TAKE IT FROM THE TOP: The Da Capo Aria

Frescobaldi-aria-frescobalda

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.

Hän­del

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.

Farinelli, the most famous of the great castrati.

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.

Sen­esino sang many Han­del roles

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.