The next big trend in opera, however, starting roughly in the 1810s, was a destructive one…the style known as Bel Canto. Literally meaning ‘beautiful singing’, this was essentially opera as pretty background noise. I am aware that composers like Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti would write several perfectly lovely operas in the Bel Canto mold, but its overall effect on the genre was to almost destroy it. It emphasized vocal melody over all else, and was designed for an era when people went to the Opera basically to dine and gamble and chat while pleasant music played in the background. This approach may not be fatal to music, as such genres as Ambient and New Age Music have proven, but it is not especially conducive to creating effective stage dramas, and tended to give its creators a perceived excuse for shoddy librettos and choosing constant pretty vocalizing over any kind of organic drama. Granted, it wasn’t all that different in that respect from Baroque Opera Seria, but Opera had transcended that artistic model with the works of composers like Gluck and Mozart, and the last thing it needed to do was regress to that level. This trend also later launched the French lyric opera genre, which was essentially Bel Canto with its most exciting element…the showy coloratura vocals…all but removed.
Even the classics of these genres seem to have gradually gone out of vogue because of their emphasis on melody over drama. It’s worth noting that until Maria Callas sparked a genre revival in the 1950s, only about half-a-dozen Bel Canto operas had continuously remained a part of the standard repertoire…specifically, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, Bellini’s Norma, and three Donizetti works, Lucia Di Lammermoor, The Elixir of Love, and Don Pasquale, with Bellini’s La Sonnambula and Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment clinging faintly to the edges of the cultural consciousness. French Lyric Opera lasted a bit longer, but these days all you’re really likely to see of it is Gounod’s Faust and Romeo and Juliet, and Massenet’s Manon, Werther and Thais.
It’s worth noting that The Barber of Seville, The Elixir of Love, and Don Pasquale are in the farcical Opera Buffa field, which was generally better suited to Bel Canto’s frothiness and lack of substance than most of the genre’s attempts at serious drama. Performed properly, these works are among the few Comic Operas to still come across as laugh-out-loud funny today, and unlike far too many of their peers, they feature actual characters with colorful and distinctive personalities embodied in the music. They don’t have much dramatic weight, but they aren’t meant to…they’re just light, sparkling comedies, not tragicomic human dramas like Mozart’s Opera Buffa works, and they have enough personality to make their frivolity satisfy.
Meanwhile, Norma and Lucia di Lammermoor, along with a few other operas by Bellini and late-career Donizetti, pioneered a more dramatic form of Bel Canto where the vocal pyrotechnics, instead of being essentially gratuitous, were harnessed to give expression to the drama. This was probably the aspect of the genre that led Maria Callas to revive it, even if it did not make up a particularly large portion of the genre during its heyday. In any event, these two Operas gave Callas perhaps her most famous and iconic roles, and they are today almost inextricably intertwined with her mythos as a performer.
Norma was a kind of deconstruction of the Medea myth: its title character, a Druid priestess thrown over by the Roman General with whom she had a forbidden love affair, is deliberately drawn as a parallel to Medea’s famous situation. She even seriously considers killing her illegitimate children to protect them from the world, as Medea did, but she ultimately rejects that option. Moreover, instead of destroying the man she loves, she gives up her own life to save him; this makes him realize that he truly loves her, and he chooses to die with her, the two of them singing on the way to the fatal pyre. The message seems to be that if you destroy the person you claim to love, that only proves that you ultimately loved yourself more, but if you sacrifice yourself for your love, you will receive fulfillment even in death.
All this was set to some of the most flowing, quintessentially Italian melody ever composed: good tunes were generally Bel Canto’s primary compensation, but no Italian composer, even the undisputed king of Italian Opera, Giuseppe Verdi, wrote melody like Bellini (a fact that Verdi himself regularly acknowledged), and he gave this moving story an immense emotional expression.
Lucia Di Lammermoor, on the other hand, was a study in madness that would serve as an inspiration to every later psychological drama, from Psycho to Sunset Boulevard. The use of a flute in the famous “Mad Scene”, after Lucia has murdered her new husband, to represent the voices she alone hears, was particularly influential. This was not by any means the first example of a “Mad Scene” in Opera, but this gory tragedy might have been the first truly great musical portrayal of literal insanity, and it displays an understanding of psychology beyond anything the genre had seen before…impressive, given that it was written well before psychoanalysis really emerged as a phenomenon. These two Operas and others like Bellini’s Romeo and Juliet adaptation I Capuleti et i Montecchi (an underrated gem that’s actually superior to the much more famous Gounod version) and Donizetti’s trilogy about the Tudor Queens (which marks the only time Elizabeth I would be successfully done justice as a musical character despite far too many later attempts) laid the groundwork for the achievements of the man who would ultimately save Italian Opera, the aforementioned Giuseppe Verdi…but more on that later.
