From the very beginning opera brought together all the arts. It involved painting, poetry, drama, dance and music, making it the most complex of art forms. It was, as Samuel Johnson later pointed out, exotic and irrational, and, as many have found, remarkably expensive. It remained, nevertheless, of continuing social and political importance. In the first respect it edified and entertained, and in the second it served as an expression of the power and splendour of the monarch in an age of kings.
There was always argument about who composed the first opera. Some of his contemporaries regarded the Roman composer Cavalieri's La rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo (1600) (The Representation of Soul and Body) as the first true example. Written for the Oratorian movement of St Philip Neri and with a dramatic content recalling that of medieval morality plays, in its combination of drama with the new music, it had some claim to priority. Allegorical figures dispute in a work that seeks to show the superiority of the spiritual. The composer himself claimed to have been the first to unite music and drama in this way, although rivals claimed to have done the same things some years before.
While Cavalieri's work entertained and edified the entire College of Cardinals in Rome, other early operas were designed as court entertainments of a more secular kind. Works of this kind were staged, notably, for the Medici rulers in Florence and, most memorably of all, at Mantua. It was there that Monteverdi had his Orfeo staged in 1607, followed the next year by Arianna , now lost. The subject of Orfeo (Orpheus) had already been treated in Florence by the composers Peri and by Caccini. The story had an obvious relevance. The legendary musician Orpheus, grieving at the loss of his beloved Eurydice, attempts to save her from the Underworld by the power of his music and is almost successful, thwarted only at the last minute by his own doubts. Orpheus not only demonstrates the importance of music. He is also represented as a shepherd among shepherds, making it possible for the poet and composer to draw on an existing literary and musical tradition. Pastoral poems and romances were set in a conventional Arcadia, where the only troubles that arose came from the thwarted love of amorous shepherds, whose heart- ache often proved fatal. The Italian madrigal, the part- songs of the 16 th century, often set pastoral verses, drawing on another tradition of the ancient world. Here the life of the shepherd was idealised in an urban or court view of the country, a convention that could present the ageing Queen Elizabeth of England as Oriana, Queen of the Shepherds, shortly before her death. Monteverdi and his librettist were drawing on existing literary and musical conventions.
Opera as court entertainment continued, often under enlightened patronage. It was in Venice, in 1637, that the first public opera- house was opened. Venice was a commercial republic, ruled by an oligarchy, but without a royal court. The commercial aspect of opera could here be exploited, so that by the end of the century there were seven Venetian opera- houses, dominated, after the death of Monteverdi in 1643, by the composer Cavalli, followed by Legrenzi. Venetian opera, not uninfluenced at first by the opera of Rome, spread throughout Italy and to other parts of Europe. As a more popular form than early courtly opera, it offered a mixture of the serious and the comic. Monteverdi's Orfeo had no comic relief, but his two later surviving operas, written for Venice in the early 1640s, include elements of comedy. They also followed a convention now established, that of the happy ending. There was still, as before, a strong element of spectacle, with elaborate stage machinery that allowed transformation scenes and grandiose effects, with a complementary extravagance of costume and décor. Leading composers of the later years of the 17th century and early years of the 18 th also include Alessandro Scarlatti in Naples and Rome, father of the keyboard composer Domenico Scarlatti.
Early opera had involved madrigals, dramatic monody and set songs, or a mixture of these. As the 17 th century went on, there developed a gradual distinction between recitative and aria. The first of these, lightly accompanied often simply by chords, follows the rhythm and stresses of speech without the formal structure of a melody. Recitative, in fact, is dialogue set to music. The aria is a song, often in a form that frames a middle section in identical outer sections, the second of which might be ornamented by the singer. While the plot may be carried forward by the recitative, the aria tends to embody one state of mind. Both had an important part to play in what followed, although audiences tended to pay more attention to arias and much less to recitative, which seemed tedious.
The later years of the 17th century brought the beginnings of operatic reform. This came about partly as a result of French criticism, based on the Aristotelian principles that dominated French classical tragedy. There the so- called dramatic unities of time, place and plot were to be observed. These demanded a closer connection between time in the drama and time on stage, some limit on the changes of place possible, since in Greek tragedy no change of scene was allowed, and a final unity of plot, without primitive diversion into unconnected sub- plots. Under the leadership of the librettist Apostolo Zeno in Venice, the art was purged of its comic elements. The new form, later known as opera seria , followed clear principles of classical propriety and led to a certain stylization. There were clear categories of major and minor ròles, usually for six or seven solo singers, and of the number and type of arias to be allocated to each. Subjects tended now to be historical, rather than mythological. Opera seria held a central position in repertoire for three- quarters of the 18 th century. It brought the rise to prominence of the castrato , now cast in the principal male ròles, and allowed a similar importance and scale of fees to the prima donna , the first lady. Each would expect a similar number of arias of varied mood, sad, angry, brave or meditative, irrespective of the demands of the plot, while the secondary singers would have their own demands to make.
