The Bel Canto Tradition

In my last post I quickly mentioned the fact that Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor is a bel canto opera.  Here’s a link to a fabulous 3-year old essay by New York Times critic, Anthony Tommasini that can serve as a primer about the bel canto tradition.

Bel canto essentally means fine singing or beautiful singing. A singer who can execute this Italian style of singing can sing both sustained, legato phrases expertly as well as agile, coloratura phrases.   This vocal style is evident in the arias of Handel and Scarlatti, but is most identified with the elegant Italian vocal style of the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Bel Canto: Audiences Love It, but What Is It?
Published: November 30, 2008
Here is one opera lover’s attempt to explain bel canto as I understand it, along with recommendations of a few recordings.

Two Vocal Styles, the Same Singer

Here I’ve included two videos of soprano Renee Fleming.  The first is Fleming singing Liu’s aria from Puccini’s Turandot and the second is a clip from her new Indie record, Dark Hope.   These recordings highlight a distinctive difference in vocal styles. 

What are the characteristics of classical singing as opposed to a pop sound?  To quote pedagogue Richard Miller,  “Classical vocalism, as practiced in the international historic school of singing, is based on freedom of production and on certain acoustic properties of the singing voice associated  with functional efficiency.”  (On the Art of Singing, page 100)  In the first clip of the aria “Tu che di gel sei cinta” you’ll hear Fleming use a range of colors and dynamic levels and a consistent vibrato throughout.  You’ll hear legato – one note bound to the next in a contiguous fashion – and a wide vocal range from very high to very low pitches.  Fleming can project her voice in a large theatre for several hours without the aid of a microphone. 

In the second clip from Fleming’s Indie record there is a very limited collection of pitches sung in a low range and very little vibrato.  Which sound do you prefer and why would an internationally acclaimed opera diva venture into the world of pop music?