Sunday, January 07, 2007

Bel Canto Style

Perhaps one of the best ways to describe bel canto as musical and dramatic style is to compare it with its antithesis, verismo. Verismo uses natural realistic vocal coloration as a mode of expression, and often focused on the lives of the common place and vernacular as subject matter. Bel canto used refined musical idioms to express emotions rather than affective coloration, and focused instead on nobility and mythical gods and goddesses. Many bel canto idioms are considered corny by today's standards, mainly because they have been parodied so much in cartoons, and the exaggerated indicated gestures of silent movies reined in operatic theaters. The musical style of bel canto also required the technical execution of "beautiful singing" of which the messa di voce was the centerpiece and was executed with nobility and restraint of affective expression. It was about being elegant, classy and plaintively poignent. Verismo was about blood and guts and raking one's soul over the stage leaving it bloody. Chest voice in women was exploited very effectively in this style. Men's high chested notes were also exploited. Until Duprez, bel canto was all about mixing the voice. Then after that, some chested, some mixed. Chesting the upper end of chest voice is stylistically less appropriate for women in bel canto than for men. In this respect, men have more leeway in which manner they wish to sing. Bel Canto as a style began with Handel and ended with Verdi who used it intermittently. Early bel canto was written for improvisation, with composers writing ornamentation out more and more, until by Verdi's time everything was written out, leaving little room for improvisation. Verismo took music into a different place, just as the cinema began to be ascendant. You can hear a lot of wonderfully raunchy verismo in early cinema music, and the early cinema in the wonderfully vulgar verismo such as Cilea's "Adriana Lecouvrer." Then the split became irreparable. Movie music went one way, and classical music went another, and bel canto idioms found themselves parodied in Dudly Doright and Tom and Jerry, and opera in general became parodied in Bugs Bunny and the cinema. Those musical idioms were essential in the execution of the bel canto style, but now are engrained in the minds of people forever and will never lose the parodied nature and be considered corny. At one time is was considered very beautiful and expressive, and without sensitive treatment of these issues, much of serious bel canto suffers in it's execution. Comic bel canto has fared better in this respect.

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