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Vol. VIII.


No. 93


Bel Canto

An unusual number of readers wrote to say that they had enjoyed my editorial about old records, and asked me to take the first opportunity ,to say some more about them. When I wrote I did not have by me the Catalogue No.2, and so I did an unwitting injustice to H.M.V. in deploring the removal of so many Battistini records. Actually in the No.2 Catalogue thirteen double-sided discs are to be found. Nobody can pretend to criticise bel canto without making a study of Battistini records, for he was certainly the greatest exponent of i t on the gramophone. Bel canto l i terally means beautiful singing, but i t is a phrase which has come to include all the arts and graces or, as some would call them, artificial conventions, which combine to produce a vocal performance that must not only be appropriately related to reality or the imitation of reality, but must also conform to certain conventions, and in conforming to them produce in itself a complete and perfect hagment of the whole. One of the vitiating influences upon modern acting is the belief of every young whippersnapper who loafs about the boards of a London theatre that his chief job is to produce what he considers a "realistic" interpretation of the author's characters. The result has been an increasing tendency among authors to write parts with an eye to some special actor or actress. It was bad enough when the actor-manager star demanded 'a part written for himself, but at least , the ' actormanager star usually had a training behind him which enabled him to trim his egoism down to some kind of recognisable form. What has happened in acting has happened in singing, and the real faihire of British Opera is the pitiable lack of experience of most British singers. Personally, I regard this comic endowment of British Opera by Mr. Snowden as on a par with Mr. Lansbury's equally'comic endowment of London with a British Lido. There is only one ' way to endow British Opera, and that is to provide a fund which will enable BrItish singers to learn how to sing opera. The B.B.C. has produced opera after opera in English, and to not one of these productions has i t been possible for a man of the world to l isten for more than five minutes at a stretch. The Columbia Company has done all that was possible to give British Opera singers an oppor-

tunity to justify themselves as artists, and the unsophisticated public has responded well by buying the albums of translated operas. But that unsophist icated public is not being trained to appreciate the best. A National Opera will be a waste of money until i t can be as sure of an audience as intelligently critical of good singing as any football ground will produce for good £ootball. I admit that I am prejudiced in favour of Italian singing, but after all a large proportion of the operas being performed are Italian. British l ibrettists and British composers must get together and try to produce genuine British opera, for the British style of singing will never interpret the material at our disposal. Take this question of bel canto. A man l ike Battistini, who had been grounded for years in what are now regarded by superior folk as the absurdities of Bellini, Doniietti, and early , Verdi, was able to apply his experience to the mock realism of Puccini or Leoncavallo or Mascagni, and paradoxically by the use of old conventions produce a much more genuinely realistic performance. Nobody has sung ScaI"pia's great aria at the end of the First Act of La Tosca as well as Battistini. The disc has vanished from the No. 2 Catalogue, because old recording was incapable of dealing adequately with the clanging bells, the Te Deum, and the rest of the Hrealistic" accessories of the melodrama. But what a lesson i t was!

Battistini was singing almost to the day of his death in his 72nd year, and so complete was his mastery of technique that he was able to go on recording almost to the end. There are some people who dislike what seems to them the ar:tlficiality of bel canto; but since all singing is an artificial form of expression, this -merely betrays the uncultivated taste. - Singing would never have. got beyond the noise made - by -howler m.onkey~ in the jungles of Brazil, by the shrieks of infuriated infants in their cradles, or by the wild shouts of. excited mobs, if uncultivated taste had been allowed to dominate. The insufficiently trained singer when asked to perform such a role as Germont in Traviata handicaps himself by an attempt to simulate what he supposes the heavy father of the mid-Victorian age was like . . A singer like Battistini knows that there was a conventional heavy father style and applied i t to Germont. He gave us the stock figure, and as

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