Thursday, July 5, 2012

Bellini and the Art of Seduction

Each kind of opera or period of opera has a method. In Handel there is the dazzling ornament and lyric power; in Mozart and Gluck’s classicism, elevation of thought is expressed through purity and clarity of vocal line. The German romantics especially Wagner, aspire to epic intention, magical affects and architecture, conveying a cumulative power. The goal of which is to simply overwhelm us and leave us dazed and senseless under a torrent of motifs and shifts of emotion. Vincenzo Bellini‘s art by contrast is the art of musical seduction. We are offered (and may go on or depart in our attention) beauty after beauty. It is a voyage though a tale and musical landscape in which each turn and precipitous cliff, every sudden contrast greets us with a melody, and ensemble more unexpected and exhilarating than the last. We stop and falter at our own peril and finally go on and on hungering for more. 

Norma is perhaps the summit and capstone of the bel-canto ideal and this seductive method. Ironically his goal, if I remember correctly, was to be “the greatest, after Rossini “. Like Schubert and Mozart his life was extremely short. And like them in those few years due to his prodigious talent, he would achieve undeniable mastery before his death at 33, two months shy of his birthday. Bellini was one of music histories greatest prodigies. Tales of his early accomplishments are legendary; in any event by the time of his death he had been active for over twenty five years starting his composing it is claimed at five or eight. The great trilogy for which he is remembered: La Sonnambula, Norma and I Puritani should have been a middle period with even greater glories to follow!

courtesy of Wikipedia

courtesy of Wikipedia

In a landscape of hopeless and insane libretti few seem less inspiring than that for this week's opera. A Druid Priestess, a Roman Consul and her protégé. What could be more remote? That Bellini and the librettist Romani could turn these historical figures into living breathing human beings should be enough, he would then transfigure them in a world of melody so elevated and a vocal line so extended and yet true that we are not only convinced, we are ravished. They create a world of powerful and universal dualities; sacred and profane love; incipient nationalism and treason; violence or forgiveness and finally a union of sacrifice and love that resolves them all. There is a seductive physicality to Bellini that reminds one of the sculptures of Canova: smoothness, directness and virtuosity, even in the ensembles. After the great overture each of the two acts gives us classics in all forms: aria Casta Diva; duet  O remenbranza … ; trio  Oh, di sei tu vittima and the great closing ensemble at the funeral pyre, La rea io son. It never stops and both Chopin and Wagner would draw lessons from his example. But the most famous, what people end up singing on the way home has survived for over a hundred and eighty years:

                                                      Casta diva , che inargenti

                                                   Questa sacre antiche piante

                                              Chaste goddess , who doth silver

                                                  These ancient sacred trees,

                                                    Turn upon us thy fair face

                                                     Unclouded and unveiled,

We think it will leave you singing too. Please tune in this Saturday at noon for Bellini’s Norma, here on KPAC and KTXI.

by Ron Moore


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