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Cabaletta describes the two-part musical form particularly favored for arias in 19th century Italian opera, and is more properly the name of the more animated section following the songlike cantabile.[1] It often introduces a complication or intensification of emotion and/or plot. Some sources suggest that the word derives from the Italian cobola (couplet).[2] Another theory suggests that it derives from the Italian cavallo (horse), a reference to the pulsating rhythm of a galloping horse which forms the accompaniment of many famous cabalettas.[3]

The cabaletta formed as part of an evolution from early 19th century arias containing two contrasting sections at different tempi within a single structure into more elaborate arias with musically distinct movements. The term itself was first defined in 1826. It has a repetitive structure consisting of two stanzas followed by embellished variations. The cabaletta typically ends with a coda, often a very virtuosic one.

Classic examples include "Non più mesta" from La Cenerentola by Rossini (1817), "Vien diletto, è in ciel la luna" from I puritani by Bellini (1835), and "Di quella pira" from Verdi's Il trovatore.

In later parlance, cabaletta came to refer to the fast final part of any operatic vocal ensemble, usually a duet, rather than just a solo aria: the duet between Gilda and Rigoletto in Act 1, Scene 2 of Rigoletto ends with a relatively slow cabaletta, whereas the cabaletta for their duet in Act 2 is quite rousing.

The cabaletta is often used to convey strong emotions: overwhelming happiness (Linda's famous cabaletta "O luce di quest anima" from Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix), great sorrow (Lucia's "Spargi d'amaro pianto" from Lucia di Lammermoor), timeless love (Lindoro's short cabaletta from Rossini's L'italiana in Algeri). Cabaletta is one of the most important elements in opera, particularly in belcanto opera: Rossini, for example, wrote at least one or even more cabalettas for all major characters in his operas (for example, L'italiana in Algeri contains two cabalettas for Lindoro, three cabalettas for Isabella, one cabaletta for Mustafa, and one for Taddeo; and if we add the final parts of the ensembles, we get almost sixteen cabalettas).

Giuseppe Verdi continued to adapt the cantabile-cabaletta formula to great emotional and dramatic effect, before largely abandoning it; a famous Verdian cabaletta follows Violetta's pensive "È strano! è strano...Ah fors'è lui" (La traviata, I, v) which leads by degrees to her resolve, "Sempre libera", with its rapid and defiant pyrotechnics.



  1. ^ Madamina, il catalogo è questo is a rare example that reverses this order.
  2. ^ e.g. Apel (1962) p. 107 and Encyclopædia Britannica
  3. ^ e.g. Fisher (2005) p.126