During my tenure at Victorian Opera, we have embarked on a project to perform all the major Bellini operas in concert. The cynic might well ask “why”? – and add prevailing criticisms about poor orchestration, formulaic accompaniments and lack of dramatic differentiation between characters. All well and good – and perhaps intellectually sustainable points of view – which overlook one important phenomenon: an individuality of musical personality, which has an emotional eloquence of uncommon power that engages the public because of its lasting vitality.

Homage to BelliniA homage to Bellini

Bellini had great regard for the quality of his chosen texts. His most successful collaborator was Felice Romani (1788-1865) who was the librettist for seven of Bellini’s greatest works, including Norma and La Sonnambula (and would have been for I Puritani had he not missed the deadlines for Beatrice de Tenda).

Romani produced nearly 100 librettos for composers as diverse as Mercadante, Rossini, Meyerbeer, Donizetti and Verdi; he was a lawyer, interested in mythology, French literature and antiquities. With this rather formidable background as an academician, one would be disinclined to expect the prodigious lyrical gifts Romani displays so frequently. He possessed the ability to find a union of image and rhetorical form that provided a framework for melody, making text, which needs an encounter with music to realise the final potentials of its ideas.

Consider the first entrance of Norma: her first majestic utterances are preceded by music entirely for men, preparing the way for the magical imagery of Casta Diva. I think Puccini was at least subliminally aware of this process in La Fanciulla del West – the entrance of Minnie is architecturally a tour de force as the female voice is revealed for the first time in the opera, preceded as it is by an elaborate ensemble for the men.

Bellini’s famous letter to Agostino Gallo published in 1843, and, strangely, of sometimes disputed authenticity states: “Believing as I do that a great part of the success of a work depends on the choice of an interesting subject with strong contrast of passions and harmonious and deeply felt verses… my first object is to obtain a perfect drama from a good writer”. Bellini is also reported as saying: “Give me good verse and I will give you good music”.

This feeling for poetry and drama also extends to a profound ability to convey character. The argument that one of Bellini’s characters’ music could just as well be rendered by another is nonsense: Adalgisa singing Casta Diva or Lisa singing Ah, non credea, I don’t think so! Even in the duets and trios, there is individuality of gesture that renders the whole passage cohesive.

Of course, there are still those who voice criticisms of the orchestration. Yet attempts to ‘improve’ Bellini’s orchestration have led great musical minds to despair. Bizet discovered when he was commissioned to re-orchestrate Norma that “it would be impossible to place any other accompaniments under these melodies”. For me, sensitive playing, remembering the characteristics of the horns, trumpets and trombones of the day in particular will iron out any functional infelicities – for the rest, the poetic intention is always served by the instrumentation – what more can one ask for?

Of course, the period music industry has appropriated Bellini – and we have the much vaunted recent Bartoli recording of the ‘new edition’ by Maurizio Biondi and Riccardo Minasi. For our 2014 Norma, I purchased these materials at some expense, only to find them pretty well identical to the old Ricordi set I used in Perth years ago – but of course with fresh wrong notes, so who’s kidding who here?

Bellini’s influence is subtle and profound. His friendship with Chopin and influence on Liszt, Wagner and Stravinsky are well known. Donizetti and Verdi admired him greatly, and provided the sincerest form of flattery: imitation.

Bellini has left us a canon of enduring value; a unique and inimitable feeling for poetic expression in music, a dramatic sense which manifests in noble and heroic situation, and a legacy of melodies that unfold as if they were made in heaven for singers on earth. His art is in stark contrast to the current climate where much entertainment is based on the fetishized violence of film and computer game. The art of Bellini perhaps creates its own need in barbarous times.

Victorian Opera’s La Sonnambula is at Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne on May 5