“The aim of Belcanto is to arouse wonder, thanks to the preciousness of its timbres, the diversity of its colors and nuances, the articulation of its complex and infinitely varied vocal virtuosities and the ecstatic abandonment of its lyricism……….. Belcantismo was a historical phenomenon that covered a precise period………. Talking about belcantismo for the composers after Rossini is improper or wrong. (Rodolfo Celletti, Storia del Belcanto, ed. Discanto, 1983)
Every time I read these lines, I ask myself: but before (and after) the baroque “Belcanto”, what was the Bel Cantare?
The word “Cantare” comes from the Sanskrit “Cansati”, in the sense of “celebrating and narrating“.
On closer inspection, narration and celebration respond to the same need: to create a contact with further and seductive worlds. From this necessity flowered the epic, the lyric, the tragedy (and its modern derivative, the Opera). Monteverdi preached it, referring to the Greeks: “harmony is the servant of the speech”. An inseparable bond.
In turn, the adjective “Bello” comes from the Latin “Bellum”, the diminutive and nickname of “Bonum“. Beautiful and Good, two sides of the same coin.
Plato already said so in the 4th century B.C.: “Everything good is beautiful and beauty is not without measure” (Timeo, 87c).
The notion of “measure” is therefore fundamental: not only a mathematical measure (as the Pythagorean school already said), but also a measure of opportunity. Which music for which rite, which infinite expressions for infinite mythologies and emotions?
The History of the Belcanto coincides with the forms of this “measure”.
Plato, in La Scuola di Atene (part.) by Raffaello Santi. Rome, Vatican Museums.
In summary, we could say that the Bel Cantare is a celebratory narration, in which the Beautiful coincides with the Good. Evidently, it speaks an extra-ordinary language, with extra-ordinary techniques and aims. In a word, it’s a Rite!
The rite requires more or less secret formulas, capable of arousing inner states otherwise unattainable.
The knowledge and the exact expression of these formulas constitute the “virtue” of the performer, the root of his “virtuosity“.
Here comes into play the learning and internalization of vocal techniques, essential for the exercise of physical and emotional expressions, otherwise unnatural.
If these “unnatural” expressions become ordinary and “natural”, the art of Bel Cantare arises. That art which, more directly than any other, assails our carnality: a true body to body that arouses in the listener’s tissues a perfect vibratory identity with the virtuoso.
The complexity of the scenic apparatus and the physicality of the acting add strength to it, for a complete abandonment to catharsis.
Orpheus. Rome, Altemps Museum
Canto and Belcanto coincide every time the interpreter respects his own ritual mission: to overcome himself in the celebration of an always new and amazing knowledge. It is not by chance that the words “canto” and “incanto” (enchantment) have the same root.
Any self-satisfaction, any love for rhetorical and empty expression, for the repetition of results already achieved is forbidden.
The only virtuosity is that generated by these virtues: aesthetic and ethical at the same time, according to appropriate measures, as Plato says.The Greek term “aisthesis” (hence our “aesthetics”) indicates the ability to “perceive with the senses” and, therefore, physically participate in the development of the artistic rite.
There is nothing more ethical, therefore, than transforming ourselves, subjecting us to this “purification”, through the sublime singing practice.
In every country, in every epoch.
Following the eternal and universal art of the Bel (and Good) Canto.
“Rosa del ciel” from Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo.
Orpheus: Furio Zanasi. Eurydice : Arianne Savall. La Capella Reial de Catalunya and Le Concert des Nations. Director: Jordi Savall.