In this activity, you will call on two or three sets of students to read the operatic excerpt as pure dialogue, in an impromptu performance in front of the class. The class will then discuss the action of the scene, and using the handout provided, reflect on the personalities and motivations of the characters. The teacher will then play the excerpt from the opera on Met Opera on Demand, followed by a class discussion on the differences between the spoken and sung versions.
STEP 1: Begin the activity by asking the class whether they have ever heard of recitative. If you receive any positive responses, encourage these students to explain the concept, and guide or refine their responses as necessary. If no one has heard of it, explain to the class that recitative (pronounced reh-sih-tah-TEEV or reh-CHEE-tah-TEEV) is an Italian term that refers to a style of singing that is meant to capture the speed, cadences, and style of speech. It is rhythmically free, has no melodic repetition, and a spare accompaniment that only emphasizes the ends of phrases or thoughts.
To demonstrate the basic differences in musical style between recitative and arias, you may play the following excerpts:
- Track 31, from 0:00 – 0:31 (from “Guarda un pó”)
- Track 26, from 0:00 – 1:01 (from “Dalla sue pace”)
STEP 2: Next, hand out the translations of the excerpt found in the reproducible handouts. First giving students time to read over the passage silently, have them make notes on the personalities, emotions, and motivations of each character. Identify two or three sets of volunteers from the class and have them speak the parts of Zerlina and Don Giovanni in front of the class.
STEP 3: Now it is time to turn to the musical setting. While students follow along to the text, play the recitative section of the same scene from the Metropolitan Opera performance of Don Giovanni, available here.
- The excerpt can be found on Track 16, from 0:00 – 0:31.
STEP 4: Continue your exploration of recitative by engaging students in a conversation discussing the differences between the spoken and sung versions of this scene. Guiding questions may include the following:
- What changes did you notice in the length of the scene between the spoken and sung versions?
- What might account for this difference?
- Did singing the sequence make it more or less interesting for you to listen and watch?
- The musical accompaniment for this type of recitative (called recitativo secco, or dry recitative) is simply chords on a piano or harpsichord. Do you find it effective in helping the singers to set the mood, or does the expressiveness of the scene come from the singers alone?
- What would change if a full orchestra played the chords accompanying the singers?
STEP 5: Wrap up the activity by having students summarize the differences between the spoken and recitative versions of the scene. In an open interrogation, students should be able to:
- Discuss which version they prefer and why.
- Discuss whether the music (the chords or the vocal line) adds an extra level of expression to the scene that was lacking in the purely spoken version.
- Offer opinions as to whether the addition of music (chords or singing) helps to move the plot along in a way that speech alone cannot.