A Note on Bel Canto

The More I learn, the Less I Know

A Note on Bel Canto


The initial focus of this translation project has been on Italian operas from the first half of the 19th century that represent a particular style and set of vocal music genres that are characterized by the term bel canto. The concept comprises not only a manner of singing but also the music itself, compositions that came to adopt a number of formal and stylistic conventions best exemplified in the works of the four principal exponents, Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, and Verdi (at least until around 1850). A brief review of the principal features of bel canto operas and the terms associated with them may be useful to some as an introduction to this body of work.


The history of opera from the later 1700s to the end of the romantic period shows, at least in Italy, not only a steady increase in the prestige and seriousness of musical drama but also a remarkable formal transformation that paralleled the evolution of ever longer and more complex movements in instrumental music in Central Europe.

When opera first appeared at the very beginning of the 17th century in Florence, it was explicitly an attempt to recreate what renaissance scholars imagined Greek drama to have been. Under the influence of an idealistic group of literary and musical thinkers called the Florentine Camerata, composers such as Claudio Monteverdi and Iacopo Peri created a new art form that was essentially a verse text based on classical sources declaimed as in a spoken stage play except musically scored for a singing voice accompanied by a small orchestra and punctuated by choral interludes. By the end of the century, music drama consisting of free-form monodic recitation had evolved into a sequence of closed-form songs and choral pieces with orchestra separated and linked by stretches of non-melodic declamation with only minimal harmonic underpinning provided by the basso continuo, that is, one or two instruments providing the base line and harmonies, eventually just harpsichord or clavichord.

Thus early 18th-century opera, as represented in the works of Handel, for example, was a staged drama based on stories from history, myth, or heroic romance (something with which the audience would be at lest glancingly familiar). The singers enacting these stories displayed their skills in elaborate solo set-pieces (rarely duets or other ensembles) with orchestral accompaniment called da capo arias. This is a fairly rigid form consisting of about fifteen minutes of music setting eight lines of verse in A-B-A form. After a brief orchestral prelude called the ritornello the the first four lines are sung to a long baroque melody with an extended development. In the second part, the other four lines are similarly set to different melodic material. The third part recapitulates the first more succinctly but with more elaborate, wholly or partly improvised vocal ornamentation. These arias express a character’s thoughts or feelings, either to the audience or to another character, like monologues or soliloquys in spoken drama. Dialogue, action, and other elements of storytelling are the funtion of the recitativo secco, or “dry recitative,” sections, which also serve the purpose of modulating harmonically from the key of one set piece to that of the next. Brilliant and moving as a da capo aria may be as music, it is basically a static island within a forward-moving narrative arc. In the second half of the 18th century, opera seria, as the genre came to be known, became even more stylized and artificial, with arias that were not much more than platforms for attention-grabbing acrobatic vocal displays. It is no wonder that a rival school arose advocating a more serious approach to musical integrity and dramatic verisimilitude. As I see it, by the end of the 18th century, three important developments were taking place that affected the Italian school and created a foundation for the rise of “romantic” opera and the bel canto style.

The first, interestingly enough, was the evolution of comic opera, or opera buffa, which drew its dramatic material, not from Greek and Roman legend but from the comedy of contemporary life. Comic opera, in contrast to opera seria, included “ensemble” numbers, i.e., duets, trios, and larger combinations of voices, as well as more complex “finales,” longer numbers at the end of an act that are made up of a “through-composed” series of solo and ensemble sections, uninterrupted by recitative. These heretofore neglected musical resources came to be adopted by composers of “serious” opera, with a resulting enhancement of musical variety.

Thus a second development was the expansion of the range of acceptable story material, with libretti based on other than classical or legendary sources. Now medieval or renaissance history, near contemporary events, and even religious subjects, previously consisdered sacrilegious or too politically sensitive, are common (although politics remained something of a mine field for librettists well into the 19th century). Along with this new taste came a blurring of the boundaries between styles. Thus old conventions went out of fashion to be replaced by new ones, and new genres such as opera semiseria emerged. We can see these currents playing out in the Italian operas of Mozart, with the caveat that Mozart never approached a convention without stretching or twisting it in some imaginative way. His two major opere serie, Idomeneo and La clemenza di Tito, stay largely within the strictures of a genre, with solo da capo arias, secco recitative, and leading rôles sung by castrati, his three most celebrated Italian “comic” operas do not. Cosi fan tutte, a contemporary comedy of manners in the buffa mode, is engagingly original in structure, with its double interlocking love triangle. Le nozze di Figaro is a comedy founded on a ubiquitous premise of potential serious melodrama, namely a nobleman plotting the sexual exploitation of an innocent maiden. Such themes are the basis of opera semiseria, as in Rossini’s La gazza ladra and Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix, or tragic melodrama, as in Verdi’s Luisa Miller or Rigoletto. Don Giovanni, is sui generis, a unique hybrid of buffa and seria, a comedy that begins and ends with calamitous death scenes set to music that runs the entire gamut from cunning facetiousness to tragic grandeur.

The third development is an evolution of the musical forms themselves. Although bel canto operas do not avoid ornamentation or breaking up and repeating lines of text, nor does comic opera eliminate secco recitative with a keyboard instrument, there are definite tendencies toward dramatic thrust and tension, the extremes of emotion mirrored in orchestral effects that we have come to call “operatic.” Arias and ensembles are composed of smaller units in varied combinations that allow the composer to express character and advance the drama through rapid changes of tone and mood and juxtaposition of contrasting material. Recitative is more and more replaced by transitional passages that are both musically more satisfying and theatrically more effective. Though discrete closed forms remain, the plot-advancing dialogue and action between them gain in melodic and rhythmic qualities, colors, and dynamic range. Thus composers deliberately approach the Gluckian ideal as they create, master, and ultimately move beyond new conventions.


