Pietro Metastasio created the first great libretti in opera. Though they were written primarily as dramatic vehicles for music, his melodramas, as they were called, were so poetic and so dramatically effective that they were often performed as independent plays.
In the century or more before Metastasio, the libretto had sunk from its primacy in the works of the early operatic composers, such as Claudio Monteverdi, to mere episodic threads between scenes of spectacle and exaggerated action, even low comedy. The music, particularly as it allowed for feats of virtuosity and vocal fireworks, made the libretto an almost vestigial part of the performance; indeed, the poetry of most of the libretti during the hundred years before Metastasio was negligible.
Following the pioneering reform of his predecessor, Apostolo Zeno, Metastasio brought an impressive artistic integrity to the form. Subordinating the merely spectacular, he simplified plot structure, creating scenes that both enhanced the music and delineated character and idea. His melodramas were thematically controlled: logical, dignified, and poetic.
His lyric gift was the key to his art. The poetic language had a conciseness, a precision, a fluency that meshed the action perfectly with the music. In effect, he was not only the first great librettist but also the first modern one. In his hands, the opera became genuinely dramatic as well as musical. His influence was such that almost all of his major works were set to music by many major composers: Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, Antonio Vivaldi, Alessandro Scarlatti, Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frederick Handel, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven.
Charlemont, James Caulfield. Lord Charlemont’s History of Italian Poetry from Dante to Metastasio: A Critical Edition from the Autograph Manuscript. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2000. This volume, edited by George Talbot, presents Lord Charlemont’s critical review of Italian poetry, including the dramas of Metastasio.
Fucilla, Joseph. Introduction to Three Melodramas, by Pietro Metastasio. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1981. Fucilla presents a brief discussion of the life of Metastasio and his works, focusing on the three melodramas that are translated in this volume, Dido Forsaken, Demetrius, and The Olympiad.
Lee, Vernon (Violet Paget). “Metastasio and the Opera.” Studies of Eighteenth Century Italy. 1907. Reprint. New York, Da Capo Press, 1978. Lee examines Metastasio’s relationship with the opera, for which he wrote the first great libretti.
Neville, Don. Metastasio at Home and Abroad: Papers from the International Symposium Faculty of Music, the University of Western Ontario. London, Ont.: University of Western Canada, 1996. This collection of papers examines Metastasio largely from the musical perspective. Bibliographical references.
Stendahl. Haydn, Mozart, and Metastasio. New York: Grossman, 1972. This classic study by the nineteenth century author Stendahl examines the life of Metastasio along with those of composers Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.