Vibrato and Rossini: managing vibrato and articulation to differentiate ornaments

Martha Elliott


This presentation is about vibrato and Rossini. First I will examine some of the references and recommendations from period sources. Then we will look at some specific music examples from Rossini and see how different singers manage their vibrato and articulation in order to differentiate various kinds of ornamentation, be it a passing tone in a cantabile melody, a stressed dissonant appoggiatura, a trill, or turn, or a burst of florid activity in a cadenza. The presentation will feature some old and new audio examples and some discussion about what’s happening with Rossini performance today.


Of course we know that in the 18th-century writers considered vibrato to be an ornament which when used selectively could be charming and effective for heightened expressivity. But if overused, or consistently present, it indicated faulty technique and/or bad taste. Tosi says singers must ‘learn to hold notes without shrillness or trembling’ without the fluttering that is in bad taste.1 Leopold Mozart talks about tremolo as an ornament which ‘can be used charmingly on a long note’ but he warns that ‘it would be an error if every note were played with the tremolo.’2 Agricola also allows that singers can use vibrato at the end of a long note, but indicates that not all throats are able to bring this off effectively.3 And of course there is the famous quote from Mozart: as he was complaining about the trembling of Meisner’s voice which he thought was a detestable habit, he said ‘The human voice trembles naturally – but in its own way – and only to such a degree that the effect is beautiful... but the moment the proper limit is overstepped, it is no longer beautiful.’4 So this is really a subjective judgment call, for Mozart, and for us as well.


Moving into the 19th century, in 1836, Isaac Nathan advises that ‘any unsteadiness or tremor of voice is to be remedied by taking the note softer; a contrary course only serving to increase and confirm the defect.’5 And in the 1840s and 50s in the various versions of Garcia’s Complete Treatise he says ‘the repeated use of the tremolo makes the voice tremulous’ (chevrotante, which conjures up the image of the bleating goat which was used as a negative example of vibrato in earlier centuries). He goes on to say ‘The artist who has contracted this intolerable fault becomes incapable of phrasing any kind of sustained song.’6 In 1828 we have a new definition of vibrato in Thomas Busby’s Musical Manual. He says vibrato is ‘a term used in the Italian Opera to signify that at the note or passage to which it refers, the voice is to be thrown out, in a bold, heroic style.’7 Garcia discusses this special use of vibrato in a section of his treatise called ‘Passions and Sentiments’ where he also talks about using sobs, sighs and laughs for heightened expression. ‘The tremolo should be used only to portray the feelings which, in real life, move us profoundly... (anguish, tears, anger, vengeance etc....) the use of it should be regulated with taste and moderation; as soon as one exaggerates the expression or the length of it, it becomes tiresome and awkward.’8 So this gives a pretty clear picture that in the early 19th-century vocal vibrato was certainly used, perhaps more than previously, but still as a special effect and definitely not as a consistent ongoing presence.


In terms of articulation, we know from C.P.E. Bach, Quantz and others that in the 18th century the ‘usual manner’ of playing was detached and separate in most situations, to define and make clear each different figure.9 In the 1804 fourth edition of his violin treatise, however, Leopold Mozart revised his earlier recommendation of separated articulation in favor of a slurred, sustained sound for cantabile passages.10 As the 19th century progressed, legato articulation became more favoured and instrumentalists were asked to emulate the cantabile style of the best singers.11 Of course singers had text to help them shape articulation, and their most important job was conveying the clear expression of the text. The vocal method books in the early part of the century by Lanza, Corri, Ferrari, Nathan, and Garcia all stress the importance of communicating the text by using appropriately placed breaths, phrasing and expression to complement the dramatic meaning of the words. 12 Instrumentalists were asked to emulate the expressive diction of good singers as part of their approach to articulation.13 So even though a legato style was gaining favour, musicians were still under the influence of the 18th century practice of defining and shaping the music with a wide variety of articulation.

