Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Che volete cantare?

A few weeks ago, I highlighted many “trunk arias” mentioned in Hillary Poriss’s excellent book Changing the Score. The practice of inserted foreign arias into operas went into decline by the mid-19th century with one exception: the lesson scene in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia. That moment alone deserves special attention (and Poriss devotes many pages to it). 

The scene is a familiar one to operagoers. Count Almaviva, disguised as the student Lindoro, and double-disguised as Rosina’s music teacher asks her, “Che volete cantare?” As Poriss jokingly notes, “No other question in the operatic repertory has ever received a greater variety of responses.”

Lessons scenes were not unusual in 18th century opere buffe nor was the practice of the prima donna singing whatever she wanted in place of the music the composer had written for that scene (if they even bothered to write any at all). Rossini’s aria for the lesson scene is “Contro il cor.” It is a fine aria in no need of replacement but replace it they did!

Even during Rossini’s lifetime, Rosinas often chose another, showier (and in most cases much longer) Rossini arias, most often “Tu che accendi/Di tanti palpiti” from Tancredi. The showpiece from La Cenerentola: “Nacqui all’affanno e al pianto”. “Oggetto amabile” from Sigismondo. “Quel dirmi, oh Dio” from La pietra del paragone. Some even moved “Una voce poco fa” to the lesson scene!

Soon divas were looking beyond Rossini and singing something by Pacini, Donizetti, Bellini and their contemporaries and predecessors. And later they even began adding Verdi arias into the mix. You may notice that this also shows us the shift in casting of the role of Rosina from mezzo to soprano.

“Deh consola i voti miei” scena and rondo by Pietro Generali

The rondo finale from Pacini’s Gli Arabi nelle Gallie

“Forse un destin che intendere/V’era un di” from Donizetti’s Parisina

“Ernani!…Ernani involami” (Ernani)

“Vieni, t’affretta” (Macbeth)

(Even I must admit that the first two are very obscure. I included a link to Caballé singing the Parisina aria. The last two are well-known and easy to find.)

Later, theme and variation arias became popular in the lesson scene. 

“Ah! Vous dirai-je maman” (Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star) from Le toréador by Adolphe Adam

(Even if this piece is unfamiliar, everyone will know the tune. I have provided a link to a performance of Beverly Sills and company performing this in a production of Barbiere which shows how recently this aria was still being performed. This is a fun and audience-pleasing piece for recitals. Curiously when searching I found mostly pianists of the current generation performing a transcription of it.)

Air à la tyrolienne by Johann Nepomuk Hummel (includes yodeling!)

“Air varié” by Pierre Rode (This one is curious as it is a violin piece! It is only fair that singers perform transcriptions of instrumental pieces considering how often the reverse happens!)

Beginning with Patti and extending to about WWI it became common for Rosinas to sing 3-4 arias in the lesson scene giving the audience a mini-concert at that point, although even before Patti, there were singers doing more than singing one aria in that scene. Pauline Viardot often sang a selection of Spanish songs and then played some Chopin Marzurkas on the piano in the lesson scene. 

Marcella Sembrich (whom many critics considered to be Patti’s rightful successor) offered “Voci di primavera” (Frühlingstimmen) a concert aria by Johann Strauss Jr, followed by the song “Zyczenie” (Maiden’s Wish) by Chopin (she accompanied herself on the piano for the Chopin) and then concluded with “Ah! Non giunge” from Bellini’s La Sonnambula. Later she replaced the last piece with an unidentified German lullaby and Lucia’s Mad Scene.

In the following generations the following pieces were commonly found in various combinations in the lesson scene:

Home Sweet Home by Sir Henry Bishop

Il bacio by Luigi Arditi

“The Last Rose of Summer” for Flotow’s Martha

The Swiss Echo Song by Karl Anton Florian Eckert

“Carnival of Venice” a variation set by Jules Benedict

“Charmant oiseau” from Félicien David’s Le perle du Brésil

“Je suis Titania” from Ambroise Thomas’s Mignon

The Belle Song from Lakmé by Leo Delibes

The mad scene from Lucia!

Nellie Melba favored “Sévillane” by Massenet and “Serenata” by Tosti

After WW II some of the excesses started to be curtailed and many singers went back to singing “Contro il cor” in the lesson scene. Maria Callas did as much as anyone to advocate to returning Rossini’s original aria to the mad scene with her popular 1957 recording of the complete opera. We still hear interpolations in that scene, although usually it is another Rossini aria like the Rondo from La Donna del Lago. (I heard Cecilia Bartoli perform that aria in the lesson scene in 1992.) I can’t remember hearing of a mini-concert performed at that moment in my lifetime. 

This is an interesting look at performance practice over the past 200 years. It also shows how the changes in casting of the role of Rosina and the many ups and downs of various pieces in the mezzo and soprano repertoire. Many of these pieces will be familiar. Some are easily found in some of the older coloratura anthologies, while others will likely be completely unknown to most singers and opera fans today. 

Many of these are worthy of rediscover. The lighter pieces would be appropriate for pops concerts or less formal events. Curiously, performances of many of these pieces are easier to find in piano or orchestral transcriptions than sung by sopranos. Transcriptions (like the variations) have made a huge comeback with pianists and yet classical singers and their teachers mostly remain in the purist camp. Not all of these will be to everyone’s taste, but we should bring back some fun to accompany the high notes!

Update: More Lesson Scene Interpolations!

Dr. Hilary Poriss has compiled a database of all the interpolations into the lesson scene that she and her colleagues could find. It’s much more extensive than the list I posted in an earlier blog post and includes a great deal of repertoire that will be of interest to singers. It also includes links to sources, reviews and in some cases the music itself. Here is the link. Enjoy.