Oakeley, Sir Herbert (Stanley)

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IV. The 18th century


1. Views of 18th-century opera.

2. Social practice.

3. Stylistic evolution.

Opera, §V: The 19th Century

1. Views of 18th-century opera.


Any attempt at a chronological survey of an art form implies that there is a continuity in that art which outlasts periods. Such a continuity may well be questioned in the case of opera: at the beginning of the 18th century, it was still a form of Italian or French literary theatre recited musically; at the end of the century, it had been transformed into a musical species of art, common to all Europe. It is of course possible to trace an evolutionary connection between the beginning and the end of 18th-century opera, particularly if the account focusses on the history of opera as composition. That historiographical convention, however, imposes an artificial unity on the subject. If 18th-century opera is conceivable as a whole, then it is only as a multivalent concept where the interactions of music, drama, social function and other factors are subject to changing contexts, defying the boundaries of academic disciplines.

The field of reference for a study of 18th-century opera will vary according to how opera is defined. To see it primarily as a musical art involves marginalizing much 18th-century theatre where the musical ingredient consisted only of borrowed songs (French vaudeville comedies, English ballad operas, plays with songs and incidental music); if it is a theatrical art, much unstaged dramatic music must be excluded (cantatas, serenatas, concert arias). The understanding of opera as an exclusively secular genre would rule out the sacred operas of the period (dramma sacro); and opera histories that include independent melodramas (Wieland, Schweitzer) or staged ballets (Starzer/Hilverding, Gluck/Angiolini) do not even require opera to be sung. There is also the question of whether opera is to be regarded as a ‘work’ (opus) or a practice.

The 18th-century development has tended towards the concept of opera as both a work and a practice that presents ‘sung action on stage’. This definition is fragile: when modified to ‘singing and acting on stage’, it would cover practically any theatrical performance of the time. The term ‘opera’ itself, widely adopted by the end of the century, originally had alternative meanings (for example a commedia dell'arte performance). The names for sub-genres were either literary (tragédie en musique, dramma per musica, commedia per musica and others) or colloquial (opera buffa, opera seria, opéra comique and others). Thus the colloquial term ‘opera’ seems to have implied the musical ingredient anyway, whereas it had to be specially added to the literary terms (‘… per musica’). It was this colloquial Italian term that was adopted in most countries, occasionally competing with native terms (Singspiel, zarzuela).

The period under consideration, c1690–1790, privileges opera seria as a paradigmatic sub-genre, since it formed a relative unity in these 100 years and had an international dissemination typical for this time. From a purely national perspective, or in comic opera, the years 1690–1790 would hardly appear so unified. In French opera, for example, two events described by contemporaries as ‘revolutions’ were the establishment of full-blown opéra comique in the 1750s and the structural changes brought about by Gluck, Piccinni and others from 1774 onwards; works representative of both types remained in the repertory until 1830 and after.

A study of 18th-century opera must take account of other forms of theatre of the time, to help an understanding of operatic music itself (for example in its gestural functions) and to place opera in its literary and theatrical context. The history of literature overlaps most extensively with that of opera; the texts and dramatic contents of opera are important, not least because the genre addresses non-musicians as well as musicians. On the other hand, musical dramaturgy was widely seen as exempt from the rules and aesthetic precepts of the literary theatre, just as musical poetry is often more appreciated when sung than when recited.

In the narratives of cultural history, the 18th century seems to cross a major division or watershed, from whatever standpoint it is viewed: it bridged ancien régime and Revolution, Baroque and Classicism, absolutism and Enlightenment, and so forth. Such perceived divisions strongly influence the modern reception of 18th-century opera, for example in the perceived difference between opera before Mozart and after: the former is ‘early music’, the latter Classical repertory. Some of Gluck's operas belong to the former category in the Anglo-American world but to the latter in continental Europe. Related constructions oppose Baroque opera (the artistic mirror of an imagined courtly environment) to Classical-Romantic opera (a dramatic musical work aspiring to the standards of original authorship). The former type needs restoring, reviving or re-creating, the latter editing, performing and interpreting. These fixed views of cultural history are also implied when opera historians welcome the arrival of ‘flesh and blood’ in 18th-century opera (for example thanks to Handel, the middle classes, Goldoni or Mozart) or deplore a loss of performative spontaneity in favour of canonical repertories.

