Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Mozart's First Figaro: The Vocal Skill of Francesco Benucci

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Mozart's First Figaro: The Vocal Skill of Francesco Benucci

Article excerpt


THE MUSIC OF MOZART'S OPERAS constitutes an essential part of a voice student's education. Analysis of information regarding the singers for whom Mozart composed can help us better understand Mozart's intentions and better prepare us both to sing and teach this repertoire. This study investigates one particular Mozart singer, Francesco Benucci, the first Figaro.

Francesco Benucci was born in Livorno, Italy in 1745. He started his professional singing career at age twenty-three, but he did not perform steadily until 1777, when he was engaged to sing in Venice, Milan, and other opera houses in Italy.1 In 1783, at age thirty-eight, Benucci was hired to sing in Vienna by Emperor Joseph II of Austria. In Vienna, Benucci performed thirteen roles, including Bartolo in Paisiello's Il barbiere di Siviglia, Blasio in Salieri's La scuola de' gelosi, Tita in Martin y Soler's Una cosa rara, and Guglielmo in Mozart's Così fan tutte. As the primo buffo bass in Vienna during the 1780s, Benucci was influential in the creation of four Mozart opera roles.2 This study examines his role in the creation of Figaro from Le nozze di Figaro.

Daniel Heartz suggests that Benucci was "the greatest basso buffo of his generation . . . if a single resource had to be named as the strength that emboldened Mozart to conceive of writing an opera on the scandalous Figaro play, we suggest it was Benucci."3 Expectations of Benucci's vocal skill were much lower than those of singers who played serious characters. The definition of "basso buffo" in the New Grove Dictionary of Opera reads:

Italian term for a 'comic bass' voice, the type principally used for comic roles in eighteenth century opera. Dr. Bartolo in the Figaro operas of Mozart and Rossini is typical of the continuing tradition, both as character, ridiculous in pretensions and sense of outrage when not satisfied, and in the writing for voice which, while requiring no great skill in bel canto, asks for effective volume and proficiency in patter song. Mozart's Figaro (baritone or bass-baritone) and Leporello are further classic examples.4

Considering the buffo bass was expected to be a singer who possessed a strong voice but had "no great skill in bel canto," it seems reasonable that if we prove Benucci sang with all the skill of a bel canto singer, he could be considered exceptional.

Proof of Benucci's immediate success in Vienna comes from letters and diaries of Viennese impresarios and musicians, including Mozart. Mozart saw Benucci perform in Salieri's La scuola de'gelosi, and reported to his father "The buffo is particularly good. His name is Benucci."5 Emperor Joseph II also thought very highly of the singer. In a letter to his theater director Count Rosenburg, Joseph indicated that he favored Benucci over others in the buffo troupe, stating that he would like to keep soprano Nancy Storace, but ". . . never to the detriment of Benucci because the man is worth more than two Storaces."6

It is difficult to understand and assess singers of the past without recordings. Problems arise when we realize that eighteenth century pitch was generally lower and not standardized across Europe, and that there remain differing views on voice type, roles, and vocal range. Nevertheless, armed with the right data, we can piece together some answers regarding how singers viewed singing and approached their music. The best analysis of Benucci's singing skill can be gathered from three resources: eighteenth century treatises on singing and technique, music that was written for him by Mozart and his contemporaries, and personal accounts of his performances from authence members and composers.


It is well established that eighteenth century treatises on the voice are excellent resources and underpin much of what is taught in singing today. For this study we will focus on the writings of Pier Francesco Tosi (c. 1653-1732) and Giambattista Mancini (1714-1800), particularly their views on the vocal registers. …

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