Dynamic records CDS-552 (25CD)
One of Agatha Christie’s many novels was called “The Big Four” and it is a title that could well be applied to the four composers who were the cornerstones of Italian Romantic Opera. Bellini, alongside Rossini, Donizetti and Verdi, can be credited with maintaining the mass popularity of opera throughout the nineteenth century.
Like Dame Agatha (who co-incidentally was born in the year that Verdi started work on his final opera), three of these composers were prolific writers with 65 published operas by Donizetti, 39 by Rossini and 28 by Verdi. Bellini is the exception, with an output of just 10 operas written at an average of one a year during the period 1825-35.
This was the speed at which Bellini liked to work. He had no wish to be hurried, forced to cut corners, or routinely needing to lift passages from earlier works to meet the pressure of time.
Like his contemporaries, Bellini was writing operas in the bel canto tradition espousing the art of beautiful singing, but unlike his predecessors, Bellini was discriminating in his use of vocal ornamentation. Some of his tuneful arias appear deceptively simple, it is just at the moments of high drama the coloratura emerges, underlining the emotional temperature in a way that had not been heard before.
Bellini’s characters are thus flesh and blood human beings that great acting singers, such as Maria Callas, have been keen to portray.
For many people, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor represents the quintessential bel canto opera with its famous mad scene. The prototype for this is the final scene in Bellini’s ll Pirata, which precedes it by some 10 years, complete with the same prominence of the flute in the orchestration.
Indeed, it could be argued that Bellini was the most innovative composer of the four, and with his relatively modest output and the convenient help of Dynamic’s omnibus edition, it is possible to follow his complete progression from gifted student to established master in less than twice the time that it would take to hear The Ring Cycle.
The majority of Bellini’s operas are named after their heroines and the leading ladies in this boxed set are testament to the quality of the recordings: Lucia Aliberti, Montserrat Caballe, Maria Callas, Patrizia Ciofi, Mariella Devia, Katia Ricciarelli, Renata Scotto, and Dimitra Theodossiou. The CDs are conveniently and compactly packed in a smallish box with original libretti supplied on a CD-rom (though without translation).