The Classical-Romantic aesthetic of music as a self-expressive art, which appears towards 1780 in the critical literature of the European Enlightenment and has dominated 19th- and 20th-century views, was imposed on earlier opera with little regard to the genre's theatrical loyalties. From this perspective, most 18th-century opera appears as a pre-enlightened practice, enslaved by its social functions but also curiously irrational or dreamlike: an authoritarian puppet theatre. Even its traditional task of imitating nature by portraying the affections is thought to have been essentially beyond its reach, not to speak of the challenge of expressing true humanity on stage. This perception, which puts the burden of dramatic expression too exclusively on musical composition, should be contrasted with ideas by which the century understood itself (particularly when it began), with ideas cultivated in areas more in need than in possession of enlightenment and with ideas belonging to the context of theatre rather than that of ‘Art’. If this were done, three things might become clear:

(a) 18th-century opera was less a snapshot of contemporary society than a controversial expression of particular desires and fantasies. It required active promotion to find its place in a society which neither needed nor could afford it. Around 1700, it still seemed exotic to most Europeans, while in Italy it survived thanks to its ability to entertain tourists. French and English observers of this time (Saint-Evremond, North, Addison) discuss Italian opera like a culinary object that was not a real alternative to proper food.

(b) Opera in Italy, hemmed in between academic complaints, ecclesiastical censorship, illiteracy, social restrictions on performers and the competition of improvised theatre, defended its cultural status by maintaining literary standards and humanist ideals while attracting the crowd with fine singing and spectacular staging. The concessions to popular taste, conventionality or star performers, which today are nostalgically seen as the essence of Italian opera altogether, conflicted with at least some of Italy's literary-dramatic traditions although they later helped to project a certain ‘italianità’ which inspired as well as limited its further development.

(c) Given, however, the strength of opera – Italian and other – in its appeal to fantasy, popularity or spontaneity, it is no wonder that so many artistic, intellectual and political trends in 18th-century Europe seized upon the genre to promote themselves. One of these trends was surely the emancipation of dramatic music, another the emancipation of the thinking individual (the Enlightenment). From the early claims of the courtly society on opera as a vehicle of absolutist propaganda, via bourgeois realism, sentimentalism and classicism to the impact of revolution and romanticism, the fate of opera in the 18th century was that it became ingrained in European culture.


Opera, §V: The 19th Century

2. Social practice.


(i) Institutions and circulation.

(ii) Genres.

(iii) Performance and performers.

(iv) Audiences.

Opera, §V, 2: The 19th Century: Institutions

(i) Institutions and circulation.

Before 1690, opera was practised in Italy, at the court of Louis XIV and (with variable frequency) at about 20 courts of central Europe. In the following 100 years, Italian opera was taken up at another 40 courts and cities of central Europe and in the kingdoms of Spain, Portugal, England, Denmark, Sweden and Russia. This expansion was largely motivated by the social status of opera as a classicist and monarchic art. The courts, especially if influenced by Enlightenment ideas (Berlin, Dresden, Mannheim, Stuttgart, Milan, Florence, Parma), also appreciated the artistic and educational values of the genre. Metropolitan centres (Paris, Vienna, Madrid, St Petersburg, London) and even some secondary cities outside Italy witnessed an increasing competition, resisted by some courts, between Italian, French and local operatic traditions and their languages. Organizationally, there were of course vast differences between the status of a major court opera such as the Parisian Académie Royale de Musique (whose control had ramifications throughout the country) and, say, the business of the Venetian impresario Angelo Mingotti, who staged opera seria and comic intermezzos in Moravian and Austrian district towns (1732c1745). There was a contrast of climate between the small but ambitious court operas in central and northern Germany (Bayreuth, Brunswick, Wolfenbüttel, Kassel, Düsseldorf) and the huge international opera fairground of Venice which continuously circulated plots, performers and musical settings. Civic opera was usually controlled by societies of gentlemen with the financial support of a court and of wealthy visitors, as in Venice, Prague and Hamburg. Impresarios managed productions either in the employ of courts and cities, or on a profit basis for themselves. They might rely on a central opera house, engaging new performers and authors each season, or move personnel and productions from place to place in the pursuit of new audiences. The economic principles were nevertheless comparable everywhere: patronage had to make up for the losses incurred through high production costs and uncertain or non-existent box-office takings. Financial patronage took many different forms, from that of shareholding companies (Royal Academy of Music, London) via ticket and box subscriptions to entirely court-financed businesses. In contrast to the even more spendthrift practices of the previous age, many institutions tried to contain costs by circulating productions: for example, by offering them in both palace and public performances (as in Naples, Florence, Paris/Versailles and Fontainebleau, Modena and Reggio nell’Emilia, Vienna, Berlin and Potsdam, Brunswick and Wolfenbüttel); by exchanging courtly and impresarial productions (northern Italy, Prague/Dresden, Hamburg/Brunswick); or by repeating productions in summer residences or secondary cities (Vienna, Rome, Tuscany, the Veneto). Repertories were hardly established yet, except for the cultivation of a Lullian corpus at the Académie Royale de Musique and in Brussels. Travelling companies were most likely to develop standard works and repertories. Still, the annual amount of new opera productions was always greater than that of revivals; in the period c1700–40 it could reach ten or eleven in Venice and five to seven in Vienna, London or Hamburg.