So now to arrive at the subject, what are the basic features of early 19th century Italian opera that audiences came to expect and that composers followed? What was familiar received practice, and what represented the new fashion? Here I shall try to enumerate and describe elements we expect in typical operas by Rossini or Donizetti. These are broad generalizations, so remember aspects of individual operas are influenced by dramatic imperatives or the external demands or limitations imposed upon the composer at a given time. In the next section we shall take a closer look at a typical opera by Donizetti by way of illustration.


Let us begin with the narrave raw material. Opera plots in the period have much the same form and variety as spoken stage plays, from which they are often derived. Three or four principal characters are caught in one sort of conflict or another that must be resolved by the end of the play. The resolution may come about through the death of the protagonist(s) or a a victory over the antagonist, a surprise revelation, or a change of heart that brings the conflict to a happy end. Comic operas always conclude happily, but by no means all “serious” operas of the period end in tragedy. Donizetti’s and Rossini’s melodramas often resolve to a happy ending. The fact that Verdi’s almost never do reflects perhaps a change in taste on the part of the public. Even today, of Donizetti’s serious operas, those most performed–Lucia, Maria Stuarda, and Anna Bolena–are among the darkest.

The standard themes reflect the deadly sins, particularly of envy, wrath, lust, avarice, and pride. The dramatic situations generally involve a love interest: thwarted love, love triangles, infidelity or the suspicion thereof. The erotic component may be coupled with a struggle for political power, a threatened or unpunished crime or injustice, or an ancient vendetta. In some cases, as in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, the “political” element takes precedence, and the love interest merely a subplot. In comic operas, young lovers’ predicaments may be solved through intervention of a clever facilitator and/or cunning subterfuges. An avaricious, lustful, or jealous antagonist is eventually overcome by ridicule and the cleverer protagonist, clearing the way for a happy union of the young couple. These are just the most common situations, but ones that clearly lend themselves to action involving the types of singing actors available to step into the various rôles.

Characters and distribution

There are almost always three central figures, a male protagonist, a female protagonist, and an male (sometimes female) antagonist. These characters are aided by two or three male and female companions, advisors, parents, or confidantes. In earlier periods the leading male rôle have been a baritone or a castrato, with a voice in the soprano or contralto range. Don Giovanni and Figaro in Le nozze are baritones or Nozze di Figaro, or a castrato The latter survive in some bel canto works such as in Rossini’s Semiramide or Tancredi or Romeo in Bellini’s Capuletti. These parts are now “pants rôles” for mezzos or contraltos. During the bel canto era, however, the practice of casting the protagonist, if he is a young lover, as a tenor became firmly established.

Expectations for the other principal parts became similarly fixed. The heroine, the prima donna, is a soprano. The antagonist is typically a baritone, if male, or a mezzo-soprano if female. If the story centers on an older principal character, a father or a king, for example, he may be a baritone or bass-baritone, with the tenor (his daughter’s suitor, for example) in a less central rôle. As for secondary parts, the heroine may have a rival, a sister, a mother, a handmaid or confidante played by a mezzo-soprano.

Other roles, which vary in number may be written for soprano or contralto, or predominantly lower male voices. Older characters, such as fathers, venerable clerics, counselors are basses. Young male subsidiary characters may be tenors or even mezzos playing “pants rôles.” In comic operas the antagonist posing an obstacle to the lovers, is often a comic bass (basso buffo), as in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale or Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri, but in other plots, like that of L’elisier d’amore, the tenor may vie with a baritone for the affections of the prima donna, and the comic bass may play the part of the facilitator. Finally, there is always a chorus representing townspeople, courtiers, soldiers, or whatever group or groups the story demands. The chorus may change roles several times within the same opera.

In any event, the opera is constructed so as to enlist the talents of the chorus and singers employed by the opera house. Thus parts for a prima donna, a primo tenore, a baritone, a mezzo-soprano are assured, with smaller rôles for one or more basses and other women’s voices. These conventions, once established, became virtually universal in all European opera and remained so into the 20th century even as opera began after 1850 to change in many other respects.


A bel canto opera consists of one, two, or three acts preceded by an overture. Some Italian composers also came to compose from French libretti for the French stage, where four or five acts, including a set of ballet dances, were the norm.

The overture is a separate, self-contained orchestral piece that consists of varied thematic material organized generally to proceed from a placid beginning through several contrasting sections joined by transitional passages to an energetic, rousing conclusion. It may or may not follow a symphony-allegro pattern of exposition, development, and recapitulation and may draw on themes and motifs from the opera or foreshadow its atmosphere. In the second half of the century, Verdi, for example typically replaced the overture with a briefer prelude. Rigoletto, La traviata, and Il trovatore all begin with only a few bars of atmospheric motifs leading directly into a scena or chorus,

As in earlier operas, the act itself consists of a series of discrete segments, or “numbers,” each comprising a solo aria, a duets, a chorus, or a larger ensemble interweaving multiple voices (often with participation from the chorus). The number also includes the transitional passages following the previous number. The number and type of these sections depends on the story line, but there are certain expectations that the librettist adapting the story to the stage was at pains to respect.

