Cabaletta indulgence

A surprise in Anna Bolena — the same melodic climax shows up in both the slow part of one duet, and in the cabaletta. As far as I know, that’s unique in the bel canto repertoire.

To understand more what I mean (and, by the way, the duet is the one for Enrico and Giovanna in the first act), just think of the delectable way of shaping dramatic scenes that just about defines the music of bel canto opera. Every musical/dramatic unit — an aria, an encounter between two people, a mob scene for the entire cast — will fall into several sections. Typically, coming first or second, will be a slow, lyrical piece. And then at the end comes what they called, back then, a cabaletta, a fast piece, typically with a broad, catchy melody, that brings the scene to the end.

A caricature of Donizetti

A caricature of Donizetti

The cabaletta is repeated, so the audience gets to hear the melody twice. Or even three times, in a duet. Typically, in a duet cabaletta, first one singer sings the tune, then the other does, and then — after some intervening  orchestral excitement, with the singers crying out over it — both singers sing the tune together. A surefire way to put a “button” on a scene, to use a Broadway term. Bring each scene to a close with a bang. Make the audience (if you do your work well) scream with excitement, over and over again.

I’m indulging myself again, indulging my sweet tooth for bel canto opera. I’m on a trip, and not inclined, today, to think about the future of classical music.

We should remember that Italian opera, back in those days, was entirely commercial. An impresario rented a theater, and commissioned an opera to be the main attraction. If the opera succeeded, the impresario succeeded. If he didn’t he failed. Likewise the composer! So anything that made the opera appealing would help with commerce. Plus, as I noted in my last post, the repetition in a cabaletta made the piece easier to write, easier for the singers to learn, and easier for everyone to rehearse. Since these operas were, as a rule, churned out really fast, anything that made the process easier was a big help.

Well, maybe this does touch on the future of classical music. Because part of our job is to desanctify our art, make it more of a human activity, and less like some untouchable piece of divinity. When we understand how commercial some of the great operas were, we’re taking steps toward doing that.

As a scene unfolds, almost always the musical material is new. (Until the repeats.) The cabaletta won’t share any obvious musical relationship with anything that went before. Which makes it really notable, in Bolena, when the same melodic climax shows up in two parts of the scene. It made me feel, even in the Met’s mostly ineffective performance, like something was being tracked in more than the usual depth. Except, of course, that Donizetti (as far as I know) never did anything like that again. Which makes it hard to read significance into his doing it once. It’s an anomaly.

But then Donizetti seemed to like experiments in form. He wrote many operas, very quickly. Sometimes I think he got restless, and just jumped on ideas that appealed to him. But which seemed to have no deeper meaning. He never developed the things I’m going to list here, never seemed to take a long-term look at the cabaletta form, to see what could be done with it.

So here are some of his experiments:

  • Normally nothing dramatic happens between verses of a cabaletta. Something exciting typically happens just before it — as, in one duet in Lucrezia Borgia, the soprano tells the tenor that he’s been poisoned. That creates the excitement the cabaletta (an exceptionally rousing one, in the Borgia duet) can take off from. But in the Borgia duet, there’s an extra wrinkle. Somewhere, between one repeat of the melody and another, the soprano gives the tenor an antidote, so he can survive. This isn’t reflected in the music at all, since the standard form keeps chugging away, with no alteration. You’ll only notice something happens if you see the opera onstage. And in the final scene of Lucia, the tenor stabs himself between verses of his cabaletta. Very unusual.
  • And then, in Lucia, the tenor’s cabaletta repeat is greatly changed. The melody is largely played by a solo cello. Which works perfectly. The man has just stabbed himself. He’s dying. So he doesn’t have the strength to sing — except, of course, when the melody reaches its glorious climax, and he finds the strength to rise to his high A.
  • In a big finale in La Favorita, Donizetti puts the repeat in a different key. In a finale, you call the cabaletta a stretta. So here the stretta is in C major. But the repeat shows up in E flat. Which means the music has to modulate back to C to make the piece end properly.
  • In the second act finale of Lucia, there isn’t any repeat. Instead, the stretta has a long (and, I fear, not wholly convincing) development section. Fascinating, to me, that Donizetti should have tried this just once. That he didn’t take the idea seriously enough to see what else could be made of it, in other operas.
  • Normally, when the cabaletta of an aria is ending, the singer is left with nothing notable to do anymore. (Except maybe sing a final high note, that normally isn’t written in the score.) But in Parisina, Donizetti things of something wonderfully gruesome. The final cabaletta is like the one in Bolena, or in Bellini’s Il pirata — a scene in which the poor soprano is wholly undone. In Parisina, the soprano’s husband shows her the dead body of her lover, the tenor. Which sends her into the final cabaletta in a state of total despair. After the repeat of the cabaletta is over, and the orchestra is making exciting noises, heading for the opera’s final chords, there are sudden moments when the music dwells for a measure or two on a diminished seventh chord, and the soprano is supposed to moan, in horrible pain. i’ve never seen this onstage, but I can imagine it’s wildly effective.

Cabalettas were devalued, in the last half of the 19th century, and as Verdi’s career proceeded, we find fewer and fewer of them in his operas. They were considered to not add much to an opera’s dramatic truth, because each scene had to end the same way. And if they’re ineffective, then the scene falls flat.

But even so, there’s one in Aida, in the Aida-Ramames duet in the third act. And, believe it or not, there’s one in Otello! “Si, pel ciel,” the momentous duet for Otello and Iago that ends the second act, is a pure cabaletta, with a melody sung first by each singer in turn, and then by both together. Though there’s one change from the standard form. Instead of having noisy excitement between the first two statements of the tune and the final repeat, the repeat — with the singers singing together — comes on with no pause. Which tightens the form, and makes it both more up to date (late 19th century-style) and more effective. But the piece is still, in its heart, a cabaletta.

And if we’re talking about surprises from Donizetti, the most extreme has to be the final chords of Maria di Rohan. The opera — from very late in Donizetti’s career — ends with a duet for the soprano and baritone, in D major. The duet then devolves into a confrontation in recitative. The soprano and baritone are married. The soprano is in love with the tenor. Just before the duet, there had been a trio, in which the baritone appeared to be helping the tenor escape from his enemies.

But then, at the very end, he tells the soprano that he knows everything about the love affair, and that the tenor by now has been killed. Which leads to the opera’s final words: “Death to him, and a life of shame for you, unfaithful woman!” (Very free translation.)

The baritone sings the last words going up the scale from A to D. So you think this is going to be the end of the opera, in, of course, the duet’s own key. So you expect a D major chord. And instead the orchestra explodes in B flat! Technically, I think, Donizetti could say this really is the opera’s final key, because the earlier trio had been in B flat, and maybe we could consider the D major duet as, in essence, nothing more than an interlude.

But the explosion in B flat is completely unexpected, and beyond belief violent. I don’t think there’s anything like it anywhere else in the history of common-practice harmony — a piece that ends with a violent deceptive cadence.

Well, to be absolutely factual, the actual end of the opera is a plagal cadence, as the orchestra, having exploded in B flat, goes back and forth twice between chords in B flat and E flat minor. But still, the ending sounds like a deceptive cadence.  If this happens in any other piece, I’d love to hear of it!

Written peacefully at my in-laws’ home, in Roswell, NM.

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