Bel Canto Form
Bel Canto operas are constructed through a series of sections. Each section is dramatically self-contained and follows a fairly strict formal sequence. It has often been complained that this formal scheme is artificial and contrived. We tend to think that more recent operas have greater freedom to develop the dramatic potential of the storyline. Usually the opposite is the actual result. Most contemporary opera suffers from a lack of dramatic motion. They have a tendency to lack variety and tend to stasis.
While Verdi eventually discarded the Bel Canto form to compose some of the greatest operas ever written, he did it only after having spent most of his life composing with and completely mastering the dramatic implications of this form. Only then was he able to move beyond it. Donizetti used Bel Canto form to create more than 70 operas in his short life. These operas suffer neglect not so much due to a lack of craftsmanship as often claimed but more due to the overwhelming embarassment of riches.
The Bel Canto form is an excellent scheme for creating music with variety, interest and strong dramatic momentum. The formal scheme is a follows:
1. scena (prose recitative): set up the context
2. tempo d’attacco (unrhymed verse): transition
3. cantabile (strict formal verse): slow and lyrical, thoughtful and reflective
4. tempo di mezzo (less formal verse): transitional event or action
5. cabaletta (strict formal verse): lively and energetic, action and resolution
1. It begins with the scena, a series of prose recitatives or ariosos which set up the context and situation and form the background to what will follow.
2. The opening section is the tempo d’attacco which is in unrhymed verse and forms a transition between the scena (prose recitative) and the aria (formal verse singing).
3. Now we get to the important part: the two-part aria or ensemble, both parts written in very strict formal verse. The first part is the cantabile, which is slow and lyrical. The verses are usually thoughtful and reflective.
4. In between the two parts is a tempo di mezzo, another transition, in less formal verse, which allows some event or action to take place between cantabile and cabaletta.
5. The second part is the cabaletta which is lively and more energetic. The verses usually refer to action or resolution. The first time through is straightforward, the repeat is usually florid, with trills and other ornaments. Sometimes these are written out, other times improvised. This part is very fast, exciting, dangerous and ends in wild applause.