Whereas Callas made the world understand that a number of neglected bel canto operas could be exciting for today’s audiences, Sutherland and, even more, Bonynge, propagandized for the presentation of the operas in the manner in which they were first given.
Rossini, the fountainhead bel canto composer, felt that the same vocal line is seldom equally well-suited to any two singers and that vocal lines should be modified so that the underlying melodies are best served by the throats to utter them. In composing, he did not attempt to vary repeated passages or write in climactic high notes and cadenzas, taking for granted that singers would do so on their own. Singers in his day and before as a matter of course adapted vocal lines to suit their artistry and vocal idiosyncracies. (Today they try to regiment their throats to suit the music.)
Yet performers in this century had come to render the music of every composer as they saw it on the printed page, with few if any changes. Performed this way, the music of the bel canto period seemed tame. In essence, the music of every composer was interpreted in accordance with the performance practices not of the composer’s time but of the interpreter’s.
By the 1940s, some Baroque specialists were taking gingerly exploratory steps toward performance practices authentic to the time of the composers. But the opera world remained in the thrall of the ”perform-it -as-you-see-it” doctrine. In the early 60s, Sutherland and Bonynge used their newly won celebrity as a pulpit from which to proselytize for the application of bel-canto-period performance practices to bel canto music. The tacit message was that fidelity to authentic style typically overrides fidelity to the printed score.
In the wake of Sutherland and Bonynge, a number of singers emerged who took up the cause—Marilyn Horne, Montserrat Caballé, Beverly Sills and others. Sutherland and Sills each clashed with Italian-opera-house officials who felt their performance traditions, actually not pre-dating this century, should reign supreme.
Though there are still any number of holdouts—most notably La Scala director Riccardo Muti—the tide has turned. Many opera houses at least pay lip service to authenticity of performance practice. As a result, performances of bel canto operas are more exciting, not least because of the vocal fireworks.
The odd thing is that Sutherland and Bonynge themselves often departed little from performance practices of 25 years ago. In their Norma, nearly all repeats were given unvaried, both live and on disc. And in their Puritani performances, many old cuts were retained, though they often damaged the music’s structure. Nevertheless, Sutherland and Bonynge have made the point about ornamentation. (Issue 3)
Giuditta Pasta: the First Important Flawed Singer
Pasta made flawed singing acceptable—provided it was emotionally compelling. Before her, nearly all great singers were great virtuosos. She lacked musical facility as well as first-class vocal agility and often sang extremely flat. Her career would have languished in an age not readying to value vocal acting over precision of intonation. Owing in part to her false intonation, the world premiere of Norma was a fiasco. So moving was she, so telling her palette of tone colors that some—Bellini for one—forgave her everything. Like Rubini and Duprez, Pasta won public acceptance with difficulty. In her wake singers with dramatic voices placed less emphasis on developing agility. She was the grandmother of the verismo singers, most of whom prevailed over vocal and musical deficiencies through vocal acting. (Sixty years later, Bellincioni, similarly flawed, was the mother.). . . (Issue 3)
Countertenors vs. Castrati
I know of no instance where countertenors—falsettists, really—were given roles in Italian opera, until modern “re-creations.” Even in cities where women were not allowed on stage, countertenors didn’t perform opera. They were felt to be unsuitable for music requiring dramatic emphasis, and their voices were deemed innately unappetizing. A French source termed them “harsh and lacking in purity.” The Italians found them so distasteful that even in churches they replaced them whenever possible with castrati, for whom they considered them inadequate substitutes. That they tolerated them at all was solely because the church itself prohibited women from singing there, on account of St. Paul’s precept in I Corinthians 14, “Let your women keep silent in the churches.”. . .
When the castrati began to disappear from opera in the early 19th century, their roles were allotted to women, never countertenors. When composers wrote further roles of the heroic, military type associated with the castrati, they tailored them for contraltos in Rossini’s day, tenors in Verdi’s. It does not seem to have occurred to anyone to assign their parts to countertenors, maybe because falsetto never was used in opera except for buffo effects or parody. Tenors in the early 19th century and before sang their high notes in head voice, something different, although the terms often were used interchangeably. . . . (Issue 2)