TAKE IT FROM THE TOP: The Da Capo Aria

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.