A singer performing an aria is a lot like a shortstop doing his job in a baseball game. When the batter hits a fly ball that heads right for the shortstop who only has to backup a few steps, raise his hands over his head, and catch the ball for the out, it’s the athletic equivalent of an aria like Mimi’s “Si mi chiamano Mimi” in La Bohème: short, sweet, enormously satisfying (at least for the shortstop’s team) and it leaves the audience wanting more.
But occasionally things get more complicated. The ball is hit with terrific force and propelled to the right of the shortstop, which means he has only a couple of seconds (at most) to race to it. But before he gets to it, the ball bounces and abruptly shoots way above his head, so he has to leap into the air, snag the ball, and hurl it toward first base as he’s turning his body back in the direction he needs to throw the ball — all in midair, all within two seconds, maximum — if he is to make the out. That spectacular combination of speed, technical prowess, split-second timing, thrilling accuracy and overarching elegance is the athletic equivalent of the Da Capo aria. Fortunately for us, Handel’s opera Ariodante is chock full of ’em.
All Da Capo arias have three distinct sections: an opening (A) section followed by a shorter, contrasting (B) section, after which the A section is repeated — this time with embellishments. Yes embellishments, as when a great jazz musician takes a familiar tune and plays with it, ornamenting it, using the additional notes to bring out even more of the song’s emotion, to make it more personal, and to help listeners understand it more deeply and connect with it on a more profound level. That’s exactly the task facing the singers of Da Capo arias. Not only do they have to cope with Handel’s original demanding vocal lines (sections A and B) which require an extraordinarily secure vocal technique to bring off — while never allowing the singer to hide behind a surging orchestra, as later composers sometimes did. Handel also expected them to personalize the repeat of the A section by adding additional notes, perhaps slightly changing the existing musical line, varying the color of the voice, but always within the boundaries of their character in the opera as well as the emotion and drama the aria itself is expressing.
Given that daunting task, it is not surprising that Handel was writing for some of the greatest singers in the last three hundred years, the castrati. Nor is it surprising that some of their performances are the stuff of operatic legend.
The arias became known as Da Capo arias because the words “Da Capo” (“from the top” or “from the beginning”) appear in the score at the end of the B section of the aria. And yes, for fans of The Godfather saga, “capo” in “Da Capo aria” is exactly the same word as “capo” (“chief” or “head”) in Mafia. The fact that many contemporary singers think learning and performing Da Capo arias is murder, as well as the fact singers sometimes wish Handel were alive today so they could put out a contract on his life for the agony they go through coping with his Da Capo arias, is purely coincidental.
Arias in operas are like soliloquies in spoken drama. They are opportunities for the composer to exploit dramatic and emotional situations and, if the composer is really good at his job, to let the audience know more about the character singing the aria. Opera without arias is pretty much unheard of, though various composers — often German — have tried it, but the good ones always ended up writing arias anyway, even if they didn’t call them that. But surely no period in operatic history was so completely devoted to arias as was the Baroque.
In fact, Handel’s operas are composed almost entirely of arias, most of them Da Capo arias, separated by recitative. The chorus only appears at the end on an act, and ensembles are usually confined to a very occasional duet. In Ariodante there are four duets — extremely generous by Handelian standards, two in the first act (which together account for under three minutes of music), and two longer duets in the third act (lasting about ten minutes total). Trios, quartets, quintets, sextets are as scarce in Handel operas as castrati are on today’s opera stage.
At first. this can make Handel operas sound rather odd to modern ears since we are used to operas with numerous ensembles sprinkled through them. We are comfortable with an opera like Rigoletto advancing its plot by having four characters sing their own, unique music, all at the same time, to expresss their feelings. If Handel had written Rigoletto, the same situation would have been conveyed in four different arias in a row, with the spotlight on each singer in turn. This would, of course, take much more time to accomplish than the five minutes or so it takes to perform the Quartet from Rigoletto, but our modern view of “getting on with it” was not a part of Baroque sensibilities. Nor was our modern mania for “realism” on stage. Human emotion, however, does not change, though the style with which it is expressed, might. Love is love is love, no matter if it happens in 1250 or 2050. The way two people go about expressing that love outwardly might vary, as might a whole host of related activities. But the emotion itself is eternal and universal.
Which brings us right back to the Da Capo aria. At first listen, Da Capo arias can sound artificial or seem very formal, especially when an audience today hears five or six of them in a row. But the critic who spoke of “the deadeningly predictable da capo form” is missing the point entirely. That is like complaining the world’s greatest museums are “deadingly predictable” because all the paintings have four sides with a frame around them. Duh! Maybe try looking at the paintings themselves — at the different subject matter, and the various colors and techniques, and being open to the emotion and drama of the individual paintings. The same marvelous variety can be found in Da Capo arias Handel wrote for the same work.
Take, for example, two Da Capo arias known by every American over the age of 12, from the ubiquitous performances of Handel’s Messiah without which it seems we cannot celebrate either Christmas and Easter: “He was despised and rejected” and “The trumpet shall sound.” “He was despised” is an astounding portrayal of grief, the emotion made all the more pronounced, and profound, by the utter simplicity of the lamenting vocal line. This means almost anyone in the average church choir can get out the actual notes of the aria. But only the greatest singers can truly mine all the aria’s nuances and soul shattering emotion. Contrast that with the unfettered triumph and joy of “The trumpet shall sound.” Could two arias be more different?
One writer defined Baroque operas as “complex mosaics with the arias as articulate cameos.” In Ariodante, Handel was such a skillful composer, he not only provided incredibly detailed, beautifully rendered cameos, he actually brought those cameos to life, and in the process gave us a peek into our own hearts. All thanks to his dazzling mirror, the Da Capo aria.
A slightly different version of this article appeared in the Houston Grand Opera Playbill in 2002.