Academic journal article Journal of Singing

In Search of the Soprano Sfogato

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

In Search of the Soprano Sfogato

Article excerpt

prov*e*nance (prov'e-nans) n. Place of origin, source. [LAT. Provenire, to originate.]

OF ALL TERMS APPLIED TO OPERATIC VOICES, perhaps none has generated more controversy than soprano sfogato. Once a very common term, in the nineteenth century it was used to describe many leading sopranos including Giulia Grisi, Adelina Patti, Giuditta Pasta, and Henriette Sontag. In the twentieth century it has been used to describe Maria Callas, Renata Scotto, and Shirley Verrett, and is still occasionally applied to singers today.

WHAT DOES SFOGATO MEAN, AND HOW DOES IT APPLY TO SINGING?

An Italian-English dictionary from 1816 (around the time the term soprano sfogato was first being used) translates the word as follows:

SFOGATO, adj. exhaled, evaporated, vented, allayed, v. Sfogare. Luogo sfogato (aperto) an open air. Stanza sfogata, a large room. Aria sfogata, open air.1

Sfogato is the past participle of the verb sfogare, which is most commonly translated as "to vent." While the implication is that of venting as in smoke from a room, it is also used (as in English) as in "to vent one's anger."

As a musical expression marking sfogato has been used only rarely in instrumental music, most notably in Chopin's Barcarolle, op. 60, and the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 14 by Liszt. These two famous passages could hardly be more different. In the Chopin, the marking is dolce sfogato for a cadenza-like passage in the right hand, while in the Liszt, the phrase Sfogato con bravura is applied to a thickly textured fortissimo section.

Music dictionaries usually translate the word as "light" or "airy in style."2 While sfogato may indeed mean "airy," it is not in the sense of an "airy tone," but rather of an "airy room." ( Una stanza sfogata, which is to say a spacious, well ventilated space.) When applied to singers, some have used the meaning "unlimited."3 This is most likely because of the meaning senza impedimento or "without impediment." In this case the implication is of an open outdoor area, as in un luogo sfogato, not an "unlimited range."

The expression voce sfogata has led to further confusion. The late Richard Miller describes it as a " . . . timbre produced with freedom and passion." He goes on to comment, "I personally avoid using sfogata as a descriptive term."4

The only definition that makes sense in all of these contexts is the primary definition of "vented" (or perhaps "poured out"). Despite the confusion about the term, it is easy to see how it could be applied to the singing voice, especially that of the great bel canto sopranos.

WHAT IS A SOPRANO SFOGATO?

The term soprano sfogato appears in the early decades of the nineteenth century to describe many of the sopranos who performed leading roles in operas of Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti, and their contemporaries. While the term was also applied to other voices (e.g., tenore sfogato), like the term coloratura today, it was most frequently applied to sopranos. The sopranos thus described were invariably the great singers of the day who possessed voices of extraordinary range and power.

An article describing soprano Matilde Kyntherland (Cascelli) gives a description typical of the soprani sfogati.

... la Kyntherland ad una straordinaria voce di soprano sfogato, chiara, agile, vibrata ed estesa dal re sovracuto al si bemolle sotto le righe, unisce tant'anima nel canto, e nel gesto . . . [. . . Kyntherland has an extraordinary soprano sfogato voice, clear, supple, vibrant and extending from high D to B flat below the staff, uniting the whole soul in song, and gesture . . .]5

A French source contrasts the soprano sfogato with the contralto.

Le soprano sfogato parcourt les deux octaves, et sa puissance réside d'ordinaire entre l'ut et le mi suraigu, tandis que le contralto, qui va du sol au mi, trouve sa force véritable entre le si et le la. [The soprano sfogato traverses (the) two octaves, and her power ordinarily resides between the C and the high B, whereas the contralto, who goes from G to E, finds her true strength between B and A. …

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