The first act typically begins with an orchestral, usually only a few measures followed, by a chorus. Then after after some transitional dialogue that providing essential exposition, one of the characters, usually, but not always, a male principal sings an opening aria.

Recitative and Scena. The transitional music between numbers may be in the form of plain recitative supported by a harmonic progression toward the key of the aria to come. In the case of comic opera, that will still often be recitativo secco supported by the traditional harpsichord continuo, but in tragedies or melodramatas it is always “accompanied” recitative, in which the orchestra may also interject musical reactions or ominous foreshadowings depending on the words exchanged. As the transition proceeds, however, recitative typically moves to more melodic declamation with more vocal ornament and greater orchestral participation. There may be even snatches of arioso, or passages with clear melodic contour but not self-contained, closed pieces. The general term for this “enhanced” declamation is scena. The distinction is not always obvious, but in general when the music becomes a continuous accompaniment, with a distinct rhythmic form or thematic repetition, but is still open-ended, without a predictable shape, we may consider it a scena.

Aria. An aria is a closed form—a distinct piece based on one or two complete melodies beginning and ending in the same key—performed by a single singer. During this time the da capo aria of the 18th century was largely abandoned and replaced in Italian opera by a new and distinctive form, one that was dramtically effective and durable and which also adds more of a sense of unity to the succession of discrete numbers. The typical three-part bel canto aria reflects the common psychological progression in drama from thought or contemplatioin to resolve or action. The first part is slow and lyrical, cantabile, expressing a character’s tender feelings or nostalgically relating an experience. If it is the singer’s first aria, it is generally referred to as a cavatina. It is generally eight lines or more sung through without repetition (except for possibly the last lines). The cantabile aria is followed by a passage of scena called the tempo di mezzo involving interaction with other characters or the chorus which leads to the cabaletta, a faster, energetic thematically different section for the same singer expressing a contrasting emotion or a resolve to action. There follows another passage of scena after which the cabaletta is repeated to a rousing conclusion, extended with repeated phrases and often interjections from the chorus. It is customary for the prima donna not to make her appearance and deliver her opening aria until after the first scene.

As the opera progresses, after each of the principals has had his or her cavatina and cabaletta, other solo forms are possible, not necessarily with the full the three-part structure. Thus we may hear something identified as a romanza or a ballata or a brindisi (a drinking toast). Often, at the end of the last act, particularly in comic opera, the tenor or soprano sings a final aria, a single piece but full of elaborate fiorituri, or vocal ornamentation.

Duet and Ensemble. An ensemble is a set-piece segment of an act in which more than one soloist participate, either in sequence or alternating, together (stile famigliare) or in counterpoint (stile concitato). The most common, and the second most common closed form after the aria, is the duet. Like the aria it may consist of a cantabile and cabaletta section, or may fall into more than two sections. The fact that two soloists are involved allows for a variety of structural patterns. In one, a singer begins with a complete stanza and is answered by the other with essentially the same text or a different text set to the same melody. In another, the second singer replies with different thematic material. In a third, both singers begin together or overlap. After the initial phrases, the section may continue with alternating interchanges, and typically both sing together to the end of the cantabile. If there is a cabaletta, both sing together and overlap, with a bit of scena and a reprise, as in an aria.

Depending on the text, there may be opportunities for the composer to introduce a trio, quartet, or larger ensemble, also as closed forms, with even more freedom to set different words and employ counterpoint. Voices may be introduced in canon with more or less equal parts, or one or two voices might dominate with others expressing different sentiments in a sort of sporadic obbligato. Typically an act may end with an extended larger ensemble in which the principal and secondary characters join along with the chorus, called the finale. But such ensembles may occur at dramatic points before the end, as in the famous sextet in Lucia di Lammermoor. Finales are generally the longest numbers and are structurally the most elaborate, consisting of several sections and multiple themes, sometimes separated by bits of free scena. Such ensembles often end with a stretta, where all soloists and chorus join in a fast-paced, dramatic coda. The last act finale conventionally ends with a bravura aria for the prima donna followed by a stretta with the chorus.

Musical Style

I am not competent to say much technically about the musical style, but certain things stand out for me as a layman. For one thing, the da capo aria and long baroque melodic subjects of Handel’s time had already given way to easier, more succinct forms and melodies. Arias and ensembles are varied in mood, meter, and tempo, but these elements still have their own unique themes. Exceptions such as the repeated “oath motive” in Verdi’s Ernani or the experiment with leitmotifs associated with characters in I due Foscari, are rare, but show that Verdi was looking even in the 1840s for ways to impose greater unity on a basically disjointed form.

Within a number, the vocal line is still dominant in musical interest and in providing structure. The orchestral accompaniment is definitely secondary, sometimes even perfunctory, typically consisting of repeated patterns of chords or arpeggios. Though not always obvious, melodic lines had already become simpler, with contours and harmonies similar to Italian popular song. The arc of a Cantabile section may be breathtaking in its emotional directness and harmonic cunning; but it is also often predictable, even simple to the point of banality, only disguised (or enhanced) by arresting coloratura flourishes and sensitive orchestraton. An ensuing cabaletta can be immensely exciting and satisfying, but then again, its arrival is so expected and its form so rigid that it risks turning into a cliché.