Ornaments also had to be defined and shaped. Both Nathan and Garcia recommend accenting or emphasizing the first note in a group of fast notes to avoid monotony.14 Garcia also advises giving dissonant notes slightly more emphasis. Rapid passages should be smoothly joined together, but also clear and precise. So, again, continuing the instructions from earlier periods the main goals for singers were still to achieve, clear, steady cantabile passages, inflected dissonances, expressive diction and clearly defined ornaments. I think this is hard to do with the large, continuously present vibrato used by most opera singers today. According to Garcia, vibrato was merely one of many kinds of articulation which could be used to help convey the meaning and drama of the text.

In looking for audio examples for this presentation, I was struck by how little variety there was in professional performances of Rossini operas. The small number of historically informed productions are mostly concerned with editions, or ornamentation and the specific content and placement of improvised variations. In fact it seems that many professional Rossini singers today are interested in learning about period ornamentation, but not about other more subtle issues of period vocal style, namely managing vibrato and articulation. Even Will Crutchfield, who is a specialist in this repertoire, and conducts Bel Canto productions at the Caramoor Festival, has admitted that professional singers probably won’t want to change their technique in the service of historical performance practice.15 And in fact we’ll hear two singers who are starring in a production of Semiramide at Caramoor this summer, Vivica Genaux, and Lawrence Brownlee... and while their fast ornamentation is dazzling they both use a lot of modern vibrato, most of the time. The softer, more gentle vocal production recommended by 18th and 19th century writers might not be practical or possible for today’s opera singers who have to fill large houses and sing over modern orchestras, Yet, I believe a compromise is possible, and I did find some examples of stylish singing.


Audio example 1 is a short bit of Fernando De Lucia singing ‘Ecco ridente’ from Barber. De Lucia made his debut in Naples in 1885 and sang and recorded until the 1920’s. Almaviva was a specialty of his. This recording is from 1904. I think we all know what the issues are in listening to early recordings in terms of acoustics and recording technology. It is hard to know how accurate a representation of the sound of the voice we are really getting. But this will provide a base for comparison at least. So listen for the presence or absence of vibrato and how it impacts on the ornaments.

Audio Example 1: ‘Ecco ridente in cielo’ Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Fernando de Lucia) (0:05-1:35)

His voice actually has quite a noticeable small fast vibrato throughout, but the sound is gentle and not forced. The high notes are floaty and delicate. The fast runs glide smoothly but are distinctly clear. Both the ornamental high notes and the runs are softer and have less vibrato than the main melody notes. He uses rubato and less volume and vibrato to set off the turn on the first ‘cielo’. and the turns at ‘aurora’ and ‘ancora’. He emphasizes the leading note B on ‘cielo’ and D# on ‘dormir’ and of course the F natural with a cadenza before the return of the tune. The aria is transposed down about a whole step.

Video example 1 is a 1999 YouTube clip of the same passage sung by Juan Diego Florez:

Video example 1: ‘Ecco ridente in cielo’ Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Juan Diego Florez)
1:00 – 2:25

This is in C major as written, and significantly faster, but his vibrato is actually quite trim and fast throughout, and he pares it down even more for certain expressive notes on ‘cielo’ also on ‘dormir cosi’ and the F, D and B leading back to the second stanza. Some of the high notes are full and robust, but he also floats some. I think this is beautiful singing, but there were other YouTube clips of him singing this aria that were softer and slower and even more lovely.


Next, we’ll hear some versions of an extract from ‘Una voce poco fa’. First is Luisa Tetrazzini from a 1907 recording. You’ll hear the typical tiny shimmer of a vibrato, blended chest voice in the lower range, somewhat abrupt endings of some notes, and high notes which are full and powerful, but easy and clear:

Audio Example 2: ‘Una voce poco fa’ Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Luisa Tetrazzini) (0:15-1:10)

The last note is almost completely straight, and there is absolutely no confusion between the long trill note, the fast running notes and the slower ornamental notes. It’s all completely clear, and gentle and relaxed.

