Today an operatic tenor who does not have a ringing, full voiced “top” is likely to find his career limited to minor roles in lesser opera houses. The high C sung full voiced from the chest is a phenomenon that dates only from the first third of the 19th Century. Until the time of Donizetti and Bellini, a light, agile voice, was the ideal for tenors. Today, we would call that kind of singer a tenore di grazia, and it is no longer considered ideal, at least in the operas of Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi, and their successors.
Before about 1835, the legacy of the castrati was a light, agile, but technically accomplished singing style. One of the finest singers of this type was the French tenor Adolphe Nourrit, a cultured man as well as a fine tenor who created some of the most brilliant tenor roles of Rossini and Meyerbeer. At the Paris Opera, he was the king of tenors, the favorite of Rossini himself. The fine French tenor Giovanni David, the creator of the role of Rodrigo in Rossini’s Otello in 1816, is said to have begun experimenting with pushing the “chest voice” above the tenor’s “break” (where the chest voice begins to yield to the head voice, or falsetto) at high G.
But the real change occurred in 1837, when the tenor Gilbert-Louis Duprez, newly returned to Paris from a triumphant stay in Italy, stunned the audience at the Paris Opéra, with a series of chest-voice top Cs in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell. The style of agile, light-voiced tenors like Nourrit was eclipsed virtually overnight, seemingly for good. Thereafter the tenor who could not manage an interpolated high C in the aria Di quella pira in Verdi’s Il trovatore (which is not in the score) was liable to find himself hooted off the stage, especially in Italy. Heroic, dramatic tenors such as Caruso and Gigli became the leading stars of the operatic stage throughout much of the 20th Century.
We have seen the rebirth of the Rossini tenor repertoire recently, with the appearance of such fine singers as Juan Diego Florez, Lawrence Brownlee, and others. While they sing full-voiced throughout their range, the head voice plays a role in the astounding agility with which these singers execute Rossini’s extremely difficult music for the tenor voice. As a result we are hearing some of the finest performances of Rossini’s music today since the music was first performed almost 200 years ago.