Performance | Bel Canto Revived | Contemporary | Classical
Since Puccini’s death in 1924, opera houses have made little room for living composers. While the core repertory has remained more or less fixed, the need for novelty has necessitated the rediscovery of works long forgotten. This in turn has required singers able to cope with different technical and aesthetic problems; indeed, it is usually the prominence of such a singer that has fostered the kind of archeology that uncovers neglected works.
So it was with the soprano Callas, whose extraordinary vocal and dramatic intensity encouraged the revival of many operas previously deemed unworkable. They included eighteenth-century works, notably Haydn’s L’anima del filosofo (‘The Spirit of the Philosopher’), unperformed in the composer’s lifetime but given in Florence in 1951 in a staging conceived for Callas. More significant was the restoration of nineteenth-century bel canto works such as Bellini’s Il Pirata (‘The Pirates’), Donizetti’s Anna Bolena (‘Anne Boleyn’) and Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia (‘The Turks in Italy’). These, Callas proved, could work with a singer with solid technique, dramatic charisma, dazzling coloratura, and above all, perhaps, a belief in the music.
Shortly after Callas’s rise to stardom, the Australian soprano Joan Sutherland began to make an impact. Sutherland had a voice that was purer, less vulnerable at the top of its range. Her husband, the conductor Richard Bonynge, was assiduous in his quest for rare works suited to her voice: not only many of the nineteenth-century Italian operas which Callas had revived, but also operas by Handel, early works by Verdi, and French operas by Meyerbeer, Delibes and Massenet.
Many, though not all, of the operas exhumed for Callas and Sutherland were recorded by them. Although some have found themselves reinterred, both singers proved that scholarship, interpretation and exceptional technique can rescue operas from obscurity. Similar work has been done by contemporary singers such as the mezzo-sopranos Cecilia Bartoli and Vesselina Kasarova (b. 1965), who have, in different ways, continued what Callas and Sutherland began.
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