It should be pointed out as well that the practice of repeating pieces of text through the course of extended closed-form sections survived throughout our period, only to be gradually eliminated in Verdi’s later works (as in contemporary German and French opera). That this feature condemned by Gluck as early as 1760 appears to remain accepted may be attributed to musical needs. The appetite for da capo arias may have faded, but composers as yet had no model for making a whole act a single unified whole, like a movement of a symphony. There still had to be a succession of closed forms. Even in a bel canto number the musical arc is necessarily longer than the amount of text being set, so the words, once heard, become secondary to the musical form, which must proceed to its own conclusion. But as there must be words, pieces of text already sung are repeated, fitted into the musical design, ideally with some modicum of psychological or dramatic justification. Escaping the artificiality of this stylized repetition could only be achieved by expanding the amount of text, eliminating ensemble singing, or reducing the length of closed-form sections and elevating the musical import of transitional passages–blurring the distinction between aria and recitative, as Gluck proposed. Through different innovative approaches to vocal declamation and musical organization, Wagner, in his mature music dramas, and Verdi in his later operas, largely accomplish this, and set the bar for all opera composers to come. Note, for example, in the operas of Puccini, there are still arias and other set pieces, but they are fewer in number and mostly radically shortened, thus eschewing repetition. Most of Tosca is not far removed from Donizetti’s scena except that the orchestra provides constant flow of melodic units characterized by repeated and interwoven leitmotifs. There is nothing one would characterize as merely recitative, but there are also few set-pieces: only three recognizable arias, each only as long as it takes for one recitation of the words, one quasi-Wagnerian monologue, a moment of dramatic arioso in Act II, and one brief duet in Act III. The rest of the musical unity furnished by the orchestra.

Nevertheless, as I have implied, Italians were taking steps in this direction in our period with the expansion of the orchestra and its rôle. Accustomed as we are to the modern symphony orchestra, we may not sufficiently appreciate how different the orchestra of Rossini and Bellini was compared to, say, that of the classical German symphony. In the contemporary works of Schubert and Schumann, there are no bass or side drums, no tubas, no harps. Beethoven’s symphonies do not even have trombones. Instruments banned from concert halls were quicker to find places in opera orchestras, particularly in the brass and percussion sections. Hence opera composers had access to a greater variety of sound textures and colors, which were enthusiastically exploited, in Italy most originally and skilfully by Verdi. Among other composers of the time, only Berlioz in France wrote orchestral works employing all the instrumental resources available. Eventually, largely owing to the immense prestige and influence of master orchestrator Richard Wagner, the fully consituted opera orchestra, including the sound of the triangle, tambourine, celesta, chimes, cymbals and other previously ignored instruments became familiar to audiences of instrumental music everywhere.

One last feature of parituclar interest is the avoidance of the abuso del minore, or the overuse of the minor mode in arias and ensembles. One notices immediately in any opera of this period that moments of mortal danger or high tragedy are often set to tunes that out of their context seem incongruously jaunty and cheerful. Excursions into the minor function as occasional seasoning rather than the meat and vegetable of a composition.


It is in the nature of any artistic tradition that the creative process involves a constant tension with the past. The artist faces the challenge of fashioning a work that is both new and familiar, one that the audience will recognize as belonging to some kind of genre but that it has not seen or heard before. In this respect, art is like language. In everyday communication, a speaker to be understood by another as he or she intends must follow whole sets of inherited conventions, that is I mean inherited vocabulary, syntax, and enunciation that individuals in a society all share. The choices made among these conventions or departures from them convey information beyond the literal statement or request intended and may reveal a speaker’s class, level of education, emotional state, or social attitudes; or they may identify him or her as foreign to the community. Too wide a departure from linguistic norms may result in misunderstanding, rejection, or total incomprehension. On the other hand, innovative manipulation of linguistic conventions can enrich the language, alter conventions, or even engender new ones.

In music, also a system of communication with its own vocabulary and syntax, a composer deploys pitch, texture, and duration of sound into formal structures that are comprehensible and pleasurable to the public, but ideally at the same time presents a work that is not simply a clone of some previous composition. This means continually having to choose where to adhere to convention and where to challenge it, where to import some feature from another genre, for example, or introduce a novelty—in harmony, form, or orchestration, say. As a society’s sensibilities and aspirations change in time, conventions evolved to affirm and reflect an earlier world-view lose their force. As composers and audiences come to see them as artificial and objectionable, the more receptive they are to innovation and experiment. The more familiar we are with the ruling conventions of a genre and a period, the more we can recognize and appreciate a composer’s brilliance and originality.


Now to illustrate the foregoing let us examine an opera of Donizetti from early in his career, when he follows prevailing conventions more faithfully than in his maturer works. L’esule di Roma, ossia Il proscritto was first presented at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples in 1828. The libretto by Domenico Gilardoni was taken from a play by Luigi Marchionni (1820) inspired by an earlier French play by Louis-Charles Caigniez based on the story of Androcles and the lion. L’esule enjoyed some success after that in European opera houses, with various revisions, but dropped from the repertory after 1869 and was not heard again until it was revived under the aegis of the Donizetti Society in London in 1982. A subsequent performance in Savona in 1986 was recorded and evenually issued on the Naxos label. The following synopsis follows that version (available on YouTube), which differs from both the libretto posted on this website and the 1840 vocal score that can be downloaded from IMSLP.org.

