Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Changing the Score

Poriss, Hilary. Changing the Score: Arias, Prima Donnas, and the Authority of Performance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Until recently much of musicology was focused on the lives of composers and putting out accurate editions of their work. That was important work, especially considering how many misprints and mistakes there were in the available published scores of so much of the vocal literature. With so much of that work completed or at least underway, many are shifting their focus to the study of musical culture.  Not just what music was composed but how it was performed and disseminated. What would one have heard when attending the opera or a concert or recital? This is especially of interest in opera where the practices of inserting arias or even ensembles, often by other composers, into works was commonplace and even expected. Hillary Poriss’s Changing the Score offers a detailed look at that practice. She focuses mainly on women singers, though not exclusively, focusing on the most common types of insertions and substitutions. 

I recommend this book for several reasons. First, I think it is important for us to understand what performances were like during the era when these operas were written and being widely performed. Second, she clears up a number of misconceptions, especially in showing that the practice extended well into the 19th century and that efforts were still underway to restrict the practice as late and 1870. (And in fact, there are still some substitutions/additions and transpositions that occur in standard repertoire operas to this day.) And finally, it is worth our time to look at some of these “trunk” arias as they might be good additions to recital and concert performances today. If they were of sufficient quality for singers like Giuditta Pasta and Maria Malibran to carry around the orchestra parts with them, they certainly warrant a fresh look today. 

I would also like to point out that knowing how widespread this practice was, it is important to remember that when reading that a particular singer sang a certain role, because that does not mean they sang exactly what is printed in our Ricordi or Bärenreiter scholarly edition of the score. In many cases it means nothing of the sort. Please keep that in mind when reading that a singer sang something that we now associate with a different voice type. Likely she transposed some numbers, left some passages out and inserted arias deemed to be more appropriate to her voice. 

Here are some links to some of these arias. Interestingly, several them are available on because they were published separately from the opera score due to their popularity even though the opera they are from fell into obscurity. Here are some examples.  Here are some examples noted by Poriss on pages 78-81.

For mezzo-soprano: Tu che I miseri conforti/Di tanti palpiti from Tancredi by Rossini

It seems odd to include this on the list. This was for most of the 19th century the most popular opera in the repertoire, so much so that Wagner quotes it in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (his only quotation other than the Dresden Amen in Parsifal). I love this aria and sadly almost never hear it. If this fits your voice, please add it to your repertoire!

For mezzo-soprano: Or che son vicino a te from Il Conte di Lenosse by Giuseppe Nicolini

Nicolini was once a prolific and prominent composer. There are several more composers like him on this list. 

For soprano, mezzo-soprano or tenor: I soave e bel contento/I tuoi frequenti palpiti from Niobe by Giovanni Pacini

Yes, singers from all three Fächer inserted this aria into performances of other operas!

For soprano: Nell’ebbrezza dell’amore from Ines de Castro by Giuseppe Persiani 

This opera was originally composed for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples with an opening night cast that included Maria Malibran and Gabriel-Louis Duprez. It was a huge hit and this aria remained popular long after the opera faded from view.

For soprano: Alla gioia, ed al piacer from Bianca e Fernando by Bellini

For soprano: from Donizetti’s Ugo, conte di Parigi

This opera premiered in the same Carnaval season as Bellini’s Norma and with the same singers, but without the same success.

For tenor: Ma dov’è? Perchè fugge I miei sguardi from Cesare in Egitto by Giovanni Pacini

Of the mostly forgotten bel canto composers, Pacini is the one most unjustly neglected. He was successful in his own time and known especially for his brilliant cabalette. Fortunately, recordings of many of his work exist from Opera Rara and other groups devoted to less well-known operas. 

For baritone: Era notte oscura, oscura from Contessa di Foresen by Valentino Fioravanti

Fioravanti is another prolific but alas now forgotten composer of the bel canto era. I was not able to find an online score, but it will be possible to find this and most of the rest in libraries.

Giuditta Pasta’s favorite Insertion arias:

In addition to the aforementioned Tu che accendi/Di tanti palpiti from Tancredi by Rossini (1813) and Il soave e bel contento/I tuoi frequenti palpiti from Niobe by Pacini (1826) Poriss lists some of Pasta’s favorite trunk arias. 

Several are by Rossini or Bellini:

Elena! oh tu, che chiamo from La donna del lago by Rossini (1819)

Ah! si per voi già sento from Otello by Rossini (1816)

Ah! quel giorno ognor rammento from Semiramide by Rossini (1823)

Or sei pago, o ciel tremendo from Il pirata by Bellini (1829)

Bell’alme avventurose from Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra by Rossini (1815)

Dolci d’amor parole from Tancredi by Rossini 

This aria was composed by Rossini for the first Tancredi, Adelaide Malanotte, to sing instead of Tu che accendi/Di tanti palpiti.

There are also other trunk arias less well known to modern audiences. 

Perchè straziarmi tanto from Giulio Cesare nelle Gallie by Giuseppe Nicolini (1819)

Falate imagine d’un primo affetto from an unidentified opera by Giovanni Pacini (1819)

Frenar vorrei le lagrime from La morte di Semiramide by Marcos Antonio Portogallo (1801)

Prima s’avvezzi al lamp from Fedra by Ferdinando Orlandi (1820)

Lungi dal caro ben from La sposa Fedele by Giovanni Pacini (1819)

Sommo ciel from Giulietta e Romeo by Niccolò Zingarelli (1796)

Ah, come rapida fuggi la speme/L’aspetto adoribile from Il crociato in Egitto by Meyerbeer (1824, rev. 1825) (The cavatina was composed by Meyerbeer for Pasta in the revised version of the opera. The origin of the cabaletta is unknow although Poriss cites Giuseppe Nicolini as its possible composer.)

Il braccio mio conquisse/Or che son vicino a te from Il conte di Lenosse by Giuseppe Nicolini (1820)

It was not just arias that singers added into other works. Sometimes duets and other ensembles were inserted as well, but perhaps the strangest case is one in which it became common to replace an entire scene. The practice of substituting the ending of Romeo e Giulietta by Niccolò Vaccai (BCBC’s patron saint!) for that of Bellini’s I Capuleti e Montecchi. Although Maria Malibran did not originate this practice, she performed the opera this way so often that her name because attached to the practice so that it was often referred to as alla Malibran. Poriss devotes an entire chapter to this particular practice offering reasons that Vaccai’s ending might have been found preferable to Bellini’s. (Note: Romeo’s aria from Vaccai’s version “Ah, se tu dormi, svegliati” is also worth investigating.

As an addendum, Poriss cites two books that will be of interest for anyone wanting to know how opera really worked both as an art and as a business in the 19th century:

Giovanni Valle. Cenni teorico-pratici sulle aziende teatrale. 1823 (Available online!) A detailed guidebook of standard theatrical practices from that time.

Nicola Tacchinardi. Dell’opera in musica sul teatro italiano e de’ suoi difetti. 1833. (copies of the 1995 facsimile edition are available for around 10 euros or through Interlibrary loan.) Tacchinardi was a tenor well versed in the practices of that era. He often inserted the aria â€œMa dov’è? perchè fugge i miei sguardi” from Pacini’s La sacerdotessa d’Irminsul (an opera with a plot similar to Bellini’s Norma). 

That is a lot of information from a book that is just a little over 200 pages, and I have saved some of it for another blog post! There is a lot more to bel canto than Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti (not that they did not provide us with more than enough music!) There are some real gems here, much of it, to quote my teacher and mentor Dr. Jeffrey Snider, of “suitable doctoral obscurity.” It is easy to imagine several lecture-recital topics along these lines. Enjoy!

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