Next we’ll hear Cecilia Bartoli in a recording from 1989. (That recording was not available for this web presentation, but the performance below from 1992 is very similar.) She has more noticeable vibrato on the long notes, but it is still pretty small and fast:

Audio Example 3: ‘Una voce poco fa’ Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Cecilia Bartoli) (0:00-0:48)

She trims her vibrato for the triplet at ‘qui nel cor’ and keeps ‘ mi risuono’ pretty straight as well. The short notes on ‘fu’ and ‘pia- go’ are also very light, short and straight. Both high notes on ‘Lindoro’ are full, but Tetrazinni sang those full as well. Bartoli gives special emphasis to the dissonant appoggiaturas on both ‘giurai’s’ and she also separates the second ‘sara’ at the bottom of the big run down from G#. So she uses a wide variety of articulations and levels of vibrato.

Now we’ll hear Vivica Genaux from her 2003 album Bel Canto Arias:

Audio Example 4: 3 ‘Una voce poco fa’ Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Vivica Genaux) (0:36-1:30)

Her vibrato on the long notes is much slower and wider overall. She does takes it away for the triplet on ‘qui nel cor’ and a bit for the triplet leading to the C natural of the first ‘Lindoro’, but she doesn’t do as much with the appoggiaturas on ‘giurai’. The fast passages are active and very clear, but they are surrounded by a lot more vibrato in general. And her recordings of Farinelli arias and other Baroque arias are similar. The passage work is dazzling and her low notes are sort of male sounding, but there is a lot of vibrato throughout.

Bartoli has a recording of Cenerentola from 1992 with Riccardo Chailly conducting which has a lot of stylish singing on it. They use an 1818 Comeretto forte piano for the recitatives and make an effort to sing the ensembles with less vibrato and more variety of articulation. This helps keep the pitches and harmony clear. It is also easier to hear coloratura passages against the ensemble background.

Now two examples of Ramiro’s second act aria ‘Si ritrovarlo’:


First, we’ll hear Lawrence Brownlee. This is an extract from the Andantino (2:30–3:17 to beginning of bar 8):

Video Example 2: ‘Si ritrovarlo’ La Cenerentola (Lawrence Brownlee)
2:30 – 3:55

This is beautiful singing, but in a very modern style. It sounds incredibly even and consistent. The legato is un-broken and seamless. The vibrato is constant and full, though luckily it is fairly small and fast. In the Allegro section his vibrato and the coloratura are moving at about the same speed, so even though the fioratura is precise and clear, it is surrounded by a lot of movement in the constantly present vibrato.

Now here is Juan Diego Florez in the same passage, from Barcelona in 2008:

Video example 3: ‘Si ritrovarlo’ La Cenerentola (Lawrence Brownlee)
2:30 – 3:40 

This is a wonderful compromise between modern singing and period style. The first six quavers are almost straight toned, and he inflects the dissonances on the F# and G#. In the third bar he also varies his vibrato to inflect the dissonant E’s and the D on the fourth quaver for ‘mi lusinghi’. In the bar after the flourish on the fermata, he stresses the first note in each of the groups of semiquavers, as Garcia instructed, and he really emphasizes the dissonant appoggiatura on the next downbeat for ‘seno’. In the next statement of ‘Labbro e al seno’ he sings the semiquavers of ‘seno’ almost straight. [I will press you to my lips and heart] And then adds more impassioned vibrato for ‘ti stringero’ ‘I will press’. I think this is beautiful singing which incorporates many appropriate stylish gestures without losing the commitment and power of a modern vocal technique.

I would like to recommend to modern opera singers that there can be a middle way, a compromise. Perhaps instead of the 18th- and 19th-century advice of using vibrato occasionally as an ornament, you can use non-vibrato, or less vibrato occasionally as an ornament. Instead of giving up a modern technique entirely and singing in the soft, gentle manner the 19th century, you can incorporate more variety of articulation. I don’t think it has to be either/or. Modern opera singers and especially young singers, can and should try to incorporate historically stylish ways of singing Bel Canto repertoire into their modern approach.