Donizetti was already 10 years into his composing career, and L’esule shows him using conventional forms with considerable freedom. You will note his skill not only in assembling larger, musically varied set-pieces, but also in unifying and enhancing the scena segments with repeated melodic and rhythmic motifs. Note also that within the fairly limited number of keys and meters he achieves a great range of emotional and dramatic effects. Almost the entire opera is in 4/4 time or the equivalent; only one section is in 3/4 and 6/8 time. The opera begins and ends in F major, and much of it is in C major. There are excursions into C minor and F minor and related keys E-flat, A-flat, G, D and A, with one odd deviation into six flats during a “mad scene.” Yet within those limits there is variety in harmonic movement, rhythm, and tempo mirroring the emotional range of the drama.

Here in the left-hand column I have attempted to identify the succession of sections in the music. On the right is a summary of the plot as it unfolds.

Cast of Characters

Murena, a senator (Bass)
Argelia, his daughter (Soprano)
Emilia, younger sister to Argelia (Mute)
Septimius (Settimio), formerly tribune, now proscribed (Tenor)
Leontina, confidante of Argelia, and charged with care of Emilia (Mezzo Soprano)
Publius (Publio), a general of the army sent against Sarmazia (Baritone)
Lucius (Lucio), a centurion (Tenor)
Fulvius (Fulvio), a decurion (Tenor)
Chorus of retainers of Murena, confidants of Publio, slave women of Argelia.
People, soldiers, lictors, priests, Sarmatian prisoners


The action takes place in Rome in the space of a day during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius when Sejanus was still powerful. Act I opens in a public square in Rome as the populace await the triumphant return of the general Publius from a successful campaign of conquest. Publius expects now to marry Argelia, the daughter of Murena, a prominent senator. Argelia, however, is in love with Septimius, a former tribune who was unjustly accused of treason, resulting from a conspiracy involving Murena, and has been hiding in exile among the barbarians of the East. Greeted by Murena, Publius senses in the senator’s evasiveness about Argelia’s affections that all may not be as he has hoped. As it happens, Septimius has returned and secretly entered the city seeking Argelia. As he approaches her villa he overhears her declaring that although she must obey her father and marry Publius, she really loves Septimius. He reveals himself and confirms his innocence, which she has never doubted. He shows her papers that prove it, but does not show her the name of the man he considers responsible, her own father. They begin to plan to elope, a centurion, Lucius, having learned of Septimius’ presence, appears with guards to arrest him.

As he is led off, Publius appears and confronts Argelia. She admits that she loves Septimius. Publius then magnanimously renounces his claim and, surprised to learn that Septimius is in Rome, promises to save him, a childhood friend. He cautions her to continue the wedding preparations to avoid arousing suspicion. As the two leave, Murena observes them and then learns from Fulvius that Septimius has returned. Murena is immediately worried that his betrayal, for which he blames Sejanus, will be revealed. Fulvius has come to escort him to the Senate to deal with Sejanus.

Meanwhile, in Murena’s villa, Argelia is surprised again by Septimius, whom Publius has freed. He tells her how in the Caucasus he was attacked by a lion, but like Androcles, won its gratitude by removing a thorn from its paw. Then he tells how on his way back to Rome he learned the truth and obtained documents about the conspiracy from a certain Flavius, a co-conspirator then on his deathbed. Then Murena’s retainers appear, and Septimius withdraws out of sight. Before leaving, the chorus informs Argelia that the Senate has condemned Septimius and that Murena seemed extremely troubled in signing the warrant. Septimius intends to give himself up, but Argelia insists he give her the papers so she can clear his name. Then Septimius shows her the document bearing her father’s name. Nonetheless, he will sacrifice himself for her sake, for the honor of her father. He gives the papers, telling her to destroy them. At that point, Murena enters and in a confrontation admits his treachery and prays for divine retribution. Then soldiers of Publius order Septimius to follow them to prison. Before he goes, he orders Argelia again to destroy the papers. When Murena hears what they represent, he offers Septimius anything to preserve his honor and urges him to flee with Argelia. Septimius, however, insists on sacrificing himself instead.

Act II opens in Murena’s villa, where he appears to his retainers in a state of delirium, imagining how Septimius will die and contemplating suicide. They realize then that he is involved in the treason and lead him into the house for his own protection. Publius appears and pleads with Argelia to have Murena come with him to Tiberius to acquit Septimius and denounce Sejanus. Argelia is conflicted, knowing her father’s guilt, but finally, in despair, assents to Publius’ going alone to beg the emperor for a temporary reprieve. Leontina then tells her of her father’s mental breakdown and apparent recovery. Now he appears bent on suicide. Murena appears, overcome with guilt. Argelia resolves to go to Tiberius herself to try to save them both.

Meanwhile, in his cell, Septimius contemplates his death and eventual hoped-for reunion with Argelia in the next life. When the guards come to conduct him to his fate, he is resolute. Publius learns that the emperor has already gone to the circus to witness the execution, so he rushed to intervene. Argelia, having been impeded from meeting the emperor and observing Septimius entering the arena, is in deep despair over the impending deaths of lover and father. But shortly the crowd emerges from the circus jubilantly. The reason is revealed when Septimius reappears and describes his happy reunion with the same lion he treated in the Caucasus. Tiberius, seeing him miraculously unharmed, spared him and learned the truth about Sejanus, who was quick to take flight. All rejoice at the happy outcome.

[1] Prelude
F major 4/4 Andante 12 bars of slow motif
Then ,Allegretto with a fanfare-like theme.
Then Andante again with the first motif, then the theme of the opening male chorus, tenors divided and basses.