Opera, §V, 2: The 19th Century: Institutions

(ii) Genres.


In the 18th century (unlike the 17th) genre distinctions, or occasionally their blurring, were a major issue. The precepts of the classicist, Aristotelian poetics influenced operatic practice and theory from about 1690, leading to a separation of tragic and comic genres. Much of this distinction had to do with the theatrical projection of social structures.

Comic intermezzi per musica (fig.7) were developed in Naples and Venice (c1700–06) and soon distributed to the north; full musical comedy began in Naples about 1707, and in the 1740s merged with Venetian parody operas to form opera buffa. Comic opera's social criticism, a task sanctioned by classical precedent, was never more radical than in these early years. Although many early opere buffe and intermezzos conform to the Aristotelian description of comedy (by portraying ordinary, contemporary and shrewd people), intermezzos were accepted in the court theatres as a divertissement, whereas opere buffe were at first considered low-class by aristocratic patrons. They depended, in any case, on the empathy of their spectators with the social connotations of the plots.

Serious opera conveyed its institutional and moral messages within a more autonomous aesthetic framework of vocal virtuosity, poetry and stagecraft. The artificiality of the theatre and the beauty of music functioned as ‘pink spectacles’ by which to observe truly human experiences, mediated by performers. The genre offered women on stage, beautiful costumes, changeable sets (mutazioni di scena), machine effects, dancing and fencing – effects that were criticized by some as sensual but were never given up. The social connotations of the genre are nevertheless specific. The association of the music with the moral implications of the plots (ethos and pathos) was perhaps greater than in other phases of opera history. An assiduous patron such as Emperor Charles VI in Vienna (1711–40) requested contrapuntal styles from his composers to match the lofty thoughts of his poets. In Pietro Metastasio's libretto La clemenza di Tito (1734; fig.8), it is taken for granted that Charles VI resembles Titus – and this prince finds his inner ethos by defying the claims of power, justice, convenience and the passions of love and fear. Such ‘humanization of the great ones’, showing them as subject to the same emotions that any spectator might feel, is an enlightened approach that was obscured in the 19th century (but exploited again in Hollywood cinema).

The narrative of Italian opera, whether concentrating on individual feelings in opera seria or on social practice in opera buffa, was guided by ‘reason’. With exceptions depending on cultural context, it largely avoided the supposed irrationality of the tragédie en musique, which cultivated ‘le merveilleux’. 18th-century French grand opéra (as it was already called) and opéra comique still adhered to wonder and spectacle, fuelling endless polemics right into the 1780s.

Early in the century, the parody plays of the Parisian fairground stages (fig.9) often satirized the latest tragédies. The path from these spoken comedies with intermittent songs (opéras comiques en vaudevilles) to comic operas with spoken dialogue (opéras comiques, opéras bouffons, comédies mêlées d'ariettes) crossed, as it were, the demarcation between non-opera and opera. An analogous development is seen in opera parodies and parody intermezzos (later one-act farse) appearing in Venice, Florence, Hamburg, Vienna and elsewhere, often bourgeois in dramatic content and philosophy; these were the forerunners of comic operas or Singspiel. The fashion of the English ballad opera began in London with the parodistic Beggar's Opera of 1728. Spanish operas were traditionally mythological or pastoral zarzuelas and musical comédias; heroic, satirical and popular plots took over as time went on.

