Monday, January 21, 2013

Fil di voce

The musical construction of bel canto (primo ottocento) opera and Donizetti's handling of said elements.

A necessary starting point for discussion has to concern itself with terminology:
some terms are recognized/defined musical terms (cavatina, cantilena — not
sure what you meant by «catalena», but since it reminded me of a flan, I
thought it was delicious! — cabaletta, tempo di mezzo, recitativo), some
terms are more open-ended (introduction/introduzione), some mean different
things depending upon the context («scene» — see below), and some are
terms you've used, but if you could please more clearly define what you mean
by them (Rossinian unit).

«Scene» to an American theatrical audience would mean any part of a
theatrical work that takes place in one given location, or a significant excerpt
thereof. In this sense, Norma act I/scene i takes place in the Druids' sacred
forest and comprising everything from the Druids' opening chorus through the
Adalgisa/Pollione duet; act I/scene ii takes place in Norma's dwelling and
comprising her interchanges with Clotilde, her duet with Adalgisa, and the
ensuing fallout with/because of Pollione. In the French theatrical tradition
(and the similar tradition which informs Italian melodramma), a scene division
is what occurs between a set group of characters, and the introduction of
further characters (and thus plot events) marks a new scene, regardless of
the location changing or staying the same. Thus, Norma atto primo: scena
prima is what the score terms «coro d'introduzione e cavatina» (Oroveso,
male chorus), scena seconda is the entrance of Pollione and Flavio (recitativo
e cavatina), scena terza is the ensuing Druids' chorus hailing Norma, scena
quarta is Norma's extended utterance, all of it (because no one comes onstage
to change the actual events). And so on; and all of this occurs in the same
physical/geographical location.

«Introduzione» is not a specific musical form, but many of the initial set
pieces of these operas are labelled such by the composers (or at least by the
editors of any given printing). The aforementioned «coro d'introduzione e
cavatina» of Norma act I, Lucia act I «preludio e coro d'introduzione»
(Normanno and male chorus), Anna Bolena act I «introduzione» Né venne il
Re?, Maria Stuarda act «introduzione» Qui si attenda, ell'č vicina. What the
composer/editor labels as «introduction» may not square with what the
listener perceives as introduction: at a certain point, the preambulatory
setting of time, place, and dramatic atmosphere has opened up into the
opera's main meat, and that can vary depending upon listener's perception.

«Number» to most listeners would be synonymous with «set piece» — a
musically understood closed form (y'know when it starts, y'know when it ends)
— composers/editors have numerically indexed the given pieces within an
opera (sometimes they haven't), often dividing an opera into larger portions
than what one perceives in real-time listening. (The hefty last stretch of
Maria Stuarda comprises three parts that could be construed as individual
numbers: the preghiera «Deh! Tu di un umile», the larghetto «Di un cor che
muore», and the maestoso 'slow cabaletta' «Ah! se un giorno da queste

Which leads me to the Rossini question: what do you mean by «Rossinian
unit» and «number, in the true Rossinian sense»? (One of the familiar
Rossinian formats, actually a classical format that one finds in so much
Mozart, is the cavatina—no tempo di mezzo—cabaletta structure of so much
of the arias in Barbiere di Siviglia: «Ecco ridente in cielo», «Una voce poco
fa», «A un dottor della mia sorte». But that's only one format.)

All these composers wrote within certain conventions, certain formulas: this
was of great importance in the operatic market of that time (who is the
primadonna character, which artist is singing this character, where does she
show off her skills in the opera, how much do we pay her…), and there is
much great reading to be found on this thanks to writers such as Julian
Budden (his three-volume «The Operas of Verdi» not only goes through each
of those operas with a fine-tooth comb but also gives context to the opera
world Verdi came into), Philip Gossett (the widely-available, masterful Divas
and Scholars), the late John Rosselli (The Opera Industry in Italy from
Cimarosa to Verdi: The Role of the Impresario and Singers of Italian Opera -
The History of a Profession being the two titles that immediately come to

But they did not write «through-composed» scores. Regardless of the
eventual demise of the cabaletta, these composers still wrote in closed forms,
they still ended set pieces with a perfect authentic cadence (PAC) and a double
bar. They moulded the formula to their advantage, often by starting a set-
piece in the same key (or related key, or key with a common scale degree) as
the end of the preceding piece. (Back to Norma: the Oroveso/chorus piece
ends in G major, which is the opening chord of the Pollione/Flavio scene.
Pollione's cabaletta ends in E-flat major, which is the key of the following
Druids' chorus, and which is the key in which Norma utters «Sediziose voci,
voci di guerra».) But the format was not discarded whole hog, and the late
Verdian method of through-composition recognized these points of arrival in
order to best bind the seams together (PAC in E major for Otello's «vinse
l'uragaNO», likewise in F-sharp major for Desdemona's «Emilia, addiO!»; or
the unsettled A-flat major 6/4 closing her «Ave Maria», followed by the lowest
E-natural of the contrabbassi).

Bolena or Stuarda score.

I think your ardor for these works could be increased rather
than diminished by owning these volumes — there's much to be said for
following along with a score (seeing informs hearing), or for playing (and/or
singing!) through these works for self-entertainment/enlightment (seeing plus
doing informs hearing), or for the «so THAT's what it looks like» clarification
(seeing that the soprano's high B-flat at the end of Lucia act I is written to
extend a few bars longer than the tenor's explains why it's generally done that
way — you'd asked for comments regarding Lucia, but I'll save mine for
another time). These scores are more widely available than ever, thanks to
online commerce (one can easily purchase discounted-price copies, often still
in shrink-wrap, from Amazon Marketplace) and general access (the IMSLP site
and, among others).

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