As we noted earlier, Bel Canto is typically translated as “beautiful singing,” and is generally used to describe the evolving performance styles of Italian music and singing of the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries. This was the time when the amazing castrati ruled Italian opera; when the opera singer was all-powerful and the orchestra's primary purpose was to provide light musical framework in which singers could indulge their vocal fancies in any way that they chose.
The dominance of the singer grew out of the voice melody tradition that began shortly after the early Baroque period, when the “word melody” tradition had begun to go into decline. With voice melody, the voice, and not the text, holds sway over all other considerations. Melody lines, in other words, are derived solely from the spontaneous and creative choices of the featured singers. In the hands of a great virtuoso, this kind of artistic autonomy could result in a breathtaking vocal performance. Regrettably, there were many more singers than there were truly gifted artists; as a result, singing often deteriorated into superficial, self-indulgent, vocally overwrought, and musically ludicrous showmanship. To make matters worse, the plots of the popular Italian operas of the day, especially those written by Italians, were mostly vacuous and typically followed a standard structural format that soon proved to be tedious. If the singers were not exceptionally gifted and innovative, there was not much left to enjoy. Fortunately, the best singers of the age were vocal geniuses that took their artistic responsibilities very seriously and gave their audiences a display of vocal excellence the likes of which has not been heard since.
Bel Canto—the spontaneous, unfettered, thrilling, elegant, and creative use of the singing voice for the sake of beautiful singing alone—came to a dramatic climax with the castrati in the 18th century. But all good things come to an end (“good” if you think that violating the male genitalia for the sake of great, really great, art was worth it). The reason for the decline in the castrato’s art was that social tastes began to change and music along with it; the castrati simply went out of fashion. And it was only a matter of time until a musical prodigy emerged and moved center-stage to forge a new direction in opera and opera singing.
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