Monday, November 15, 2004

The Bel Canto Tenor

Before I discuss the nature of the Bel Canto tenor, I must first give a little background on the term itself. Bel Canto is used to denote a style of singing in which breath control is used to produce an even tone. High notes sound easy as well as florid lines under the Bel Canto school. The technical Bel Canto period was from the 17th century through the 19th, but the term has come to have multiple meanings. Basically, today, Bel Canto especially denotes the lyric, fluid repertoire of composers such as Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini. These three composers are the “Bel Canto” composers, and they are the ones I wish to focus on in my discussion of the Bel Canto tenor.
The tenor voice part encompasses an incredible range of possible voice types. There are several types of lyric tenors, the spinto, and the dramatic/heldentenor, not to mention character and buffo tenor roles. The Bel Canto tenor falls under the lyric tenor category. Lyric tenors are expected to be able to easily handle high tessituras and sustained high Cs and Ds. Lyric tenors generally have a light, bright color along with a fluidity of voice that allows them to negotiate high moving passages. The heavier types of tenors, helden for one, generally focus on power and weight rather than float and lightness in the upper register.
The Bel Canto tenor, more specifically, is expected to be able to handle coloratura and ungodly tessituras. Rossini, for one, demands an absolutely florid instrument since all of his tenor roles are riddled with high coloratura, unlike the Baroque and Classical composers. The Bel Canto tenor generally has a brighter color also to bring energy to the florid lines. A close relative to the Bel Canto tenor, the French lyric, is more interested in a slightly more mellow color, and often a lyric tenor may sing them both. However, ideally, the Bel Canto roles should be sung by an instrument with a little more resonance.
Another important characteristic of the Bel Canto tenor is the ability to easily produce high notes and make it sound easy too. Hence, Bel Canto tenor’s strive for more lyricism in the high rather than sheer power, however, it is important to add that the Bel Canto composers included dramatic moments in their arias where some power is required. Again, I come back to the comparison between the French lyric tenor: the French style is lighter than the Bel Canto style with more sustained highs rather than the florid passages of the Bel Canto style.
It is also important to add a little about the physical appearance of a Bel Canto tenor. Since the roles being portrayed are always romantic leads and often younger men, it is important that the Bel Canto tenor is believable physically as a romantic lead. This means that a Bel Canto tenor should ideally be somewhat athletic and usually sadly dramatic, even in the more comedic roles such as Ernesto from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale.
As I have previously stated, Bel Canto tenors must have an extensive upper range. Specifically, Bel Canto Tenors should be able to sustain Bs and As with relative ease, and be able to hold high Cs for quite a while. Bel Canto arias often have multiple Cs and even Ds, whereas almost every other type of opera has at max 3 high Cs for an entire role. One aria from La Fille du Regiment has nine high Cs alone.
Now that we have covered the technical aspects of what makes a Bel Canto tenor, it is important that we cover the repertoire of a Bel Canto Tenor. As I have previously stated, Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini are the most important Bel Canto composers. Donizetti’s L’elisir D’amore is a must for the Bel Canto tenor. The role of Nemorino from this opera is done by almost all Lyric tenors and even some Spintos, such as the great Pavarotti. Nemorino’s famous aria, Una Furtiva Lagrima, is a must have in every Bel Canto tenor’s repertoire. Another important role is Edguardo from Lucia Di Lammermoor, also by Donizetti. This role, although not as famous as Nemorino, is also an important one since the opposite Soprano role is a timeless favorite of opera audiences.
The second Bel Canto composer, Rossini, was thought to be dying, but recently, his operas have been performed again. Among the host of Rossini roles, the most important are Count Almaviva from Il barbiere di Siviglia. Almaviva’s aria Ecco Ridente in Cielo is a favorite among lyric tenors, although the second aria from this opera is often omitted because of its technical difficulty. Also, the role of Lindoro from Il Italiana in Algieri is a must in every Bel Canto tenor’s repertoire. The last Bel Canto composer is Bellini, and his most famous operas are Norma and I Puritani. The tenor roles from these operas are Arturo (I Puritani) and Flavio (Norma) . Also of note is the opera La Sonnambula, which includes the tenor role of Elvino.
In conclusion, the Bel Canto tenor is one endowed with a florid upper register and effortless high notes. The Bel Canto repertoire tends to focus on brilliance of tone, rather than power or a mellow quality.

Bibliography: Don Randel. The New Harvard Dictionary: “Bel Canto”