Chorus “Publio è questi”
f major 4/4 Allegretto

[2] Recitative with chorus “Eccomi a voi”
D major 4/4

Scena Per lui nel mentre avea”
D minor 4/4 Larghetto (arioso)

Cavatina “M’appare mai sempre, ramingo piangente”
D major 4/4 Moderato, with 10 bars of orchestral introduction.

Chorus joins

Cavatina repeated with chorus.

Chorus “Ma già spunta superbo del pondo”
D major 4/4 Moderato

Triumphal march
C major 4/4 Allegro marziale

Chorus “Lauro d’eterna gloria”
C major 4/4 , middle section in F, return to C.

[3] Scena
AriosoSe della patria il genio mi riede”
Recitative with chorus “Publio, m’abbraccia”
F major 4/4 Larghetto

Duet Cabaletta with chorus “Ah quel dio, che dalle sfere”
Publius and Murena entering separately, with Chorus joining after the first half, repeating the praise. Then Publius and Murena sing the second half and are joined by the chorus as before leding to an extended conclusion of repeated V-I cadences.

[4] Recitative “Del Tebro in sulla riva”
[Not in the 1840 score]

C major 4/4 Moderato
Ostinato sixteenth notes with solo clarinet

[5] Recitative “Aure di Roma!”
Ostinato repeated, modulating to A-flat major

Cavatina “Taqui allor…l’abbandonai”
A-flat 6/8 Cantabile
[No transition]

Cabaletta “Se ad altri il core”
A-flat major 3/4 Alegretto
Which is repeated
There follows a brief stretta “più mosso” repeating the last lines.

[6] Recitative [“Ma qui tutto è silenzio”] “La magion di Murena”
Modulating from C to G major 4/4 Moderato


Romanza “Oh voi che a servitù”
G major 4/4 Modetato with harp and flute accompaniment. Argelia sings the melody with interjections from Septimius

Recitative “Itene all’opre usate”
2 bars

Scena “Oh dolce speme t’avverrà”
C major 4/4, modulating to A major

[7] Duet
Section I: “Ah sì, tu sei…fia ver?”
A major 4/4 Allegro agitato
Both sing together, belaboring four lines of verse.

Section II: “No, non fuggir, ti ferma”
A major 4/4 Allegro agitato
A new melody in dotted cabaletta-like rhythm. Argelio enters first, then both sing another four lines together.

Scena “Ma di’, Settimio reo credesti tu?”
In same tempo with repeated motif in a different rhythm, modulating away from and back to A major.

Section III: “Se a mi fido ognor sarai”
A major 4/4 Moderato
Accompanied by repeated march-like quarter note chords. Voices enter separately with the same eight lines, then join together in a final stretta repeating the last lines.


[8] Recitative “E quei, che in vesti miseri”
C major 4/4 Allegro, with dotted rhythm, ending on an A-flat major cadence.
Dialogue held together by a repeated figure introduced in five measures prelude, consisting of ascending dotted eighth notes



[9] Prelude
C major 4/4 Moderato
Slow, misterioso with clarinet solo.

Recitative “Ognun rimane, ove di nozze crede veder”
Puncuated by fragments of the prelude


Chorus of Murena’s retainers“Nel suol dove vagì”
C major 4/4 Moderato

Recitative “Estinto! Ah, vi fermate…”
Scena with Chorus
C major 4/4

Recitative “Cagion del suo terrore glie era il rimorso!”
C major 4/4 ending in D major

[10] Scena “Murena!!! Il genitor!!!
D major 4/4 Maestoso

Section I: “Prendi. Son tuoi”
Duet D major 4/4 same tempo
Septimius begins, Argelia joins

Section II: “Già la rapì Murena”
Duet, D major 4/4 Allegro
Septimius begins with new melody. Argelia answers with the same melody but different text.

Scena, transition, modulating “Chi mi traschina?”


Section III: “Fra le mie braccia A me scopriva!”
Trio G minor Cantabile, ending in B-flat major,
All three sing together in counterpoint with arpeggiated accompaniment.


Scena “Le folgori implo…Riedi, Settimio”
Transition to Section IV, modulating.

[11] Section IV: “Ti è cara Argelia?”
Trio G minor 4/4 Più allegro

Section V “Piangi!…ti rasserena”
Trio D major 4/4 Moderato, new theme with march-like chordal accompaniment
Septimius begins, Argelia answers with different melody, then Murena.

Section VI “Lascia…Ti ferma…”
Trio D major 4/4 Più allegro
Four measures of fanfare introduction, then all three sing together in counterpoint, then end in a stretta.


[12] Prelude
C major 3/4 Andante
Introducing the melody that continues through the ensuing chorus of Murena’s retainers.

Chorus “Non v’è…di qua partì…dov’è”
C major 3/4 Andante
Chorus continues to conclusion in C major

.Scena “Al mio delitto!”
B major modulating to E-flat minor (!) 4/4 Moderato
A “mad scene,” usually the domain of the prima donna, here given to a male character. Note that it ventures into unusual, distant keys.

[13] Aria
Section I: “Entra nel circa”
E-flat minor 4/4 Andante with interjected comments from the Chorus

Chorus “Deh, riedi alla ragione”
G-flat major (?) 4/4 Allegro

Section II: “Qui!…diè perdono!”
E-flat major 4/4 Allegro
New theme with dotted quarter note thirds and tremolo bass; interjections from chorus.