After Zeno the principal librettist was Metastasio, regarded as the most outstanding dramatist and poet of his time. The new libretti, the operatic texts, were set again and again by major composers of the day, including Vivaldi. The music, in fact, became relatively expendable. It was often a case of first the words, then the music. In London Handel had opera seria libretti adapted for the varied requirements of London audiences. He was followed in London, later in the century, by another German composer, Johann Christian Bach, the youngest son of old Johann Sebastian, but the art remained essentially an Italian one.
In the 18th century there was a parallel development of what was later known as opera buffa (comic opera). This had its roots in the ancient Roman comedy of Plautus and Terence and this in turn had been derived from ancient Greek New Comedy. Features of these were stock characters, comic and cunning servants, angry and parsimonious fathers, passionate lovers, amorous daughters and bragging soldiers. With them came a preoccupation with what was recognisable as ordinary life, however simplified. Another source of Italian comedy was found in the associated improvised theatre of the commedia dell'arte , with its similar array of stock characters. Opera buffa corresponded to contemporary spoken drama and opera texts owed a great deal to the work of the playwright Goldoni. Oddly enough, the earlier historical process was now reversed. In the 17 th century tragedy had acquired comic elements. Now serious characters began to find a place in comic opera, which became less comic and more realistic. These more dramatically credible plots found a place in Italian operas such as those written in Vienna by Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte and their contemporaries.
Serious Italian opera, again at first in Vienna, underwent a marked reform with the work of Gluck and the librettist Calzabigi. Between them they succeeded, largely under French influence, in introducing simplifications. The formal requirements of the old opera seria were reduced, allowing a greater degree of realism. Gluck, in fact, claimed that he made music the servant of poetry, never introducing novelties or distractions from the dramatic situation. He explained his principles clearly in his introduction to the opera Alceste , published in 1768. These had already been put into practice in 1762 with his version of the story of Orpheus, Orfeo ed Euridice (Orpheus and Eurydice).
From Rossini to Verdi
The 19th century in Italy brought some of the best known operas of all. These are found first of all in Rossini, a master of comedy, as in Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), in which the barber Figaro abets his master Count Almaviva in his wooing of Rosina and the gulling of her guardian, old Doctor Bartolo. Rossini also tackled more serious subjects, as in his heroic melodrama Tancredi , with its ingredients of love, jealousy, misunderstanding and final resolution either, as in the first version, in a conventional happy ending, or, as in the revised version, in the hero's death. Tancredi provides a demanding title- ròle characteristic of the so- called bel canto style that Rossini so much admired. This involved a fine voice and the flexibility and evenness of tone to cope with elaborately florid vocal writing.
In Italian opera Rossini was followed by Bellini and Donizetti. The former had a mastery of extended lyrical melodies, shown in the intense romanticism of operas like Norma , with its story of love and heroic self- sacrifice by the Druid priestess of the title. Donizetti showed an equally marked dramatic sense, exemplified in Lucia di Lammermoor , based on the novel by Sir Walter Scott and including what became a popular operatic element, a mad scene for the heroine. His sense of comedy is evident in L'elisir d'amore (The Elixir of Love), with its quack doctor and forlorn lover, and in Don Pasquale , the fooling of the elderly bachelor of the title by a pair of young lovers, anxious to be united. Stock characters of Italian comedy occur in both.
The 1840s brought to prominence one of the greatest of all operatic composers. Verdi held a leading position in Italian opera for some half a century and continues to dominate operatic repertoire. From Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar) in 1842 to Falstaff in 1893 he served, as he claimed, in the galley, to produce masterpiece after masterpiece. In these he created a very personal amalgamation of current trends of increased dramatic power and cogency, influenced at times by France and at times by Germany, but always essentially Italian in his own idiom. His career coincided with the rise of Italian nationalism and often his operas suggested a contemporary relevance. This is found, for example, in the chorus of Hebrew slaves in Nabucco and in the chorus of the oppressed people of Scotland in his Shakespearean Macbeth . It was Shakespeare, whose work had a new appeal in a period of relative freedom from earlier classical convention, who inspired Verdi's last two operas, the tragedy Otello and the fine comedy of Falstaff , based on The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Verismo and Puccini
The later years of the century brought verismo (realism), a reflection of current literary trends, in Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana (Rustic Chivalry), a down- to- earth story of love and jealousy in a village, peasant setting, and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci (Players). This last brought to the opera a police- court murder case, in which a jealous actor had killed his faithless wife on the stage. Pagliacci provides a famous example of the dramatic treatment of drama itself, a contrast between the actor himself and the part he is forced to play.
Realism of this kind had its effect on Puccini, whose operas form a major part of modern repertoire, from Manon Lescaut and Tosca to Turandot . While he might seek the exotic in the Japanese setting of Madama Butterfly or the China of Turandot , in Tosca, in spite of its historical setting, he presented a story of political intrigue, murder and deception of contemporary relevance. Puccini too was able, like Verdi, to provide a successful synthesis of current musical and dramatic trends.
20 th Century
Opera has, of course, continued in Italy, both in its more traditional form and in modern experiment. The story has not ended. The later 20 th century offers obvious difficulties of succinct summary, with the general musical eclecticism that has characterized music and the other arts.
VIEW ELISIR D'AMORE HIGHLIGHTS
Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu
a phantastic opera production with great voices