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by Luca

In the beginning of the nineteenth century opera seria, the tenor was beginning to be accepted for the role of the young lover or hero in place of the castrato, but the more common option was to use women in pants roles, especially contraltos. These women sung the roles originally written for castrati, but new roles started to by written for them. There was still prejudice against the tenor as the lover – in serious opera they still sounded with a more baritonal quality, but the voice was gaining ground.
The “baritone-tenor” was being linked to roles as the noble-father or the rival, but now starts to play the lover or hero. Nonetheless, Rossini was still not inspired by that voice to write romantic passages. For him, the tenor voice sung in a more robust way – not as heartfelt or full of pathos. As the tenor conquered more roles as the hero or lover, someone had to replace him as the rival. Since that new voice was lacking, Rossini had to differentiate them by writing higher tessituras for the hero. We have them roles written for the “baritone-tenor” and the ones written for the tenorino, the higher tenor, with a lighter voice. In Rossini’s first operas, the tenor has a fairly central tessitura without much agility passages. For L’Italiana in Algeri the role is really high, as well as the tenor role in Il turco in Italia. But in Il Barbiere di Siviglia the tenor role is back at a middle tessitura. This means Rossini was writing for specific voices, and making the best use possible of all their individual abilities.
An important aspect to keep in mind when studying Rossini’s tenor roles is that, whether writing for the tenorinos or his baritenors, tessitura does not equal range. The baritenor also had to sing high Cs and even Ds, with their falsetto production, and both had to sing coloratura, but the tenorino had more runs and sat higher in his voice for most of the time.
When Rossini moved to Paris in 1824, he was able to work with some of the French greatest tenors of the time, and wrote several important roles in his operas for them. His last opera, Guillaume Tell (1829), was a new genre of Parisian grand opera. The music had less ornamentation and more dramatic singing. Rossini’s approach to singing provided France with singers who could compete with the Italians. In a way, the composer was able to bring together both worlds and traditions. A bigger exchange in their different singing schools was then possible, with French singers making a big success in Italy as well as the Italians in France.
The art of singing was quickly changing by then, as we will discuss in more detail in the next chapter. Rossini stopped composing operas after Guillaume Tell, as he felt that the old florid style was being replaced by a nervous style, where singing gave way to howling. For him, “the art of singing had fallen into decay”.
It was left to Bellini and Donizetti (and a bit later, a young Verdi) to work with the changing voices and singing techniques and create newer works. Opera was changing, and the happy ending of most Bel Canto works was giving way to the tragedies of Romantic opera. The tenor, now with a clearer, ringing voice, had gained once and for all the role of the lover or hero. His voice was now considered the vocal symbol of youth.
The tenor was then given less coloratura parts – except when the roles were written for performers of the Rossini tradition. Donizetti was the one who fixed the real tessitura of the Romantic tenor – high, but not excessively, passing it on to Verdi.

The tenore di forza
The Bel Canto era saw the tenor take over the main roles in opera – both comic and seria. After the castrati run out of fashion, the remaining castrati singers became teachers, passing to the next generation of singers their ideas of proper vocal production and expressiveness. The tenors who studied with them inherited the lightness of their top range. But after the second quarter of the nineteenth century, fewer teachers were castrati, and tenors were trained with a more powerful and loud technique.
For a few decades, tenors were trying to bring their chest voice higher in their register, delaying the switch to a pure head voice or falsetto. That way, they were able to produce a more exciting sound, gaining a new masculine sexuality in Italian opera. This was the arrival of the tenore di forza (tenor of strength), using his chest voice for sentiments of adoration or defiance. They became known as the archetype of the lover, perpetually about to burst into flame. There was no more gender ambiguity with castrati or women in pants roles. The tenor was now the only voice fit to play the lover. “Sex goes a long way to explaining the rise of the tenor” (Rosselli, 1992).
As the new singing technique gained force, the key to stardom in the tenor opera world was the high notes sung fortissimo from the chest. (Rosselli, 1992). Even tenors with a “quasi-nasal” vocal production were successful, even though their sound was unpleasing by the lights of the pre-Verdi period. The new way of singing consisted in a lower larynx position who allowed a darker timbre and powerful chested notes on the higher register. With this, the tenor voice became less agile but with more tone color and dramatic singing – a sound better suited for the more dramatic roles being written for them. Opera turned to stage effects to the detriment of musical effects.
Most tenor had to make the transition to the new style of singing to remain marketable. Several singers ruined their voices in the transition of styles and new vocal demands. Sometimes, there were more tragic consequences. On 1822 the Italian tenor Americo Sbigoli attempted to sing with the new technique and burst a blood vessel in his neck, dying on stage.
Tenors had to sound more powerful and loud rather than elegant and smooth. Even though many were practicing to bring their chest voice as high as possible, others were trying to join chest and head voices and make the transition imperceptible. That way, the whole range of the voice would sound even. This approaches to singing are a fusion between the Italian style and the French.


(Dr. Stacey Jocoy – Texas Tech University)

Rockwell Blake ‎– Ermione (1819) “Reggia Abborita” from the Album “Encore: Rossini” – ℗ 𝟣989 Arabesque Recordings.
Conductor – M.° Maximiano Valdes
Orchestra – London Symphony Orchestra.
With Peter Jeffes.