Some structural characteristics, particularly of Italian opera, were later criticized as ‘rationalistic’ or ‘rigid’, for example the alternation between recitatives (dialogue) and sung numbers. In reality, this alternation offered greater formal variety than most literary spoken drama of the time, which might be recited solely in Alexandrines, versi sciolti or blank verse. The inherited poetic forms for arias and ensembles – lyrical verse of the Anacreontic variety – reflected the sisterhood of music and poetry as in other Italian vocal genres, but their dramatic function was now co-determined by the surrounding sung dialogue, the recitative.

In comic genres in non-Italian languages, sung closed numbers usually alternated with spoken dialogue; additionally, recitatives were occasionally heard. The courts in Vienna and later in Paris forbade the use of recitative to the civic theatres, as this monopoly implied social status. There was thus a two-layered European tradition: the ‘classical’ and courtly form was Italian and French serious opera with recitative, whereas the comic and bourgeois genres with spoken dialogue represented the ‘vernacular’. The exception was Italian comic opera, which always used recitative. This fact and the genre's through-composed musical forms (concertato finales, already found around 1720, were typical of opera buffa) contributed to its international status.

The use of spoken dialogue instead of recitative favoured various cross-currents and transfers, like opera buffa into opéra comique (from 1752) or opéra comique into Singspiel (from the 1760s in particular). From about mid-century, serious operas were created in English, Spanish and German, some originating as translations from French or Italian; and comic as well as heroic operas appeared in Russian and in Scandinavian languages. The distinction of genres relaxed as time went on: there were not only genre mixtures between comic and serious opera (dramma eroicomico, opera semiseria, drame lyrique) but also inflections of the aesthetic and social values formerly typical to the established genres, for example when exotic and serious subjects invaded opéra comique and opera buffa in the 1760s.



Opera, §V, 2: The 19th Century: Institutions

(iii) Performance and performers.


A performative principle of 18th-century opera was the control of nature through its lifelike imitation, which involved artistic uses of the voice (coloratura), the body (dance, costume, gesture; fig.10), language (rhetoric) and of course the imagination. The realistic idea of mimicking people on stage was variously filtered through the artificial literary and musical texts and gestural conventions, the fantastic or complex plots, expensive decorations – which also entered the realistic and comic sub-genres – and above all through codes of public behaviour. Musical performers were highly trained specialists but also ambitious members of a society tied to decorum and etiquette. Performing standards, styles, manners and skills varied more widely than today; the performance itself was perhaps more often responsible for the success or failure of a work. Although audience appeal provided artistic clout to performers, their influence was socially and institutionally mediated; they depended on protectors and managers and on the goodwill of the authorities. In Rome in 1715, the satirical intermezzos La Dirindina by Girolamo Gigli and Domenico Scarlatti had to be withdrawn, by papal command, when the leading castrato refused to appear in the role of a pregnant prima donna. In Bologna in 1733, the soprano Anna Maria Peruzzi appealed against the allegedly bad music that J.A. Hasse had composed for her, but she had to sing it. Rows on or behind the stage found ample reflection in parody operas showing the predicament of the impresario between warring artists.

Opera continuously addressed issues of gender and class (for example by enacting behavioural norms on stage) and targeted social customs of dressing, fencing, dancing, feasting, litigating and so on. Women were not allowed on the public stage in the Church State, but otherwise appeared in far more opera houses than in the 17th century. Despite discrimination and sexual exploitation, women often competed with castratos for the most lucrative roles. The interest in castrato voices, which increased until about 1770–80, has artistic, economic and probably social dimensions. They hardly ever appeared in France or in bourgeois opera genres.

Family and marital bonds were frequent among performers, composers and impresarios. In smaller companies, authors, managers and performers were sometimes one and the same, just as in the spoken theatre; examples of the personal union impresario-librettist-singer are found from Francesco Borosini (Vienna, 1724c1731) and Antonio Denzio (Prague, 1724–35) to Emanuel Schikaneder (Vienna, 1783–1812).

The social and technical conventions of performance, such as role hierarchies or conducting and rehearsing routines, are familiar from contemporary criticism, which invariably deplores cliché and irrationality. Performers became more closely tied to the demands of individual works; the pasticcio practice, which had allowed them to insert their own favourite arias, scenes or ballet entrées into contexts for which they were not intended, declined after about 1760. Singers could become directly involved in stylistic and dramatic conceptions (for example the castrato Gaetano Guadagni in Gluck's opera reform); but on the whole, they lost influence on the literary or musical text while retaining their prominent status in the business.



