critics out of curiosity, but I make up my own mind. Well, I thought Tuesday's performance was wonderful. Eaglen started off slowly, not making "Casta diva" the show-stopper it should be (it's the song being sung in the background — by Maria Callas — in the kitchen scene of that awful Bridges of Madison County movie my wife made me watch, the sole redeeming feature of the wretched thing), but rallying in the cabaletta* and turning in superb performances in the duets and trios. True, she had trouble keeping up with the other female principal, the American mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick, who has been getting rave reviews, and in this case very rightly so; but after "Casta diva," Eaglen did not disappoint me once, not in a single note. The other principals were excellent, too. Richard Margison, the lead tenor, actually showed some signs of being able to act, a rare thing in opera singers, especially male ones. Pavarotti couldn't act his way out of a paper bag.

Of the orchestra I am not the person to ask, and in bel canto — especially in Bellini — it doesn't matter much anyway. If you mentally subtract out the voices from a Bellini aria, there's not much there except a lot of legato strings and woodwinds humming away discreetly. Bellini's art was to use the music as a setting for the voices, in the way a jeweller creates a setting for a precious stone. Like an English gentleman's suit (sartorial metaphors seem to be unavoidable here), the ideal to which Bellini's music strives is not to be noticed. You can see why conductors think bel canto a waste of their time. As far as I can tell, Carlo Rizzi did just fine. The costumes? The stage sets? None of them distracted me from the singing, which is all I ask of a production team. Hey, I said I was easy to please.

Vincenzo Bellini was an unlikely person to create a work as spellbinding and magnificent as Norma. His home town of Catania was provincial even by Sicilian standards, and Sicily was provincial by Italian standards. As well as being a bit of a bumpkin, for ever making odd hand signs to ward off the Evil Eye, he seems to have been one of those people whose narcissism keeps them at arm's-length from the world. "Self-absorbed," we would say nowadays: "a sigh in dancing pumps," said Heinrich Heine. Bellini's biographer, Herbert Weinstock, admits that although he intensely admires Bellini as a composer, he finds him unattractive "in his relationships with other people." Born on either November the 2nd or 3rd of 1801 (it was the middle of the night, so we are not sure), Bellini died alone and in agony from amebic dysentery in a borrowed country house outside Paris, on September 23rd, 1835. You will notice that next Friday, or possibly Saturday, is his 200th birthday. If you love music, light a candle for the man Wagner called "that sweet Sicilian."

What is the appeal of opera? Why do I lay out money I cannot afford, spend two hours on the Long Island Railroad, and sit for three hours in a not-very-comfortable seat to see a not-very-plausible story whose outcome I already know, acted out by people that no sane movie casting director would have chosen for the roles they are playing? Why does a certain shift of melody, a certain trick of the singer's voice, make the bristles stand up on the back of my neck? Why is it that I tremble and melt at the introductory chords to "Qual cor tradisti," and float off to some place I am not sure I even want to go to? ("Opera, through singing, must make one weep, shudder, die …" — Bellini, in a letter to one of his librettists.) I have no idea.

Yes, Opera is ludicrous. Young women dying from diseases of the lung rise from their death-beds to sing lusty chandelier-rattling 120-measure arias. Two lovers are discovered meeting secretly in a convent, but the situation is saved when the ghost of the man's grandfather emerges out of a wall and drags the lad off to safety — in a tomb! The parts of dainty young lovers are played by a 300-lb man and a 250-lb woman who can't get their arms round each other, and who make the scenery shake every time they move. (Talk about "it ain't over till the fat lady sings": the three female principals of Norma last Tuesday night must have added up to a cumulative half a ton of diva, or very nearly.) I have always thought that performances of The Marriage of Figaro should come with a modest cash prize to anyone who can explain what is happening in the last act. Opera can't help but be ludicrous. With the best score and the best libretto in the world, those on stage who aren't singing have to stand around looking indignant, angry, baffled, grief-stricken or enraptured for ten minutes while an aria is sung. You try standing dead still looking indignant for ten minutes.

So how is it that such a performance, always hovering on the edge of the absurd — and sometimes, as in The Magic Flute, taking a swan-dive over that edge into the wild blue yonder — how on earth can such a thing come to be a vehicle for the divine revelation of art? There you have me. I can offer no clue, and no explanation. I can only testify that it is so; that it was so last Tuesday night, that it will be so next Wednesday and Saturday, the final performances of Norma, and that it will still be so two hundred years from now, when you and I are the dust on someone's bookshelves and National Review Online is utterly forgotten, but somebody, somewhere will still be singing Bellini. Sure, the plot of La straniera is sillier than a Three Stooges movie. Now go listen to Montserrat Caballé's pianissimo entrance into the trio "No, non ti son rivale" in Act 1 of the 1969 New York recording (track 10 on the Gala CD).

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* The "grand aria" of bel canto times was usually in two parts, the first slow and thoughtful to show a singer's powers of expression, the second faster and more "technical", to show her agility. The second part is called the "cabaletta". The first part has no fixed name. Some singers call it the "andante" or "adagio", some the "largo" or the "cavatina." Verdi called it the "cantabile," which is good enough for me. Because a change of pace is required between the cantabile and the cabaletta, there is often a spell of spoken or sung dialogue in between to allow for the necessary plot development. A messenger appears with dramatic news, a confidante reveals a secret, or something of that sort. Also, the entire grand aria is usually "set up" for the listener by some sung dialog or slow melodic instrumental music in front. This setting-up is called "scena." Now look at what is happening here: the slow introductory caress of the scena; the deep, strong rhythms of the cantabile; a lull, a temporary withdrawal for change of mood; then the energetic athleticism of the cabaletta, generally ending on a terrific sustained high note … These boys knew their business.