Section III: Cabaletta “Di stige il flutto”
E-flat major 4/4/ Moderato
più mosso
Chorus interrupts

Cabaletta reprised


[x] Prelude, 6 bars
Recitative “Oh come queste mura”
G major 4/4 Allegro




[15] Recitative “Del padre, o Argelia, tu lunge ne vai”
Modulating 4/4

.[From this point through Scene VI, my text, the 1840 score, and the recording all diverge. The following, which is omitted from the recording and differs from my libretto, follows the score.]

Section I: “Oh cari oggetti!”
A-flat major, then modulating 4/4 Moderato

Recitative “Più di furor che cento fiate e cento”
F minor 4/4 modulating to D minor

[16] Section II: Cantabile “Vagiva Emilia ancora”
G minor to G major 2/4 Andante
Both sing together in counterpoint in a give and take accompanied by harp arpeggios.

Tempo di mezzo “Porgi quei fogli
E minor Modulating to G major 4/4 Allegro

Section III: Cabaletta “Quando il mio core feriva amore”
G major 4/4 Moderato
Argelia sings an entire strophe. Murena answers with the same melody. Then they sing together in counterpoint, repeating the text.

[14] Prelude
C minor 4/4 Andante mosso
Slow, melancholy oboe solo with rolling triplets in the bass.

Recitative “Nudo terren, muto silenzio”
The plaintive melody and bass figures continue.

Aria cantabile “S’io finor, bell’Idol mio, per te in vita mi serbai” [In my libretto “Lontan da me mio bene”]
A major 2/4 Larghetto, with 9 measures of introduction.

Tempo di mezzo “Il proscritto!”
A major 4/4 Allegro
Trumpet fanfare, then Chorus, then Septimius

Cabaletta “Sì scenda alla tomba, sereno, contento”
A major 4/4 Meno mosso




[x] Recitative “Ebben Lucio”
E-flat major 4/4 Allegro ending on G-major cadence leading to C minor.
Introductory orchestral figure repeated once again in the brief interchange.


[x] Chorus “A un pianto, a un gemito udiasi l’eco”
C minor 4/4 Andante molto ending in C major
Argelia’s slave women followed by Murena’s retainers.


[17] Recitative with Chorus “Ah, che indarno Murena a voi chiamate”
C major, then C minor 4/4



Chorus “Qual costanza, quale ardire”
C minor 4/4 Moderato

[18] Finale
Section I: “Tardi, tardi il piè là volgi”
F minor 4/4 Allegro agitato

Section II: Cabaletta “Ah, che idea così funesta qui m’arresta a lacrimar”
A-flat major 4/4
A new melody spins out a single sentence.

Section III: “Morte, ah, pria che l’una uccidi”
F major 2/4 Cantabile
12 bars of orchestral transition to F, then 11 bars introducting in a new theme by the solo oboe with pizzicato strings.

Tempo di mezzo “Qual fragor”
F major Alla breve Allegro
Recitative over a martial rhythm in the bass.


[19] Section IV: Chorus “Ferma il piè.”
F major Alla breve Allegro
The martial motif gives way to a new theme
D major Alla breve Allegro
A “Rossini crescendo” over tremolo in the bass, the same rhythm and motif continuing through the chorus.

Section V: Scena Quella belva che a mè grata fu
D minor Alla breve Allegro
Modulates to F major

[20] Section VI: Bravura final aria
Cabaletta “Ogni tormento qual nebbia al vento”
F major Alla breve Moderato
Simple chordal accompaniment.

Tutti: Chorus and soloists join

Cabletta repeated
With more coloratura embellishment
Tutti at the end.


A public square in Rome


Murena’s retainers exhort him to come out. Murena presents himself to the assembled citizens. The chorus answers, urging him to rejoice at the return of the conquering hero Publius. In an aside Murena confesses he cannot feel joy because of guilt over his part in the disgrace of Septimius.



Murena sees himself as an exile and outcast who deserves death.

The chorus is concerned about the state of his mind.


The crowd, now men and women, turn their attention to the return of Publius.



The citizens sing the praises of Publius’ exploits

Publius addresses the crowd, expressing his patriotism. He greets Murena and asks about Argelia, hoping to meet her. They urge all to go to the temple to give thanks.

Publius and Murena praise Jupiter, echoed by the citizens and retainers. They proceed to the temple


Publius asks more closely about Argelia. When Murena is evasive, he suspects all my not be well.



The square is empty and Septimius enters warily. He longs to see Argelia again and recalls their sad farewell

Septimius sings how he left her without asserting his innocence and found himself among barbarians. Fortunately he was finally able to return, but perhaps Argelia will not be here.

If she has given her heart to another, he will not intervene. He would tell her that his honor is intact, and he sacrifices his life for the one who betrayed him.

He recognizes his enemy Murena’s villa. He is drawn to it by the hope of seeing Argelia, though it is dangerous. Some women approach, and he hides.


Argelia enters with her servant Leontina and slaves. Septimius remains concealed while he hears her lament the cruel destiny that requires she marry Publius out of paternal loyalty.

Argelia dismisses Leontina and the slaves while she awaits her father

Septimius overhears Argelia’s aversion to Publius. When she says she still loves Septimius, he reveals himself.

Argelia and Septimius declare their love.
Transition “Ma qui financo l’aura”
Argelia urges Septimius to flee


They will live and die together.

Argelia never believed Septimius a traitor; he telle her he was betrayed but does not reveal by whom.


