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Jewels of the Bel Canto

Arias by Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi and Rossini
Elena Xanthoudakis (soprano), Royal Northern Sinfonia, Richard Bonynge (conductor)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: July 2013
The Sage, Gateshead, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by Mike Hatch
Release date: March 2014
Total duration: 72 minutes 31 seconds

Rising star-soprano Elena Xanthoudakis is joined by the Royal Northern Sinfonia under Richard Bonynge in these exhilarating performances of some true Jewels of the Bel Canto aria tradition by Bellini, Verdi, Rossini and Donizetti.


'Combining a Greek background with an Australian upbringing, Elena Xanthoudakis pays tribute in her personal introduction to this wide-ranging bel canto selection to two illustrious predecessors Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland. She also highlights her collaboration on this disc with Richard Bonynge, whose stylistically apposite conducting is one of its most notable features. Under his baton the Royal Northern Sinfonia offers first-rate accompaniments, while the recorded sound is close to ideal, allowing the characteristic scoring of individual pieces to register with clarity … It's a programme that has been thoughtfully put together, and Xanthoudakis demonstrates considerable mettle in delivering it so skilfully' (Opera Magazine)» More

'As a Greek-Australian soprano it's only natural that Elena Xanthoudakis should have as her twin idols Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland. And when the opportunity came along to record arias from the bel canto repertoire with that master of the craft Richard Bonynge, she must have thought all her Christmases had come at once. After a few days of run-throughs and discussions at the maestro's Swiss home, the resulting 10 tracks recorded in England with the Royal Northern Sinfonia share that palpable sense of freshness and excitement that a major new talent often brings to familiar material … it's hard to argue with Maestro Bonynge's summation that if she sticks to the roles that most suit her—Mozart, Handel and, of course, the bel canto repertoire heard here—she will have a terrific career. This is an outstanding debut album from a young singer who will hopefully attract a new generation of bel canto fans' (Limelight, Australia)» More

Bel canto
The phrase has almost a mystical sound to it, but what exactly does it mean? That’s hard to say. It has meant different things to different people: composers, singers, the public, but always there is the idea of ‘beautiful song’ or ‘beautiful singing’. It is certain that Rossini looked back on the 18th century as a moment dominated by castrato singers, in which music, especially theatrical music but also sacred music, was dominated by the desire to produce wonderful sounds, and he found a way to continue this tradition into the 19th century, when attention to castratos per se was waning. Not by writing for castratos (he did that only once in his operas), but by insisting that the technique of singing and the technique of ornamentation typical of the 18th century could be learned by singers of every vocal register: high sopranos, to be sure, but also lower women’s voices (what we would today call mezzo-sopranos or even contraltos), tenors, and basses. Only once did Rossini write an opera for a castrato voice, that of Giam Battista Velluti, his first Arsace in Aureliano in Palmira of 1813, which opened the Carnival season at the Teatro alla Scala that year. This was the most important theatre and the most important event of the operatic calendar. As well as writing for Velluti a significant part in one of the cantatas, Il vero omaggio, he prepared for the Congress of Verona in 1822. But Rossini had to look elsewhere for the bel canto he remembered from hearing castratos of another generation.

This was a time, during the first decades of the nineteenth century in Italy, when composers did not believe that they were the sole creators of an opera, the way Verdi came to feel. They worked closely with singers, who realized for them the parts written for their specific abilities. Nor did the composer write out everything. Rossini, and then Bellini and Donizettii after him, wrote what was essential to a score, but the details of its working out he left in the more than capable hands of his performers. Opera belonged to them, as much as to the composer, and we still must realize that today, when we produce their operas. I believe in “critical editions” of operatic works, but I do not believe that anyone should just perform what the composer wrote. A critical edition presents the best written form we can have for a piece, looking, as it does, for the finest sources and trying to capture the history of a composer’s work on a given opera.

