Opera in the early 17th century isn't exactly like the standard pieces known to audiences from the 18th to early 20th centuries, where the soprano sings a lengthy aria hitting top C while ostensibly suffocating in a tomb or dying (usually) of consumption! Instead, the singers are actors first, reciting their lines to music that closely follows the contours of spoken word, a type of musically heightened speech called the stile recitativo. This style of delivery is contrasted with short songs, choruses, and instrumental ritornelli. The recitative style isn't really technically difficult, but it does require a different way of approaching the score than modern singing students are used to! First, it's important to know the exact meaning of what you're saying. You practise saying your lines in rhythm, and that starts to give you an idea of how Francesca Caccini thinks they should be delivered. After speaking them in rhythm with a basso continuo accompaniment (more on that later!), you can add the contours, the highs and lows, and out of that, the actual notes grow quite organically! Then, you think about the context, the conversation that you're having with other characters, and the meaning you are trying to get across, and the physical gestures that might accompany this. Every word and phrase has its own precise colour, subtly placed there by the composer. It's a challenge to learn, but once you have the idea, you can transfer that knowledge into so many other styles, from folk music, to art song, to contemporary opera and musical theatre.
Young singers getting to grips with early-17th-century Italian style
Published by Music, University of Aberdeen