Bel Canto Cello: Resignation and Rebellion in Verdi's I Masnadieri Preludio
Updated: Sep 25, 2021
A central feature of Italian opera through the 19th century, the bel canto singing style also influenced cellists of the Italian school such as Piatti, C. A. Casella, and Braga, all born in the 1820s. But “Beautiful singing” was more than just an approach to singing or playing: bel canto also referred to the kind of music intended to be performed in the bel canto singing style, including the many fantasies with variations on famous opera arias by Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, and Verdi that these and other Romantic-era cellists were fond of composing and performing.
A more unusual example in the bel canto cello repertoire is the "Preludio" of Verdi’s early opera I Masnadieri – unusual because it is a self-contained piece (i.e., it can be played independently) and it is not a cellist's paraphrase of existing vocal music. In the summer of 1847, when I Masnadieri (The Robbers) was premiered in London, commentators questioned why Verdi had not provided a more bombastic orchestral overture and thought that the prelude, seemingly unrelated to the rest of the opera, was too insubstantial to serve in its place. It certainly showcased the talent of Alfredo Piatti, the new first cellist of Her Majesty’s Theatre, and there was general agreement that his playing of the prelude was a highlight of the opera’s premiere. It can also be argued that giving the lone cello centerstage IS related to the subject of the opera as whole, because it brings out the idea of isolation so central to The Robbers, a tragic story driven by student-turned-robber Carlo’s estrangement from his family and fiancé, and culminating in his calamitous choice of fidelity to the robber band over his love for Amalia. The isolation idea has important implications for interpreting the cello solo – is its character one of unalloyed melancholy, or is there a stronger vein of personal rebellion running through it?
Among recorded interpretations of the I Masnadieri prelude, my personal favorite has long been the performance of Norman Jones, who sings on his cello with an authoritative balance of pathos and protest to open a fine 1970s recording of the complete opera. (Jones's prelude is also excerpted on a remarkable recorded anthology of British cello playing.) Another of my favorites is Ottokar Borwitzky’s masterfully sculpted version on a 1970s Berlin Philharmonic compilation of Verdi overtures; here each phrase unfolds in a considerably slower tempo, with a palpable attention to the shaping of each note and figure and an almost recitative-like enunciation, without sacrificing Borwitzky’s beautifully burnished tone quality. Perhaps most compelling is Mario Brunello’s live performance of 2001. Seated before the orchestra in concerto (or concert aria) style and performing from memory, Brunello treats the prelude as an impassioned aria, with a voluptuous singing tone and a full array of expressive note connections.
The most intriguing version for me is on the November 25, 1972 live recording of I Masnadieri, from a performance by the Rome Opera (the RAI cellist is not credited). It is the only one I have heard that is extended by a cadenza not composed by Verdi. Might Piatti himself have “personalized” his 1847 London performances of the prelude in this way (with his own cadenza)? This is especially interesting given that one critic famously declared that the only truly beautiful aspect of I Masnadieri at its premiere was Jenny Lind’s singing of cadenzas of her own invention, i.e., the bits not composed by Verdi. This same critic (Chorley) had objected that the traditional overture had been reduced to a cello solo, but others were not disappointed:
“…commencing with some powerful passages for the full orchestra, which introduce
a very charming andante, [the prelude] may be considered a sort of cavatina for the
violoncello, not less on account of the extremely vocal character of the solo part and the
plan of the movement, than of the exquisite manner in which it was executed by Signor
Piatti, than which no singing could be more pure or perfect.” (“I Masnadieri” in The
Morning Post (London), July 23, 1847, p. 5)
For an extensive, yet evenhanded discussion of the original production of I Masnadieri, read Massimo Zicari’s Verdi in Victorian London (Ch. 4, pp 57-76). For an informative exposition on the principles of bel canto cello playing, read Clare Tunney's 2012 DMA dissertation.