Martha Elliott

Soprano Martha Elliott, author of Singing in Style: A Guide to Vocal Performance Practices has been teaching at Princeton University since 1985. Her book has been enthusiastically received throughout the USA and the UK. In addition to her regular schedule of studio lessons, master classes and courses on German Lieder and 20th-Century American Musical Theater at Princeton, she has presented talks, workshops and master classes for the NATS National Conference in Nashville, the NATS Winter Workshop in Atlanta, the National Early Music Association Conference on Historical Vocal Performance Practice at York University, in the UK, New Jersey Opera Theatre, Smith College, Brown University and elsewhere. As a singer, she has a wide range of repertoire, including avant-garde contemporary music, opera, chamber music, and baroque music with period instruments. She has sung at Tanglewood and the Marlboro Music Festival, with the Atlanta Symphony, Concert Royale and has performed around the world with the New York New Music ensemble Continuum. Recent performances include appearances in recital in Moscow, Russia, with the Odessa Philharmonic in the Ukraine, and with the Brentano String Quartet in Princeton. She holds degrees from Princeton University and Juilliard. Her web site is at

  1. Pier Francesco Tosi, Opinioni de’ cantori antichi e moderni (Bologna, 1723), trans. and ed. John Ernst Galliard as Observations on the Florid Song (London, 1742), ed. with additional notes by Michael Pilkington (London: Stainer and Bell, 1987), 8. All primary sources here noted are also referred to in Martha Elliott Singing in Style: a Guide to Vocal Performance Practice (Yale University Press, 2006). See
  2. Leopold Mozart, Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule (Augsburg, 1756), trans. Edith Knocker as A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing, 2nd edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), sec. XI.1.3, 203.
  3. Johann Friedrich Agricola, Anleitung zur Singkunst (Berlin, 1757), trans. Julianne Baird as Introduction to the Art of Singing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 149.
  4. Emily Anderson, trans. and ed., The Letters of Mozart and His Family, 3rd edn (London: Macmillan, 1985), 552.
  5. Isaac Nathan, Musurgia Vocalis: An Essay on the History and Theory of Music, and on the Qualities, Capabilities and Management of the Human Voice (London, 1836), reprinted in The Porpora Tradition, ed. E. Foreman (New York: Pro Musica Press, 1968), 145.
  6. Manuel García, Traité complet de l’art du chant (Paris, 1874; facs. Geneva, 1985), trans. Donald V. Paschke as A Complete Treatise on the Art of Singing: Part Two (New York: Da Capo Press, 1975) and A Complete Treatise on the Art of Singing: Part One (New York: Da Capo Press, 1984), Part Two, 150.
  7. Thomas Busby, A Musical Manual or Technical Directory (London, 1828; facs. New York: Da Capo Press, 1976), 182.
  8. García, Complete Treatise: Part Two, 150.
  9. Johann Quantz, Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversiere zu spielen (Berlin, 1752), trans. Edward Reilly as On Playing the Flute, 2nd edn (New York: Schirmer, 1985), sec. XI.10, 122–23; Daniel Gottlob Türk, Klavierschule, trans. and ed. Raymond H. Haggh as School of Clavier Playing (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982), 345–48.
  10. Leopold Mozart quoted in Sandra P. Rosenblum, Performance Practices in Classic Piano Music: Their Principles and Applications (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), 154.
  11. For a more detailed discussion, see Clive Brown, Classical and Romantic Performing Practice, 1750–1900 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), chapters 2–6.
  12. Gesualdo Lanza, The Elements of Singing (London, 1809); Domenico Corri, The Singer’s Preceptor (London, 1810); Giacomo Gotifredo Ferrari, A Concise Treatise on Italian Singing (London, 1818); and Isaac Nathan, Musurgia Vocalis. For a more detailed discussion of all these sources, see Robert Toft, Heart to Heart: Expressive Singing in England, 1780–1830 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
  13. Charles de Bériot, Méthode de violon (Mainz, 1858), iii, 219–20, quoted in Brown, Classical and Romantic, 55–57.
  14. Nathan, Musurgia Vocalis, 182; Brown, Classical and Romantic, 18.
  15. See Will Crutchfield, ‘Voices,’ in Performance Practice: Music after 1600, ed. Howard Mayer Brown and Stanley Sadie, 424–58 (New York: Norton, 1989).