Belcantists making fun of themselves
Ever since the age of florid singing started to fade, a sure bet for laughs in opera has been comic coloratura. It’s automatically funny to see someone, especially an older someone, preening over fashions that have gone out of fashion; it’s part of the way we channel social anxiety over being up-to-date ourselves. If you’re playing farce nowadays, simply emitting a few “opera-sounding” notes is a guaranteed laugh-button. If you’re already in an opera, then mugging your way through fancy figurations is the right shtik.
The scene in “The Daughter of the Regiment” where the fusty old Marquise tries to domesticate the tomboy Marie (with a coloratura singing-lesson, how else?) is a familiar example. Sometimes the whole role of Dandini in La cenerentola gets played in this spirit.
Here’s a 1906 example of the spirit, enjoyable mostly because the comedians make sure to show that they can actually do the thing being parodied. This too is a comic singing-lesson, from Le maître de chapelle by Paër. The titular maître is trying to make an Italian prima donna out of a French cook, I think, but never mind. Ferruccio Corradetti (1867-1939) and Elisa Petri (1869-1929) are having a good time with it, with lots of improvised dialogue from Corradetti in the classic basso buffo style.
It’s only slightly funny but it’s definitely fun, all the more so if you follow along with the score to see how loosely they are following theirs. And the singing is impressive in its easy confidence and juicy tone. At the very end, Corradetti as the teacher calls out “open, open!” and Petri obediently converts her well-rounded note to an exaggerated verismo squall - switching gears to parody Santuzza instead of Semiramide. So they were up-to-date after all!
Teatro Nuovo puts great emphasis on learning from the singers who had never heard, or heard of, microphone singing - primitive recordings from more than a century ago, forming a link to the traditions of opera’s heyday and the infinite potential of the natural, unassisted human voice. Check this space regularly for samples, and click here for some pointers on how to listen.