OK, I have to confess I love da capo arias. I don’t know where the addiction comes from, but I like to think that it has something to do with me being superficial and favouring form rather than content.

Let me explain. The da capo aria is a form of music composed for a solo singer (with orchestral accompaniment) that was very much the rage during the baroque era. Italian operas and oratorios from the late 17th to the mid 18th century are just packed with them. It normally consists of 3 sections often referred as ABA.  Section A is a lovely melody based on lyrics that usually consists of no more than 4 verses. Section B is meant to contrast with A in mood and tempo. And the third section is pretty much a repetition of the first section A :  da capo basically translates as “from the beginning”, because the singer starts all over again. The idea is that the singer repeats those same 4 verses on and on, adding more variations and ornamentation to the melody each time. That for about 10 minutes or so…  This allowed operatic superstars of the time, in particular the castrati and prime donne, to really show off by displaying vocal pyrotechnics and improvising extremely difficult ornaments. To a modern audience, this all often just sounds extremely repetitive. I’ll always remember a friend turning to me during a performance of “Hercules”(an oratorio by Haendel composed on a text in English), repeating Iole’s verse :“He bleeds, he falls in agony !” after hearing it for the tenth time and adding :”At least, when they sing in Italian, I can’t hear that they keep repeating the same b****y thing all the time”.

To me though, and I guess to many baroque music aficionados, listening to a da capo aria being performed is often a very exciting experience. To start with, those arias are very melodious and I just love a jolly good tune – I’m pretty shallow like that. Then, the excitement builds up as the singer starts adding variations and ornaments during the da capo section. As those weren’t really written by the composer (the singer was expected to improvise), you never know exactly what to expect. The final result is very much dependant on the ability, taste, musicality and range of colours that the singer is able to display, and the surprise can therefore range from the down right awful to the sublime. For someone that loves voices, it doesn’t get much better than that.

It would already be quite lovely and a little bit vain if things stayed at that. But sometimes, the magic really happens. The text comes to life. Singers convey the emotion that is written into the music. Characters, in their despair or their fury, become flesh and blood. And what first might have appeared as a very contrived form of music, with all its rules and conventions, becomes a hair-rising musical experience.

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