But no one in Italy believed at the time, despite the effort by composers in Germany or Austria, that there was only one way to perform a work. A composer such as Rossini wrote a generalized score, which would have to be realized in performance by an accomplished singer, whether it be a high soprano or a low bass. On some occasions Rossini himself prepared variations for a singer, but in many cases he did not. Still, we know what these singers did, for there are many surviving manuscripts containing what more experienced singers would teach a younger artist to sing. So, Giuditta Pasta, creator of the role of Norma in Bellini’s opera by the same name taught Adelaide Kemble, and Miss Kemble kept a notebook in which she annotated exactly what Ms. Pasta sought to teach her. The great Laura Cinti-Damoreau, who taught at the Conservatoire in Paris after having been Rossini’s favorite French prima donna, both at the Théâtre-Italien, where she created the role of Corinna in his Il viaggio a Reims, and then at the Opera (where she was, among other things, the first Mathilde in Guillaume Tell, taught at the Paris Conservatoire. She left us five notebooks filled with her interpretations of various pieces from the 1820s and 1830s, pieces she annotated when she sang or studied them. It was from these annotations that she taught her classes at the Conservatoire how they should sing this repertoire.

There are many printed editions which claim to present arias or entire operas as sung by such-and-such a prima donna or primo-uomo. From these documents it is possible to know what singers and their maestri expected. When Donizetti had the opportunity finally to produce his Maria Stuarda at the Teatro alla Scala in 1835 (it had been banned in Naples in 1834), he adapted his original score for the great Maria Malibran, and yet even in this circumstance he did not notate everything. He expected Malibran to intervene forcefully in preparing his score. When Ricordi came to publish the opera at the end of that season, it comes as no surprise that he printed what Malibran sang, with revisions by Donizetti for his new prima donna, not the music the composer had originally prepared for different singers. By looking at and studying this material, not only the autograph manuscripts from composers (although those documents too must be consulted), we can learn how to proceed, and that is what Elena Xanthoudakis has done in preparing this CD.

What is it precisely that we learn from these sources? We learn, for example, that composers in their autograph manuscripts often wrote repeated passages identically the second time around, but singers were expected to vary the repetitions. The worst sin is to allow an invitation to introduce a cadenza to languish unrealized. When you hear a singer produce the series of notes, a descending triad, such as B – G – E – B, followed by an ascending scale to the tonic, E, you know that she is not singing what Rossini intended but only what he wrote down. And singers were often expected to vary what the composer wrote for cadenzas, depending on their particular abilities.

It is widely known that the son of Manuel Garçia, the first Lindoro in Il barbiere di Siviglia, was a singing teacher, but how many of us know that bel canto singers like Nicola Tacchinardi or Joséphine Fodor-Mainvielle, and many other singers, including Laura Cinti-Damoreau, left behind important treatises and examples on how to sing properly. And what of the many manuscripts that composers worked out for individual singers. None of these are meant to be copied without change night after night, but they give a good sense of how the art of embellishment was carried on in the earlier decades of the 19th century. The great Marilyn Horne, truly the heroine of 20th-century efforts to revive the music of Rossini, kept Rossini’s own Gorgheggi e solfeggi by her side so that she could warm up with them before a performance.

Now, by the time Verdi came along, taste had changed considerably. One could easily say that a tenor who could do jusitice to ‘Quando le sere, al placido’ from Luisa Miller, with its declamatory style, could no longer sing effectively many of the lines that Bellini wrote for his tenors. And Verdi insisted that he alone was the creator of his operas, not his singers. He objected to the work that Jenny Lind did on his I Masnadieri in London in 1848, finding it decidedly ‘old fashioned.’ Even so, some of his most beautiful melodies, such as the Aria for Medora in Act I of Il corsaro were written in a style which is reminiscent of bel canto procedures for the beauty and simplicity of its vocal lines and the carefully prepared cadenzas, etc. But Verdi tends to write everything out. And so in her interpretation of Medora’s aria on this CD, Elena Xanthoudakis sings just what Verdi wrote and no more. Naturally she does not do this with the repertory of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, more properly known as 19th-century bel canto composers. Indeed, these composers would have been appalled that there are still singers who want to perform their operas as written, yet introducing high notes at the very end. They were not meant to be sung in that way, and this CD gives us a good sense of the approach to singing they would have better understood.

Philip Gossett © 2014

My love of bel canto repertoire has been inspired by years of listening to both my idols—the Greek Maria Callas and the Australian, Dame Joan Sutherland. These two iconic, though very different sopranos reflect my heritage and have inspired me in different ways, to perform this rewarding repertoire. I was indeed incredibly fortunate to be able to work with foremost bel canto expert and conductor, Maestro Richard Bonynge (husband of the late Dame Joan Sutherland) on this CD release of Jewels of the Bel Canto. These three icons of the genre have in many ways influenced my choice of arias on this recording.