They are happy to die if faithful to each other.



Enter Lucius with soldiers, arrests Septimius, and leads him away. Just then Publius enters, stopping Argelia from running away. He asks her for the truth, and she tells him she is in love with Septimius. He is surprised that Septimius is in Rome. He magnanimously blesses them and promises to save him, a friend since childhood. Just as they are leaving, Murena enters filled with anxiety. Fulvius appears and tells him that Septimius is in Rome and to call him to the Senate. Again he is worried his secret will be found out.

Change of scene: Interior of Murena’s villa


Argelia receives Septimius, who relates how he was unjustly exiled under Tiberius, betrayed by Fulvius. While living as a hermit in the Caucasus, he removed a thorn from a lion’s paw. Then he made his way back to Rome to find Flavius, who dying revealed the entire conspiracy. Still Septimius does not reveal the name of his betrayer.

Murena’s retainers come to find and kill Septimius.

Argelia interrogates them and learns that the Senate has condemned him and her father reluctantly signed the warrant.

Not knowing her father was unwilling, Argelia promises Septimius she will go to the prince and reveal the traitor. She persuades him to show her the papers revealing his identity.
Argelia reads her father’s name. Septimius explains how Murena slandered him.


Septimius insists she take the papers, destroy them, and save her father’s life and honor.

Septimius says his life is already over, but Argelia counters that her father will be racked with remorse if he dies.

Murena’s voice is heard. Septimius starts to flee, but Argelia restrains him. Murena enters terrified and, seeing Septimius himself turns to leave.

Septimius tells Murena of Flavius’ revelation, but insists he will die without revealing it for his sake. Argelia feels uncontrollable shudders and prays for father and lover to be saved. Murena regrets his disloyalty and calls down divine punishment on himself.

Septimius relates how dying Flavio revealed the Murena’s treason, but will die for him. Argelia feels uncontrollable shudders and prays for father and lover to be saved. Murena regrets his disloyalty and calls on the gods to punish him with living death.

Murena pleads with Septimius to flee with his daughter, take all his riches. Septimius’ honor will not permit it. Angelica continues to pray for their safety.

Septimius reassures Argelia and Murena that his sacrifice is the best course. Argelia is desolate and wants to die as well. Murena, all hope lost, is also ready to die.


All are in confusion. Septimius flees.



A hall in Murena’s house


Murena’s men are looking for Septimius. They see Murena coming and remark on his distraught appearance.


Murena enters rambling deliriously about his guilt over Septimius’ sacrifice.


Murena imagines Septimius dying in the arena and the revenge of the gods. The retainers realize Murena has betrayed Septimius.

The retainers plead wtih Murena to be reasonable.

Murena wants to kill himself. Chorus repeats pleas for reason.


Murena imagines descending into Hades.

Retainers repeat pleas for reason.

Murena’s retainers lead him into another room of the house.

SCENE III [Omitted in the recording]

Publius enters, then Argelia.
Publius tells Argelia he has come to collect Murena to go together to plead for Septimius before Tiberius against Sejanus. Knowing Murena to be culpable as well, Argelia tells Publius that Murena is delirious. Publius goes to try to suspend the sentence. Argelia is beside herself.


Argelia’s servant Leontina enters and tells her Murena has been brought in, has made known his treason, has come to his senses, and may be planning some desperate act. They see Murena approaching, full of grief.



Murena enters. He dismisses Leontina to be alone wth Argelia.

He announces that his guilt forces him to end his life in exile. Argelia objects. Murena insists that she carry out his wishes if she loves him.

Murena tells her to stay and care for her sister, Emilia. She protests that he is not being candid about his plan.


Murena asks for the incriminating papers. Argelia refuses and destroys them. He says she has now condemned Septimius, but she replies that her first duty is to save her father.

Argelia explains the primacy of filial devotion. Murena maintains that he forefeited the right to live when he committed his crime and bids her leave him.

Change of scene to Septimio’s prison cell

SCENE VI [Scene III in the recording]


Septimius thinks of Argelia and his impending death.

Argelia will be able to find him in the underworld.


The guards call Septimius and tell him there is no hope.


Septimius is resolved to face death heroically.
[In the score, but not in the recording, the chorus joins him repeating that he has no hope]

Change of scene to the square as in Act I


Publius learns form Lucius that Septimius’ fate is imminent. He rushes to seek an audience with Tiberius, hoping to save Septimius and incupate Sejanus.



Argelia’s slave women enter and bemoan Septimius’ destiny. Murena’s men join them.


SCENE IX [Scene VI in the recording]

Argelia is delirious about her father. She was unable to reach Tiberius. The chorus sympathizes as they witness Septimius being led to the arena.

SCENE X [Scene VII in the recording]

The chorus sees Septimius and admires his equanimity.


Argelia despairs that she is to late to save either Septimius or her father.

A morbid thought stops her from weeping.


Calls on death to take her also.



Now the spectacle is over, and Argelia hears with horror the crowd issuing from the circus.

SCENE XI and the Last

Citizens, Murena’s men, Leontina, and Argelia’s women emerge from the Circus. Surprisingly, they are merry and jubilant. They tell her that Septimius and her father are both safe.


Septimius explains that in the circus he faced the same lion that he treated when in exile. It recognized and saved him. Tiberius granted his life, and Sejanus took flight. The chorus rejoices.

Argelia’s torment is over, and the skies are clear.


Septimius, Murena, and the Chorus rejoice at the turn of events.

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