In the decades from 1830 to 1850 opera as we know it was born. And yet very little of this music is heard today.
It was primarily the era of Grand Opera, the era of Meyerbeer and Halévy, the one period in operatic history when French opera dominated the scene. The French had never liked the castrati or their Italian successors the heroic mezzo-sopranos, and embraced the appearance of Duprez and the heavy tenor with great enthusiasm. Plots became melodramatic and tragic. It wasn’t serious opera unless someone died.
Rossini had moved to Paris and made a serious effort to adapt to French fashion, only to see a new style arise which he didn’t want to participate in. The other Italians made similar efforts to succeed in Paris, especially Donizetti who had the most success there.
I’m not trying to write a history of opera, only of singing technique. Someone else will have to discuss the disappearance of secco recitative, the breakdown of the alternating recitative and aria structure, etc. We’re here just for technique.
Important in the history of Grand Opera is the appearance of modern musical instruments, especially valved horns and trumpets which first appeared in La Juive by Fromental Halévy, 1835. This resulted in a heavier, thicker, brassier orchestration used to increase the dramatic intensity, and as a result requiring a heavier vocal technique to sing over the heavier orchestra.
I would like to suggest that the transformation of opera from light to heavy singing was the result of these things: Gilbert Duprez, the dominance of French over Italian opera, the appearance of a louder, more tonally flexible orchestra, and the French fashion for heavy tragedy. My impression is that the transition in Paris was sudden, but in Italy was much slower.
In Italy Giovanni Battista Rubini, a light tenor with a very high leggiero voice, was still the dominant tenor. Vicenzo Bellini still wrote operas for him: Il Pirata, La Sonnambula and I Purtani. Bellini also followed Rossini and wrote an opera with a mezzo-soprano hero: I Capuleti e i Montecchi.
When performed in Paris, the Italian operas had to be adapted to Parisian fashion, in many cases practically rewritten. It is an era of great turmoil. The Italians adapted reluctantly, but by 1848 Bellini and Donizetti were both dead, leaving the field open to a new Italian master: Giuseppe Verdi. Singing in Verdi will be discussed separately.