Western European Opera Analysis


Like cinema, opera is a collaborative art, requiring the skills of poets, composers, choreographers, set and costume designers, singers, musicians, and assorted stage technicians. However, unlike film, opera at first was neither a popular entertainment, nor was it intended to be. Because of its luxuriousness and expensive production requirements, initially the genre needed a rich patron, even a prince, to support it. Little wonder then that opera—often considered the most aristocratic of the arts—had its beginnings in the Renaissance courts of Italy in the 1580’s. Tragedies and comedies, and related dramatic forms, had been featured at the royal courts of Florence and Mantua in northern Italy throughout the sixteenth century. Many of these plays were based on or influenced by Roman and especially Greek models. The revitalized interest in Greek culture, in fact, played a key role in the Renaissance spirit of inquiry and experimentation in the arts.

These plays were often accompanied by music, an attempt by the dramatists and their fellow musicians to emulate what they believed to be an integral part of the classical dramas of the ancient Greeks. Greek drama provided numerous uses of the chorus, for example, and the Renaissance playwrights and musicians sought to produce appropriate music for their own “modern” versions of these plays.

There were some important precursors to these early musical dramas, direct ancestors in the evolution of the full-fledged opera. Most important was the intermedio , a theatrical entertainment intended to keep the audience amused between the acts of the play. The intermedio was often more inventive, more spectacular, than the play it was intended to complement. This mixture of song, music, and dance was generally accompanied by elaborate stage effects, often intended to serve as political allegories honoring the prince or patron...

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The Seventeenth Century

Within a decade after the introduction of opera as a legitimate artistic medium, its first great composer emerged. Claudio Monteverdi was already a masterful composer of madrigals—songs usually in five parts with sophisticated contrasts in structure—which revealed his command of polyphonic technique; that is, two or more melodic lines played at once and complementing each other. Seven years after Euridice, Monteverdi produced another version of the story. With a libretto by Alessandro Striggio, L’Orfeo (pr. 1607; Orfeo, 1949) , the first great opera, broke fresh ground in its use of new kinds of arias and duet writing, culminating in Orfeo’s act 3 aria as he enters the gates of Hades. The instrumental accompaniment is intensely dramatic, imaginative, and emotionally powerful, effectively complementing the action.

By the second quarter of the seventeenth century, Venice—where Monteverdi had come permanently to live and work—had become the opera capital of the world. The city’s theatrical traditions, always geared more to public festivities than to private entertainments, encouraged the growth and prosperity of the new medium. By 1650 the city could boast four opera houses; tourists from all over Europe were captivated by Venetian opera. Monteverdi wrote three new operas in Venice. His last, composed in the year of his death, is arguably his finest. L’incoronazione di Poppea (pr. 1642; The Coronation of Poppea, 1964) tells the story of the scandalous and dishonorable love affair between the Roman emperor Nero and his mistress, Poppea. Despite the basic problem in presenting murderers and unprincipled lovers as central characters, Monteverdi succeeded in writing...

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Opera Seria

The closing years of the seventeenth century saw opera suffering from those very excesses that to a lesser degree had prompted its birth. Poets and theater managers were more concerned with spectacular stage effects, including supernatural occurrences, than on plots that maintained at least a pretense to credibility and human motive. Texts had become degraded by scenes of low, coarse comedy, complicated plots, and irrelevant subplots and characters. Whereas opera had begun as an esteemed entertainment for the aristocracy, by this period it had become, in some ways, a vulgar amusement for the masses.

By the beginning of the eighteenth century, reform was inevitable. Librettists such as Apostolo Zeno and, more important, Pietro Metastasio began to free opera from its excesses. They drew their plots largely from ancient history rather than mythology, emphasizing a logical, efficient, dignified action and usually calling for a cast of fewer than ten characters. The subject matter was serious, the action restrained, and the music characterized by a simpler melodic line with a clearer distinction between recitative and aria. This shift from the improbable to the rational, from the exuberant to the controlled, from the complicated to the simple was given the term opera seria , “serious” or “Neapolitan” opera, so called because the Italian city of Naples was the cultural hub from which these reforms emanated.

In time, opera seria became the dominant form of the eighteenth century, and Metastasio its most influential practitioner. His work was of such quality that his librettos were sometimes performed as straight dramas, and he himself was often compared favorably to the great literary figures of the past. His themes announced an artistic reflection of Order and Monarchy, of a world controlled by reason and a distrust of the passions. His heroes and heroines are noble princes, kings, and queens who ultimately subdue their base “human” drives and adhere to an ideal—patriotism, duty, or honor. Conflicts in Metastasian drama are thus not physical but psychological. Characters often philosophize but rarely bleed. The action of such dramas revolves about the protagonist’s resolution of the conflict, a...

