On the Traces of Belcanto

‘Belcanto’ – also often ‘bel canto’ – is one of these words that merge form and meaning perfectly. It derives its name from the Italian phrase for ‘beautiful singing’, and it is just that: a vocal style that emphasises control, articulation, and agility. Originating in the royal courts of 16th-century Italy, belcanto made its way into opera and became the gold standard for generations of composers and singers. In the second half of the 19th century and beyond, the dramatic operas of Giuseppe Verdi and the verismo works of Giacomo Puccini required a more forceful vocal style and pushed belcanto out of the spotlight. However, recent revivals of Romantic operas have reminded the keen opera fan of the inimitable qualities of belcanto. Let us trace the origins and development of this landmark singing style together!

Belcanto: from the royal court to the opera stage

The symbolic birthplace of belcanto were the Italian courts of the Renaissance where kings and aristocrats demanded a special kind of musical entertainment. Practitioners of this form of ‘beautiful singing’ stood out with their vocal brilliance and ability to effortlessly change from legato to staccato, to achieve dramatic effect through skilful tempo variations and body language, and to articulate the text clearly with proper emphases and accents. The beauty in belcanto thus came from the full artistic control a performer exercised over the vocal delivery, tonally and linguistically.

Given these special characteristics, it was no wonder that belcanto quickly made its way into the major vocal genres of the 17th and 18th centuries. George Frideric Handel incorporated belcanto elements into his famous oratorios. Without this special style of singing, the operas of Gioachino Rossini and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart would not sound like themselves. Could the Queen of the Night’s coloratura acrobatics ever be as impressive had they been forcefully belted out? Could the playful Barber of Seville make you laugh as hard without his clear enunciation and carefully metred lines? Innumerable opera characters you know and love made their way into your heart thanks to belcanto.

The rise and fall of belcanto

The 19th century marks at once the height and the gradual decline of belcanto in opera and beyond. Thanks to the works of Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti, the vocal style reached an unprecedented level of popularity. These two composers in particular struck a unique balance between belcanto’s smooth and pleasant qualities on the one hand and the emotional charge of the musical and narrative text on the other. Masterpieces like Norma, L’elisir d’amore, or Donizetti’s ‘three queens’ cycle are full of passion and carry their dramatic and comedic weight, and yet the vocal delivery they necessitate is belcanto, pure and unadulterated.

In the latter half of the 19th century, however, opera took a hard dramatic turn. Giuseppe Verdi, Richard Wagner and Giacomo Puccini still wrote beautiful and emotional melodies, but the stories they told required a different singing approach. Beautiful and rounded phrasing had to make way for raw emotion and sheer vocal power. Thus, belcanto gradually went out of fashion, and by the turn of the 20th century, it had become a thing of the past. Today, the revival of the beloved Romantic operas by Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini, among others, let us enjoy ‘beautiful singing’ again.

Belcanto’s heroes

We cannot follow the traces of belcanto without acknowledging some of its star performers. Many of the style’s great names, such as the male soprano Farinelli, were undoubted virtuosi. Manuel del Popolo García was the Spanish tenor who inspired Rossini to write The Barber of Seville, while his daughter María Malibrán was the muse behind Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi and Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda. Surviving recordings by late-19th-century singers like Jenny Lind, Fernando de Lucia and Pasquale Amato serve as examples of belcanto and inspire modern vocalists to revisit and recreate this truly special style for our enjoyment today.