Rossini has featured strongly in my career to date from Clorinda in La cenerentola at the Glyndebourne Festival or Jemmy in Guillaume Tell for the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome and at the BBC Proms, to performing La Contessa di Folleville from Il viaggio a Reims in Florence as a developing artist at the Maggio Musicale. Further encounters with the repertoire include learning Matilde di Shabran for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and Countess Adele Le comte Ory for the Metropolitan Opera.

Rossini arias are brilliant showpieces of technical facility with many runs and arpeggios, together with great opportunities for creative employment of vocal colour and expression. This for me is a joy, as I believe in all genres of singing, that vocal colouring and capturing a suitable timbre of expression for the character’s sentiment is essential. This is another reason I love to sing these roles and hence their inclusion.

Mathilde di Shabran’s finale aria ‘Ami alfine’ is a playful yet triumphant aria that rounds up the opera nicely with the mischievous heroine’s proclamation of the winning premise—‘love triumphs!’. In Countess Adele’s aria ‘En proie à la Tristesse’ from the ‘melodramma giocoso’ Le comte Ory, Rossini has brilliantly delineated her many colours and expressive flourishes as she vacillates from hesitation to hysterical outburst, from shy coyness to excited passion. The same brilliance is at play with the seemingly endless runs of ‘Vorrei spiegarvi il giubilo’ from Rossini’s earliest performed opera La cambiale il matrimono.

In this recording we have tried to be mindful of historical bel canto style, particularly with respects to variations. We have however tipped our hat to both modern and historical performance practises with respect presenting the Rossini. Rossini did not approve of added final cadential top notes and here we have presented two arias as Rossini would have expected and one as modern audiences are now accustomed. However in all variations we have added extra top notes within the context of the ornamentation, as Rossini would have approved.

More comedic heroines appear from another master, Donizetti. Norina is perhaps the archetypal bel canto comedic heroine, with her cheeky games and playful nature, which is obvious in her aria ‘Quel guardo, il Cavaliere’ from Don Pasquale. We also hear great sparkle and fun in ‘Chacun le sait’ from La fille du régiment, which suits my own playfulness on the stage. Of the four Donizetti roles featured, we present a more earnest and sincere moment from one of my favourite and most performed comedic roles, Adina—with ‘Prendi, per me sei libero’ from the comic masterpiece L’elisir d’amore. This brings us to the more dramatic and serious roles of the bel canto repertoire.

From perhaps Donizetti’s most famous opera for the lyric coloratura, the ‘dramma tragico’ Lucia di Lammermoor, we have Lucia’s Act I scene with Alisa, her maid ‘Ancor non giunse … Regnava nel silenzio’. While waiting for Lucia’s rendez-vous with Edgardo, Lucia sings a chilling aria about the spirit of a young lady she saw beckoning her from the well, before her thoughts return to her beloved (‘Quando rapito in estasi’).

Bellini’s ‘tragedia lirica’, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, is written to a libretto by Romani and loosely based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. ‘Eccomi in lieta vesta’ is a touching example of the effectiveness of well crafted bel canto melody. Another expressive example of Bellini’s craftsmanship in displaying the emotions inherent in a melodic line is his famous ‘Ah! Non credea mirarti’, the slow section of the aria of our sleepwalking Amina in La sonnambula. The following cabaletta, ‘Ah! non giunge’ is by contrast, joyous and lively and is one of the most recognizable in the repertoire.

Although it may be surprising to see Verdi on a bel canto disc, his craft itself evolved from the bel canto traditions. In Il corsaro, written in 1848, the same year that Donizetti died, you can still hear the school of bel canto running through ‘Egli non riede ancora … Non so le tetre immagini’ even with the second verse variations notated for the singer. Despite the dark foreboding of the text, Medora’s premonition aria is marked ‘fil de voce’, a technical effect requiring a flexible and very soft ‘edge of chord’ singing, as she accompanies herself on the harp.

I hope you get great pleasure from my interpretations of the arias on this recording. Enjoy!

Elena Xanthoudakis © 2014

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