The Assoluta Voice in Opera, 1797-1847


The Assoluta Voice in Opera,
1797 - 1847

By Geoffrey S. Riggs

McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers

ISBN: 0-7864-1401-4

271pp. photographs, chronology, appendices, notes,
bibliography, index

$55 library binding 2003 | $39.95 Paperback




It is unusual for styles in opera to carry over from one era into another. It would be even more unusual for one era’s characteristics to linger two generations into the next. Yet this is precisely what happened during the first half of the nineteenth century, when the intricacies of the fleet bel canto style were combined with the Romantic era’s heroic declamation and formidable orchestral emphasis resulting in the creation of the assoluta voice.

This work traces the emergence of the impressive vocal writing that resulted from the marriage of the Bel Canto and Romantic eras. It also covers the uniquely versatile divas who were given the opportunities to make their mark on opera from the time of Cherubini to that of a young Verdi. Here, both the wide-ranging vocalism in the scores themselves and the artists capable of performing this style are referred to as assoluta. Chapters consider Luigi Cherubini’s Médée, Gioacchino Rossini’s Armida, Carl Maria von Weber’s Oberon, Gaetano Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma, Donizetti’s Gemma di Vergy and Roberto Devereux, the time of transition during late Donizetti and early Verdi, and Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco and Macbeth.

"Superb like the roles and voices it studies, this book belongs in the hands of every opera lover. It provides indispensable detailed analysis of nine important heroic coloratura roles and their key recorded interpreters. .... Each chapter presents a treasure of close analysis to delight any lover of fine singing. Highly recommended."

- John Harrison
The Opera Journal June 2004

"Riggs has fashioned a fascinating book, a combination of history, vocal technicalities, and an in-depth discography."

- Charles H. Parsons
American Record Guide Nov/Dec 2003

"It was GREAT! I don't think I ever learned so much from one book on a specific musical subject that was already of great interest to me, and on which I fancied I already knew a lot. Obviously there was a great, great, great deal more to know! .... [T]he whole opera-loving community should thank you for all your efforts to see such a fine work through to completion. It really is a MAJOR work in the field and I will be singing its praises for years to come."

- Joe Pearce
Vocal Record Collectors Society

More fun is to be found in Geoffrey S. Riggs’s The Assoluta Voice in Opera, 1797—1847, though one is afraid to say so, for fear it will do his career some harm (McFarland & Company, Inc. 271 pp. $55). This is, after all, a very serious attempt to understand the voices that inspired many of the greatest works in the opera repertoire. In doing so, Riggs examines nine seminal scores and background data on the composers and prima donnas of the day. He categorizes, analyzes and surmises – then rushes to survey the recordings. For lay readers, this will be the meat, potatoes and first, second and third helpings of dessert. As he listens, Riggs provides a minute, often note-by-note account of key arias and scenes as interpreted by Fleming, Callas, Caballé, Simionato, Sills, Horne and others, rendered with an enthusiasm that borders on compulsiveness. We can’t know for certain what Giulia Grisi sounded like, but plenty of us remember Joan Sutherland and collect her recordings with an exhaustive passion that rivals Riggs’s own, and his feisty, well-argued opinions make these sections of his book almost impossible to put down.

Opera News - Online Edition December, 2003


Geoffrey S. Riggs has served as a guest lecturer at the Juilliard School, the Richard Tauber Institute, the Vocal Record Collectors Society, the Wagner Society of New York, the Wagner of Washington DC and the Boston Wagner Society. He has written numerous articles and reviews for Listener Magazine, Wagner Notes, Review of Reviews, Stagebill and other publications. He lives in New York City.

This page last revised 5/17/2006