Opera, §V, 2: The 19th Century: Institutions

(iv) Audiences.


Opera-going was an activity reflecting personal interests or taste, as is evident from the polemics about it, but within a framework of social status and convenience. Court opera was attended by court members without payment and in deference to the ruler. Next came the large group of aristocratic or patrician patrons with their friends and guests (rarely their wives), who may have had sponsoring interests or who valued opera for social contact; this group has also left most of the written documentation of the practice. These people went to the opera as many times as possible and, if they travelled, in as many places as possible. Middle-class spectators were rare in court opera, as they could not afford the tickets, although there was the occasional free performance for ‘all citizens’ at such courts as Vienna or Brunswick. Servants could usually attend, free, in the gallery. The social spectrum of audiences, however, gradually expanded downwards, especially in the comic genres; the aristocracy, on the other hand, attended both types of entertainment throughout the century.

The shifts in attendance and dissemination corresponded to an unpredictable but, on the whole, massive publicity for opera, which exceeded the critical discourses about opera in other centuries. The operatic debate was disseminated across Europe by the literary élite in treatises, memoirs, letters, novels and new opera librettos, and it helped transform the genre itself in its relationship to public life. The early 18th-century Roman and Venetian fights over opera boxes (guerre dei palchi) were part of feuds between aristocratic clans; the London pamphlet wars around Handel, the Royal Academy of Music and the Opera of the Nobility (1720–37) had political, literary and moral implications (the foreign genre itself was under scrutiny). The most famous debate, the pamphlet war of the Querelle des Bouffons (Paris, the early 1750s), exemplifies the way in which artistic, political and other convictions might crystallize around individual opera productions. The Gluckists and Piccinnists were moved both by literary ambition and by contrasting attitudes to Marie Antoinette's involvement in operatic reform at the hands of foreign composers.

Probably the most tangible and lasting effects of opera's public acclaim were found, in the course of the years, in opera itself, as its singing heroes, princesses, chambermaids, village philosophers and high priests learnt to pronounce the spectators' own beliefs and superstitions.

Opera, §V: The 19th Century

3. Stylistic evolution.

(i) Up to c1760.


For Pier Jacopo Martello (Della tragedia antica e moderna, D1715), opera as a genre was to be avoided by the selfconscious poet. It was impure drama, perhaps to be redeemed in the distant future by the dramatic power of music. But in the same year, Antonio Salvi promised in the preface to his libretto Amore e maestà that, after the tragic catastrophe with the hero's death, the spectators ‘would leave the theatre in tears, surrounded by sweet musical harmonies’. By directly engaging music in audience bonding – through sympathy, terror and compassion – this theatrical practice was heading for opera as we know it.

The 17th century had not posed the question of drama in opera with any rigour, and had rather indulged in the playgrounds of pastoral Arcadia and classical myth. Since about 1690, the Roman Accademia dell'Arcadia and other literary circles requested a return to utter simplicity or to spoken tragedy altogether. Hostility to opera on moral, national or social grounds also persisted, particularly outside Italy. Moderate supporters, some personally involved in the business as librettists (Apostolo Zeno, Pietro Pariati, Antonio Salvi, Barthold Feind) or composers (Mattheson, Telemann), attempted reform, adopting ethical and dramaturgical principles of French spoken drama (Corneille, Racine, Pradon, Molière). They insisted, however, on the legitimacy of a form of drama that is sung throughout, as it was at that time in serious and comic Italian and German opera and in the tragédie en musique. To transform canzonettas or couplets into scenic-dramatic monologues, or recitation into spontaneous utterances of a character, implied, first, a new aesthetic of word-setting. Symmetrical and dance-type arias yielded to long, pulsating allegro movements; melodic panache and rhythmic variety focussed listeners' attention on the lifelike musical process and the singer rather than the poetic form, without sacrificing declamatory impact.