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Opera Buffa

While Metastasian principles provided the form and content of opera seria in the first part of the eighteenth century, the free-wheeling, boisterous humor of the comic opera, or opera buffa , existed side by side with its serious counterpart. In fact, comic scenes, called intermezzi in Italy, were often used to divert the audience between the acts of a serious opera. Stock character types portrayed in spontaneous, improvisational incidents had been a feature of the Italian commedia dell’arte, the traditional national comedy. Yet during this period, the broad comic routines were performed with suitable music, and over the course of the century, the scenes themselves evolved into full-sized operas, the texts and music becoming perfectly teamed.

The most brilliant intermezzo of the first half of the eighteenth century is La serva padrona (The Maid Mistress, 1955) of 1733 by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi . Characterized by an infectious gaiety and an economy of effect, including a small orchestra and only two singers, the piece illustrated the artistic possibilities of a simple, rapidly moving score melded seamlessly with its text. The plot, revolving around a servant’s attempt to outwit her master, became an archetype of the genre. The comic possibilities in the conflict between upper and lower classes appealed to a broader audience, especially as the language of the text was more realistic, vernacular, and dialectic than the idealized abstractions typical of opera seria.

A key figure in the development of comic opera in Italy was Carlo Goldoni . His librettos contain an array of characters—usually seven drawn from a broad cross-section of society. He introduced an important theatrical innovation of the “finale,” an ensemble in which several actions unfold...

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Grand Opera

During the first half of the nineteenth century, Paris was the leading center of the operatic world. This was partly the result of the revolutionary fervor that gripped Europe during the last years of the previous century, beginning with the American and French revolutions and culminating in the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte. Many of the leading musicians found Paris congenial to their creative ambitions. Among the most influential of the early nineteenth century was Luigi Cherubini, who produced Les Deux Journées (pr. 1800; The Escaper, 1801; also known as The Water Carrier, 1871), a superb example of the so-called rescue opera, a subgenre of the opera buffa, just then coming into vogue. It...

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Italian Opera

While grand opera was developing in France, Italy was cultivating its own nationalist style that combined a distinct melodic quality with a more prominent use of the orchestra. No Italian composer more typifies this style than Gioacchino Rossini . He wrote both serious and comic operas, retiring early after composing his most ambitious work, Guillaume Tell (William Tell, 1839), in 1829. Though the opera is not frequently performed, its famous overture is an orchestral staple. However, his masterpiece is Barbiere di Siviglia (pr. 1816; The Barber of Seville, 1818). Generally considered the greatest opera buffa next to Mozart’s work, the work combines sunny, infectious melody with a...

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Wagner and the Music Drama

A significant figure in the history of opera is Richard Wagner , whose dedication to the composition of the total artwork (Gesamtkunstwerk) gave opera a new direction and a new challenge. Among his innovations was the use of the leitmotif, musical themes or “signposts” attached directly or indirectly to certain characters or situations. Although he did not invent the technique—Cherubini had used it in the late eighteenth century, for instance—Wagner developed it from opera to opera, so that it often took on highly suggestive and elusive patterns; the music connected emotionally and intellectually with the action and characterization. His early operas, Der Fliegende Hollander (pr. 1843; The Flying...

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The Twentieth Century

Composers of the new century could not ignore the innovations of Wagner, only react to them. Claude Debussy produced a new kind of opera by using a few leitmotifs combined with a story that is purposely vague or “impressionistic.” Pelléas et Mélisande (pr. 1902; Pelléas and Mélisande, 1907) is a symbolic, dreamlike composition that emphasizes mood rather than direct meaning. Unlike Wagnerian operas, the vocal parts are spare and closely akin to natural speech, and the opera looks back to Renaissance methods by its use of orchestral interludes and preludes that are played between scenes.

Richard Strauss was a direct spiritual descendant of Wagner. His romantic opera Der Rosenkavalier...

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Brener, Milton. Opera Offstage. New York: Walker, 1996. Presents historical accounts of the problems in bringing some famous operas to the stage, including battles involving censorship, political intrigue, and financial constraints. Good section on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.

Grout, Donald J. A Short History of Opera. 2d ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1965. Standard basic history of opera to which later studies are indebted. Some knowledge of musical notation is helpful but not necessary. Concise account of the Renaissance origins of the art form.

Levin, David, ed....

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