Historical Perspectives: The Opera House “Size Myth” Part V: Rossini’s Style

An ongoing series from Edward Foreman.

Here are links to Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.

In 1827, Rossini published a set of vocalises and solfeggi; despite the phrase…in stile moderno in the title, Rossini didn’t mean that of Spontini, and described it this way:

The old florid style is replaced by a nervous one, the solemn by shouts, the affecting sentiment by hydrophobic passion. The question is entirely one of lungs. The singer who feels in his soul, and vocal splendor, are forbidden. (1)

In 1858 he added:

…there are no longer interpreters able to execute Casta diva [from Norma] or Pria che spunti from the Matrimonio segreto, as there used to be. It is necessary to convince oneself that bel canto is lost, without hope of retrieving. (2)

Improvisations and violent contrasts, unjustified, from pianissimo to fortissimo, convulsive emphases, deafening cries at the close of scenes of lawsuits, of vengeance, of desperation. The grand cri is the rule. The chromatic scale, leaps of tenths, long cadenze, these today constitute the rococo. (3)

It is clear; Verdi was about to appear. The vocal style of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, legato and spun out, was about to be replaced by a new vocalism, more irruptive than the old, inflamed, dramatic, romantic. The melodic line, and hence the words, would often be interrupted by breaks.

The phrases thereby assumed a nervous, jumping character. Pauses broke the line, with the consequence that the note preceding the pause received a singular accent. The development, the motion, improvisedly strained, gave way to a shower, so to speak, more violent, so much more impetuous was the dynamic of the melody. Notes in the tronca (truncated, cut-off) form acquired a mysterious significance, and effects of hocket multiplied by a hundred. Now this breaking (sprezzatura) represented the highest romantic torment, the anxious dramatic agitation, which explodes, sobs, groans in short groups of notes and monosyllables. (In other times the sprezzatura is an effect without cause, an opportunity, which is found in the choral parts of many serious and comic operas.)

The vocal style of Rossini was normally legato. More audacious, more slancio, more winged, less pathetic and more brilliant, than that of Bellini, closer, in a sense, to the true esthetic of bel canto. Frequently it is more charming and embellished. Some of his Italian operas seem to be a compendium of bel canto, mordents, acciaccature, gruppetti, long cascades of chromaticism. A typical case in point is the duet between Ninetta and Pippo in the 3rd act of Gazza ladra, “Mi cadono le lagrime,” (p. 233 in the Ricordi piano-vocal score). All the ornaments underline the meaning of the phrase, and, succinct or expanding, mordents or cadenzas, constitute a substantial element of the melody. It is only rarely that pauses interrupt the melody. Used in a comic sense (with felicity, as in the trio of Bruschino, “Poi si fa mostrara a dito dappertutta la città,” p. 77, or “Piano, pianissimo” of the Barbiere, as in “Oh, per lei quel muso duro” in L’italiana in algeri, p. 14, as in the sestet of L’italiana, “Confusi e stupidi,” where all the voices are staccato, (less those who re-enter from time to time with the theme of the canon), pauses are nothing more than a delicately humorous touch, for example in the cavatina of Dandini in Cenerentola, “Come un’ape nei giorni d’aprile, va volando leggera e scherzosa, corra al giglio poi salta alla ro – sa…” The use of staccato is rarer in serious operas. A few choruses in Mosè. A few staccati in the choruses of Guillaume Tell. A few broken words are found in the solo parts of Otello and Semiramide. Otherwise legato melodies are the rule, which may give way to the effect of staccato.

The vocal style of Bellini presents a few (rare) sprezzature (breaks). Pauses are found in Pirata, Capuleti, La sonnambula, where the chorus sings in counterpoint to the soloists, or accompanies them with broken orchestral phrases. Legato prevails in the solo parts, even when it resembles staccato, as in the “Son vergin vezzosa” in Puritani. Staccato phrases are found in Capuleti (that of Tebaldo:”L’amo, l’amo e m’é – più – cara,” p. 20), in Norma. (“Qual cor tradi – sti, qual cor perde – sti,” where the answer of Pollione is not completely analogous, and, p. 52, when Norma, elevating the hymn to the chaste goddess, embroiders extensively the words “senza vel,” and the sopranos and tenors pray together, while Oroveso and the basses sing staccato: “Ca – sta di – va a noi deh vol – gi.”) Contrasting effects are made in the concerted finale of the 1st act of Capuleti e i montechi, when Giulietta and Romeo sing in unison the legato melody “Se ogni speme é a noi rapita,” and Tebaldo and Capellio sing staccato, with the chorus: “Se nel furor che si ridesta”; here sadness, which determines the lyric form, is set in relief by anxious concern.

The vocal style of Donizetti is legato like Bellini’s, but in contrast, more pulsating and agitated. One might say that he has imposed effects of sforzandi and fortissimi, forchette (little forks, like lightening) on the more forceful phrases in bel canto style, somewhat in the manner of Rossini. On the other hand we have the grandiose style, emphatic, great long phrases, so to speak, like Verdi, without staccato.

The relationship of Verdi’s first and second styles with that of Donizetti is especially evident in the broad arias for baritone, which also have a certain affinity with some pages of Bellini. The “Cari luoghi” of La sonnambula seems to be descended from the “Ambo nati in questa valle” of Linda di chamounix as are many of the slow and conventional arias of Verdi up to about 1860.

Like Rossini and Bellini, Donizetti broke the line in comic operas (“E se fia che ad al – tro og – getto” in Don Pasquale), in the choruses of secondary parts of concerted pieces. For the great part, he remained faithful to legato.

With Verdi, around 1840, there began a new period. (4)

I have quoted this long section because it summarizes the change in vocal style better than I could.


  1. Della Corte, article “Vicende degli stili del canto dal tempo di Gluck al ‘1900,’ in Canto e bel canto. Milan, c. 1933. Foreman’s translation.
  2. Ibid. It’s interesting to see Rossini using the phrase “bel canto.” He is describing the operas of Cimarosa and Bellini, and by inference, his own.
  3. Lizst, Revue musicale, 1839, quoted in Della Corte.
  4. Della Corte, op cit. I am surprised to discover this article is not included in some of the most important bibliographies, and that it has never been translated into English.

Foreman, Edward. Authentic Singing: The history of singing. Vol. 10. Pro Musica Press, 2001.

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