The Birth of Italian Opera

Entertainment, music, dance, and magnificent processions with spectacular technical effects and extravagant costumes. The stories (or themes) were taken from classical mythology. their purpose was often to impress visiting dignitaries and present a positive image of a ruler and his court.

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The interior of La Fenice in Venice in 1837. Original at Museo Correr.

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Background of Opera

Comparable art forms from various other parts of the world, many of them ancient in origin, exist and are also sometimes called “opera” by analogy, usually prefaced with an adjective indicating the region (for example, Chinese opera). These independent traditions are not derivative of Western opera, but are rather distinct forms of musical theatre. Opera is also not the only type of Western musical theatre: in the ancient world, Greek drama featured singing and instrumental accompaniment; and in modern times, other forms such as the musical have appeared.

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Inspired by the ancient stories and myths of the Greeks and Romans, drawing parallels between the ruler and the mythological gods or heroes, their purpose was often to impress visiting dignitaries and present a positive image of a ruler and his court. They included vast processions, dances, sung episodes, and acted interludes, all sumptuously costumed with elaborate coaches and chariots and stage effects.

In this production, the dancers form geometric patterns on the floor of the theatre before what we would now think of as the proscenium arch, which is ‘designed’ as a rocky archway.

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Italian opera is a musical art form that had its beginnings in Florence in the late 1500s.

It was based on a number of performance  genres that preceded it,  including Greek Drama, monody (poems sung by a solo vocalist with single instrument backing) and madrigals (a capella singing by 3-6 harmonizing vocalists).

The Seeds of Italian Opera

Cristofano Malvezzi (1547–1599) was born in Lucca, Tuscany, but later lived in Florence. There he was maestro di cappella at the cathedral and wrote madrigals and numerous “intermezzi” (the short form of opera) for the Medici family’s entertainments. It’s speculated that he was a member of the Florentine Camerata, a group of progressive musicians and poets who, in attempting to recreate the music of ancient Greece, created the first monody, a forerunner of the aria and essentially the genesis of opera.

Opera is born
Jacopo Peri as Arion in La pellegrina
Bernardo Buontalenti (c. 1531 – 1608).

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The earliest known opera composition is Dafne, written by Jacopo Peri (1561–1633) in 1597. Peri was born in Rome but relocated to Florence to study music. In the 1590s, he met Jacopo Corsi, the leading patron of music in Florence, and they decided to recreate a form of Greek tragedy, following in the footsteps of the Florentine Camerata, which had produced the first experiments in monody. Peri and Corsi invited the poet Ottavio Rinuccini to write a text, and Dafne was the result.

Peri’s later composition, Euridice, written in 1600 with Giulio Caccini, is the earliest surviving opera and was initially performed as part of the celebrations for a Medici wedding, thereby catapulting opera into the mainstream of court entertainment. Peri credited the madrigals of Emilio del Cavalieri as the forerunner of the operatic form.

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Claudio Monteverdi by Bernardo Strozzi, c.1630.

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Claudio Monteverdi (1567 – 1643) was an Italian composer, violinist, and singer considered a crucial figure in the history of music. Having taken over opera from the Florentine “camerata” and  introduced  the Baroque method  of declamation with continuo accompaniment, he enriched it with an unprecedented expressiveness, and moved from the Renaissance ensemble of diverse instruments in “La Favola d’Orfeo“, to an early version of the Baroque ensemble, where specific categories of instruments were used for mood painting.

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Opera seria

(literally “serious opera”) would become dominant in Italy and much of the rest of Europe. The influence of this new attitude can be seen in the works of the composers Carlo Francesco Pollarolo and the enormously prolific Alessandro Scarlatti.

Artistic and cultural life in Italy was heavily influenced by the aesthetic and poetic ideals of the members of the Accademia dell’Arcadia. The Arcadian poets introduced many changes to serious music drama in Italian, including:

  • the simplification of the plot;
  • the removal of comic elements;
  • the reduction of the number of arias;
  • a predilection for plots drawn from ancient Classical or modern French tragedy, in which the values of loyalty, friendship and virtue were extolled and the absolute power of the sovereign was celebrated.
Opera Buffa

The comic genre of opera buffa born in Naples, it began to spread throughout Italy after 1730.

