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19 september 2022

In theaters 200 years later, early nineteenth-century opera is dominated by Rossini and Donizetti. The Barber of Seville and Lucia di Lammermoor remain essentials. Far below those peaks come scattered works by Halévy and Mercadante and Meyerbeer, huge names in their day but performed only sparingly in ours. And somewhere between those groups, there's Vincenzo Bellini.

"Bellini n'est guère connu au-delá des cercles d'amateurs d'opéra," admit Jean Thiellay and Jean-Philippe Thiellay in their lovely short biography for Actes Sud's Classica series (163): Bellini is scarcely known outside the community of opera fans. Inside, he is pretty well-known. Though his popularity declined, along with the other bel canto composers, in the century 1850-1950, it has risen again since. Norma, La Sonnambula, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, and I Puritani show up with modest frequency in opera houses; the highlight arias "Casta Diva" and "Prendi l'anel ti dono" are regular features at galas.

Unless I happened to recognize a specific piece, I doubt I could pass a test that asked me to distinguish numbers by Bellini from ones by Donizetti, who was only a few years older and wrote in very much the same bel canto mode, emphasizing voice and keeping orchestrations simple. Bellini scored first with Il Pirata (1827); Donizetti became a superstar with Anna Bolena (1830); whereupon they went mano a mano for conquest of the opera world and then Bellini was suddenly dead.

Poisoned? The Thiellays review the evidence, but conclude that a bunch of abdominal ailments made away with the Sicilian composer. The odd circumstances of his death (suddenly expiring in a semi-deserted suburban-Paris house lent him by mysterious benefactors) gave rise to all sorts of theories. But in the 19th century, people just up and died. A few decades later, Georges Bizet would go for a dip in the Seine, just downriver from Bellini's deathplace, step out, towel off, and die. It was not the healthiest of eras.

But Bellini, like Bizet, got to die at the top of his game. I Puritani had recently taken Paris by storm, confirming the worldwide reputation of its composer, who was already the toast of Italy in the wake of Rossini's retirement. Rossini himself, established in Paris for a while, was very welcoming to Bellini, but the Thiellays say that Bellini mistrusted even Rossini's generosity; the younger man had a paranoid streak and was convinced that everybody was trying to undermine his success (119).

That success stemmed from writing tremendous roles for women. The greatest singers of Bellini's day – Giuditta Pasta, Maria Malibran – craved the music he wrote for them. After his long critical eclipse, Bellini was brought back to the repertory by Maria Callas, and then kept there by Beverly Sills, Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballé, and Edita Gruberova. Joyce DiDonato has made Romeo in I Capuleti e i Montecchi one of her signature roles, singing with several star Giuliettas. In the 20th century, many productions transposed the role of Romeo for tenor, but the Thiellays argue that the opera only really works for a soprano and mezzo-soprano, as Bellini envisioned it.

Norma is the big hit still, and "Casta Diva" the hit of the hit. The Thiellays explain the appeal: "Norma doit être tout à la fois lumineuse prêtresse; amante violente; douce amie; mère torturée" (93): Norma needs to be, at one and the same time, a radiant priestess, a fierce lover, a tender friend, a ravaged mother … it sounds like she's a mess. But the great characters of opera tend to be messes. "Casta Diva" reads on the page like this nice prayerful hymn, but as sung by one of its great interpreters – Sutherland or Caballé – it starts serene and a few bars later Norma launches into a wild threnody that welds together all the conflicting elements of her personality. You don't know what's hit you, even after hearing the number over and over.

One supposed description of Bellini's composing technique is probably apocryphal: "I shut myself up in my room and begin to sing the role, full of heat and passion" (51) – if he tried that with "Casta Diva," the neighbors must have been banging on the pipes. It should have been the case; it is tempting to imagine Bellini so wrapped up in the fervor of his characters. As it is, little is known about him. He never married, though he was linked romantically with a married woman named Giuditta Turina. He was also very close to a male friend named Francesco Florimo, who spent years after Bellini's demise curating the composer's image, making up stuff like Bellini hollering arias in his bedroom. Bellini was so close to Florimo that it is easy to imagine a gay relationship suppressed by the general silence of the closet, but as with Schubert, the evidence is mute where it's even recoverable.

I have never seen an opera of Bellini's live on stage. Though I've spent the last 13 years writing about opera here, and have seen maybe 40 professional productions in that time, I still know opera mostly via recordings. (I was lucky enough to see Natalie Dessay live in HD from the Metropolitan in La Sonnambula, all of those 13 years ago.) My Bellini CDs include Callas in La Sonnambula, Sutherland in Norma, and Renata Scotto in I Capuleti e i Montecchi, though with the tenor Giacomo Aragall; I need to get one with two women in the leading roles. And as the Thiellays observe, there are wonders in Bellini's small corpus of ten operas that are little-known even to amateurs d'opéra. I hope this version of La Straniera from Dutch broadcaster NPO stays up on YouTube for a while, for instance. It is ravishing, and I don't think that opera is coming to a house near me, ever.

Thiellay, Jean, and Jean-Philippe Thiellay. Bellini. n.p.: Actes Sud, 2013.