The operas of the Italian composer Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835) form a link between the Italian tradition of the early 19th century and the late 19th century.
Vincenzo Bellini was born in Catania, Sicily. His father, Rosario, and grandfather, Vincenzo, held positions with the Biscari family and in local churches. Although both composed, none of their music is extant. Bellini displayed musical talent very early, learning to play piano at 3 and studying composition with his father at 6. His earliest works, written before he was 11 years old, have not been preserved. After studying with his grandfather, Bellini attended the Royal College of St. Sebastian in Naples, which was directed by Nicola Zingarelli, who composed both opera and church music. As important as the more conservative tradition of Zingarelli in Naples was that of the contemporary operatic scene, then dominated by Gioacchino Rossini.
Bellini's first opera, Adelson e Salvini, was performed at the Conservatory in 1825 and led to a commission from the impresario of the Teatro San Carlo in Naples for Bianca e Fernando. Between 1825 and 1835 Bellini composed 10 operas for Naples, Milan, Genoa, Parma, Venice, and Paris; all but two had some success. After the presentation of La Sonnambula in 1830, his European success was assured. Bellini was fortunate in having the services of one of the better librettists in Italy, Felice Romani, who, after 1827, wrote the librettos for all of his operas except the last, I Puritani. Bellini's mature operas were opere serie of varying types. His three masterpieces are I Capuleti ed i Montecchi, La Sonnambula, and Norma. I Puritani, written somewhat in the manner of French grand opera, suffers from a weak libretto. Bellini also composed at least 28 sacred vocal works, 23 secular vocal works, 7 symphonies, and an oboe concerto.
Although Bellini made no significant changes in the outward structure of Italian opera, he did make certain contributions. His melodic style, often compared to that of Frédéric Chopin in its careful treatment of ornamentation, was written with the Italian bel canto style of singing in mind. Passages that seem uninteresting on paper come to life in performance by a gifted singer. In his recitatives Bellini gave careful consideration to text accents and moments of intense emotional expression. His handling of the orchestra in both recitative and aria always supports the dramatic intention. He gave the chorus an important role in the drama, instead of the perfunctory one then common. His influence was felt not only by his contempories but also by Giuseppe Verdi. Even that bitter critic of Italian opera, Richard Wagner, was impressed by Norma.
Further Reading on Vincenzo Bellini
A full-length biography is Leslie Orrey, Bellini (1969). Bellini's relationship to other composers of his period is discussed in Alfred Einstein, Music in the Romantic Era (1947), and Donald J. Grout, A Short History of Opera (2 vols., 1947; 2d ed., 1 vol., 1965).
Additional Biography Sources
Adamo, Maria Rosaria, Vincenzo Bellini, Torino: ERI, 1981.
Brunel, Pierre, Vincenzo Bellini, Paris: Fayard, 1981.
Rosselli, John, The life of Bellini, Cambridge, England; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Tintori, Giampiero, Bellini, Milano: Rusconi, 1983.