The most successful of the French Lyric Operas at the time, Faust, was, technically speaking, an adaptation of Goethe’s poem of the same name, but it used only the poem’s character names and superficial details, not its actual content. In every other respect, this was a straightforward retelling of the old Faust legend not particularly different from the one found in Christopher Marlowe’s play. It is not the most dramatically sophisticated of the major Operatic warhorses, and it has suffered a bit from overexposure over the years…there were running jokes about how constantly the New York Metropolitan Opera seemed to perform it in the early days of that venue’s existence.
That said, like its Twentieth Century equivalent, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, this is one of those works where the music itself is so spectacularly great that nothing else really matters. Gounod is known for very little today outside of his two hit Operas and his setting of the Ave Maria, but for this one score, he pulled it all together and delivered a collection of melodies so gorgeous, memorable and dramatically satisfying that they could hold their own in competition with the best scores from far more lauded composers like Verdi. The critical scorn this work has received over the years is reminiscent of the scorn heaped on Phantom today…something about a show that is this straightforward and accessible, while simultaneously being this much of an artistic achievement, seems to set off some kind of reflexive rage response among the snobbier brand of critics, and they feel compelled to rail against it, no matter how absurd it becomes to do so.
There are at least three other works of Musical Theater explicitly based on the Faust legend…Arrigo Boito’s cerebral Italian Opera Mefistofele, Hector Berlioz’s aggressively avant-garde ‘Concert Opera’ La Damnation de Faust, and Randy Newman’s quirky deconstruction that failed to reach Broadway in the 1990s. But as different as all those versions are, they have one thing in common…they are, like Goethe’s poem, primarily intellectual experiences. Gounod’s Faust is emotional, elemental, like the medieval morality plays that first gave rise to the Faust legend. And since that legend is, at its core, an archetypical and elemental story, Gounod’s version actually cuts more effectively to the story’s real core than any of the more sophisticated musicalizations.
Gounod’s other recognizable title Romeo and Juliet, while also a perennial hit in the Opera world, was significantly less successful artistically. This is partly because it actually has a much less interesting score than Faust…for all his wealth of melody, Gounod was much more suited to a gothic atmosphere piece like Faust than to straightforward rhapsodic romance…but there are other problems as well. The libretto, while not taken verbatim from the play, is pretty faithful to its source, even adapting several of Shakespeare’s speeches into Operatic arias. But this is actually the Opera’s biggest problem—when you’re trying to straightforwardly set one of Shakespeare lyrical passages to music, your music is doomed to come off as redundant unless you’re the next Mozart or something. If you think about it, Romeo and Juliet is already a kind of Opera in its original form…just one that substitutes amazingly beautiful spoken poetry for actual music (this is the same reason Cyrano has never much luck as a source for Musical Theatre). As West Side Story proved, the plot of Romeo and Juliet can make a valid basis for a Musical-Theatre piece if you replant it in another setting and idiom, but trying to do it straightforwardly and with this degree of fidelity is kind of self-defeating.
Massenet, on the other hand, had a shimmering, soulful quality to his music, almost resembling a much more conventional version of Debussy. Unfortunately, he wasn’t really good at anything but lyrical passages, so his Operas generally consist of a collection of lovely and eloquent arias surrounded by a lot of tiresome musical filler. He is best known for his Opera Manon and an orchestral excerpt from another of his Operas, Thais (the “Meditation”), but his operatic version of Goethe’s Werther is also still performed fairly frequently. Even so, his version of Manon is inferior to Puccini’s later take on the same story both musically and dramatically (though it does have a significantly better libretto), and his attempt to musicalize Werther doesn’t capture that 19th century German archetype of romantic and existential angst nearly as well as Schubert’s song cycles Die Schone Mullerin and Winterreise, which deal with essentially the same themes (Massenet pretty much let the existential despair angle drop out altogether and treated the story purely as a romantic tragedy, which makes the result less like Goethe’s Werther and more like a generic story about a guy who commits suicide after his girlfriend leaves him).