Life and Works
The blond-haired Sicilian Vincenzo Bellini took Italian opera forward into the Romantic period. In his short life, he produced some of the greatest masterpieces of his age. New works were received with an enthusiastic curiosity that could vary from rapturous acclaim to noisily expressed disapproval. Bellini was born into a musical family in the city of Catania where, as in all of Italy's major centres, opera thrived. He made swift progress in his studies. At 18, he enrolled at the Real Collegio di Musica in Naples, one of the leading education institutions in Italy, where he remained for six years. In Naples he would have heard the latest works of Rossini, a composer nine years his senior, who was setting Italian opera on a new path of ornate vocal writing and orchestral richness.
At the time, star singers dominated the opera world. Worshipped as gods of the theatre, they were the main attraction of any performance. Bellini would go on to work with the finest artists of his day, learning how to compose for the voice and how to imbue his vocal lines with dramatic power. In 1825, his last year at the conservatoire, Bellini wrote Adelson e Salvini for his fellow students to perform. The following year he was given the opportunity to produce his second opera, Bianca e Fernando, for the Teatro San Carlo, the chief opera house in Naples. Next came an offer from La Scala, Milan, the most prestigious theatre in Italy. There he worked with another rising star, the librettist Felice Romani, who remained his closest collaborator until a personal rift developed between them in 1834.
The enormous success of Il pirata ('The Pirate', 1827), Bellini's first work for La Scala, catapulted him to the front rank of Italian composers. Its dark plot centres on a pirate trying to reclaim his former beloved, now unhappily married to a nobleman. It includes many of the standard elements of the new Romanticism, notably a final 'mad scene' for the heroine. Bellini demonstrates here his ability to define character and emotion in the vocal line itself, and expert singers are given outstanding opportunities for both interpretation and display. Next he produced La straniera ('The Foreigner', 1829) also for La Scala. His career then faltered with Zaira (1829), which was hastily written for the opening of a new opera house in Parma. Bellini abandoned the piece, recycling much of the score in the far more successful I Capuleti e i Montecchi ('The Capulets and the Montagues', 1830), a version of the old Italian Romeo and Juliet story that bypasses Shakespeare's play.
Rushing Zaira had been a mistake. At this time, it was quite common for Italian composers to produce three or even four operas a year to fulfil well-paid commissions. Bellini, however, insisted that he needed an entire year for each opera. The result was a total output of just nine operas, far fewer than those of his colleagues. Yet they are works of high quality. In 1831, Bellini again broke his own rule by producing two new works for rival theatres in Milan, La sonnambula ('The Sleepwalker') in March for the Teatro Carcano and Norma for La Scala in December. The first of these was written in direct competition with his up-and-coming rival Donizetti, who simultaneously produced Anna Bolena. Both works were highly successful and the result of this unofficial duel was considered a draw.
Bellini was now at the height of his powers,but his career faltered once more with Beatrice di Tenda (1833), again composed for Venice. The composer blamed the failure of the work on the late delivery of the libretto, a result of Romani's over-extended workload. This was the cause of the rift between the pair. Yet the momentum of Bellini's career had already pushed it onto an international level. I puritani ('The Puritans', with a libretto by Carlo Pepoli) was commissioned for Paris, where it enjoyed a triumphant premiere in January 1835. But Bellini died of an intestinal inflammation soon after producing a revised version of the opera for Naples, and was widely mourned, not least by Romani, who deeply regretted their falling out. Ironically, Bellini had undertaken he would never again write an opera without his former partner.
The significance of Bellini's achievements and innovations in opera lived on. Verdi praised the 'long, long melodies of which [Bellini] alone knew the secret'. But these melodies, such as 'Casta diva' in Norma or 'Oh! quante volte' in I Capuleti, are not merely beautiful - they also help illustrate a character's psychological situations. The melodic shapes themselves - varied, closely aligned to the text, yet seemingly freely improvised - are always dramatic in intent. The orchestral contribution is deliberately played down in order to highlight the voice. Wagner's method would be quite different, but he too expressed admiration for Bellini's ability to unite words and music within the flow of a solo line, as did Chopin. A development is also apparent in Bellini's style. Writing I puritani for Paris, he took advantage of the superior orchestral and choral forces available, and of the musical sophistication of the audience. The textures he wrote to support the vocal lines are complex and subtle, bringing the musical background into sharp focus. What Bellini achieved in his greatest works was already superb. How he might have developed had he not died so young remains a tantalising question.