Historical Perspectives: The Opera House “Size Myth” Part VI: Musical Sources

The last in a series. Here are links to Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V.


To illustrate for comparison, here are some selections from the repertoire, starting with Spontini’s Vestale (1807); this is the recitative and beginning of the duet-finale to Act II (1):

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The next is a section of an aria from Weber’s Der Freischütz (1821). The tessiture is not terribly high for a bass, but the loud upper notes are typical of the kind of roaring which could be expected from German singers at the time, and even today can be relatively unpleasant (2):

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The next illustration is a long section from Bellini’s Beatrice di tenda (1833), written for Pasta. This is the recitative and first section of Beatrice’s aria “Ma la sola ohimè! son io”: (3)

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The following excerpt is the beginning of the Act I aria from Lucia di lammermoor 1853), by Donizetti: (4)

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One of the interesting features of this aria is the fluctuation back and forth between F major and G minor, with total disregard for the fact that the aria is supposedly in D major.

The next example is from the Act IV duet in Meyerbeer’s Les huguenots (1836). The tenor part of Raoul was composed for Duprez; this section is in the middle of the duet. Raoul has already sung the phrase with the High Cb in it once, and Valentin has done a cadenza which started with a long-held High C.

The whole scene rewards study for the suicidal tessitura for the tenor: (5)

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In Les huguenots, there is really very little place for additional ornamentation. The stage is now set for the advent of Giuseppe Verdi, whose operas dominated the 19th century after the success of Nabucco at La Scala, in 1836.

I have chopped up the recitative and the melody line to show some of the demands which Verdi laid on the poor soprano: (6)

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I feel justified in excerpting it this way, and omitting the accompaniment because the aria is well-enough known, and accessible enough on disc that it’s easy to find; it’s hard to find a good recording, but there are plenty of recordings.

With Nabucco, Verdi began to expand on Bellini and Donizett. Here is a dramatic soprano expected to sing very rapid, floating agility after blasting away in the recitative. The two-octave downward leap is an open invitation to gouging into the chest voice. Maria Callas’ recording of this is very exciting and dramatic, and she has the agility; but it’s hard to believe that even Giuseppina Strepponi’s(7) worn voice was as unsteady as Callas’ voice on the high notes.

In his later operas, Verdi backed off from this kind of demand on the voice, especially the Meyerbeerian declamatory singing around the upper notes of the staff. The score of Nabucco really looks as though he either had a super-soprano at hand – and Strepponi was impressive even though the voice gave out early – or he had something to prove. Nabucco was his first successful opera, and in no small part because of the highly dramatic writing for Abigaille. It is also a compact, almost terse opera, without the long stretches of recitative which sometimes make Bellini and Donizetti sound as though they had been done down by their librettists. Donizetti in particular had problems with librettists and poor libretti. He worked rapidly, and without much of the kind of theatrical sense which set Verdi apart from all other 19th century composers, even Wagner.


  1. Anthology of Music, ed. K.G. Fellerer: #5, The Opera, A.A. Abert. Cologne, 1962, pp. 66-7.
  2. Ausgewählte Opern = Arien für Bass, ed. Kurt Soldan. Leipzig, n.d., pp. 172-3.
  3. The Prima Donna’s Album, ed. J. Pittman. London, n.d., pp. 14 ff.
  4. Op. cit., pp. 158-9.
  5. Cleva, op. cit., pp. 251-3.
  6. Op. cit., pp. 136-42.
  7. Strepponi, Giuseppina [Clelia Maria Josepha] (1815-97), soprano. She studied at the Milan Conservatory and made her debut in 1834. In 1835 she was in Trieste, and 1836 in Vienna. The received opinion is that the combination of overwork and three illegitimate children wore her voice out early. In 1842 she created Abigaille in Nabucco (La Scala), and sometime after 1846 she began to live with Verdi. They were married in 1859.


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

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