It was distinguished from opera seria by numerous characteristics:

  • the importance given to stage action and the consequent need for the music to follow the changes of the drama, emphasising the expressiveness of the words;
  • the choice of singers who were also excellent actors able to perform the drama convincingly;
  • a reduction in the use of scenery and stage machinery and in the number of orchestral players;
  • the use of a small cast of characters (intermezzo) and simple plots, a good example being Pergolesi‘sLa serva padrona”;
  • libretti inspired by commedia dell’arte, with realistic subjects, colloquial language and slang expressions
  • as far as singing was concerned: the complete rejection of vocal virtuosity; a tendency to an incorrect pronunciation of the words; the frequent presence of rhythmic and melodic tics; the use of onomatopoiea and interjections.

In the second half of the 18th century comic opera owed its success to the collaboration between the playwright Carlo Goldoni and the composer Baldassare Galuppi. Thanks to Galuppi, comic opera acquired much more dignity than it had during the days of the intermezzo.

Operas were now divided into two or three acts, creating libretti for works of a substantially greater length, which differed significantly from those of the early 18th century in the complexity of their plots and the psychology of their characters. Goldoni and Galuppi’s most famous work together is probably “Il filosofo di campagna” (1754).

The collaboration between Goldoni and another famous composer Niccolò Piccinni produced another new genre: opera semiseria. This had two buffo characters, two nobles and two “in between” characters.

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Portrait of Gioachino Rossini, oil on canvas, Museo del Teatro la Scala, Milan.

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Bel canto, Verdi, and Verismo

The bel canto opera movement flourished in the early 19th century and is exemplified by the operas of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Pacini, Mercadante and many others. Literally “beautiful singing”, bel canto opera derives from the Italian stylistic singing school of the same name. Bel canto lines are typically florid and intricate, requiring supreme agility and pitch control. Examples of famous operas in the bel canto style include Rossini’sIl barbiere di Siviglia” and “La Cenerentola”, as well as Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.

Following the bel canto era, a more direct, forceful style was rapidly popularized by Giuseppe Verdi, beginning with his biblical opera Nabucco. Verdi’s operas resonated with the growing spirit of Italian nationalism in the post-Napoleonic era, and he quickly became an icon of the patriotic movement (although his own politics were perhaps not quite so radical). In the early 1850s, Verdi produced his three most popular operas: Rigoletto, Il trovatore and La traviata. But he continued to develop his style, composing perhaps the greatest French Grand Opera, Don Carlos, and ending his career with two Shakespeare-inspired works, Otello and Falstaff, which reveal how far Italian opera had grown in sophistication since the early 19th century.

Later Italian composers, such as Berio and Nono, have experimented with modernism.

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The 20th Century
Puccini standing, facing slightly left; wearing paddock coat and bowler hat. 8 April 1908.

Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924) wrote some of the greatest Italian operas of the 20th century, including Manon LescautLa BohèmeTosca, and Madame Butterfly. Born in Lucca in Tuscany, he enrolled in the Milan Conservatory in 1880. Manon Lescaut (1893), his third opera, was his first great success. La Bohème (1896) is considered one of his best works as well as one of the most romantic operas ever composed. It is, together with Tosca, one of the world’s most popular operas. Madame Butterfly (1904) was initially panned, but was reworked to become another of his most successful operas. Puccini also wrote orchestral pieces, sacred music, chamber music and compositions for piano and voice.

Italian opera remains a popular form of entertainment throughout the world, with works by its most eminent composers being performed every day on a stage somewhere. The Three Tenors brought opera to the attention of the general populace, and many of us changed our minds about what this music had to offer. Whether we understand the lyrics or not, pieces like Nessun Dorma can affect us in a way that other music can’t. In that moment, a long dead composer reaches across time and touches our souls.

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