The important questions of dramaturgy and verisimilitude (could Julius Caesar sing arias? how could a happy ending be made plausible?) concerned the imitation of human nature through music and thus the contribution of music to drama. Examples of such contributions which were deemed successful at the time are found in operas by Alessandro Scarlatti, Handel, Vinci, Hasse and Pergolesi (for example in his intermezzos La serva padrona, 1733). What had started as an ultimate refinement of the aesthetic of word-generated song here became a tendency of music to express affections, ethos and status of characters, even ideas and plots: the fabric of theatre itself. This move beyond words was made as the technical devices of coloratura, improvised cadenza, orchestral figuration and colour enhanced the imitative powers of music. The size and variety of timbre of opera orchestras were more rapidly increased than in any other period; the vocal coloraturas reflected the ambitions of a competitive profession. This first flourishing of Tonmalerei in opera is connected with composers such as Vivaldi, Telemann, Rameau or Jommelli in their very different ways.

The artistic representative of this phase of European opera was the poet Pietro Metastasio (1698–1782). In his earliest works, Metastasio benefited from the inspiration of a prima donna, Marianna Benti Bulgarelli, and he cultivated a lifelong friendship with the castrato Farinelli. The ethical and enlightened plots, the refined poetic language and Metastasio's superb dramaturgical skill must have helped singers to suspend their own disbelief in face of musical challenges.

Benedetto Marcello's Il teatro alla moda (D1720) satirized the provincial or old-fashioned habit of opera singers to stand occasionally beside their role and break the suspension of disbelief (they waved at their protectors, for example). This unwittingly ‘epic’ sort of theatre (in the Brechtian sense), which allowed for pregnant pauses or interruptions by audience reactions, often occurred in the unwritten sections of the performance such as cadenzas, or between aria and recitative. As time went on, the performative event became increasingly controlled by authorial agendas. Plot, stage action, even stage-sets, were increasingly ‘composed out’, for example in accompanied recitatives depicting nature and emotions. Their performance sounded more spontaneous than that of arias (as Francesco Algarotti emphasized, D1755) but had to be carefully rehearsed because of the tempo changes of the orchestral accompaniment. In opera buffa, parodistic effects and lazzi (set effects) were originally outside the jurisdiction of librettist or composer. The poet gained his control over them when censorship requested even intermezzo texts to be printed in advance. The composers learnt to express comic effects, as shown in operas by Pergolesi, Latilla and Galuppi, or in Hasse's intermezzos: opera buffa became synonymous also with a musical style.

The growing success of opera buffa with bourgeois as well as aristocratic audiences is reflected in the aesthetics and career of one of its main authors, Carlo Goldoni (1707–93). As a literary reformer, he intended his spoken plays as replacements of traditional, ‘irregular’ comedy; his almost 80 buffa librettos (drammi giocosi per musica) were of secondary importance to himself, but their very theatricality and enlightened moralism helped establish opera buffa as a musical genre throughout Europe. To a minor degree, the genre also indulged in musical parody, which relied on the reference to opera seria styles – as in Florian Gassmann's music for Calzabigi's L'opera seria (La critica teatrale) (1769, Vienna). In opéra comique and other vernacular forms, spoken dialogue was the home of verbal entertainment, at least with the better playwrights, but the rise of sentimental, fantastic and mixed plots in mid-century had the effect of channelling the advanced dramatic power of music towards non-heroic fields of expression.


(ii) c1760–90.


An upsurge in operatic creativity in the 1760s and 70s was fuelled by a vastly expanding range of sources for plots, which now included novels, national histories and contemporary news items. Audiences could thus be exposed to stories reflecting the prevailing humanitarian values of the time, such as the cult of the family, the heroism of the humble, the dignity of non-Christian civilizations or the horrors of arbitrary power and unjust detention. Comic opera, while maintaining social satire as a staple dramatic device, engaged in the cultivation of the pathetic, where feminine characters gained in stature and women singers rose to a type of stardom strongly imbued with sentimentalism. Readily understandable subjects and familiar situations were only one aspect of a move towards realism which involved the whole range of operatic creation, production and criticism. The programmatic writings of Francesco Algarotti and Denis Diderot were linked to an increased attention to stage directions and the authenticity of costumes and sets.

Playhouses became starker in their inner decoration and what theatre historians call ‘the fourth wall’ made itself felt between the stage and the audience. While authors strove to present even the most fantastical events as ‘believable’ (see Mozart's letter about the supernatural voice in Idomeneo, 29 November 1780), the spectators' identification with the characters could reach extremes of emotional involvement, facilitated by packed houses and strong collective feelings.

Serious opera resorted to subjects and episodes which would have been regarded as shocking in the previous generation and were still widely frowned upon. Thus the decorum of Enlightenment opera lost ground to a display of spectacular effects which commentators related (positively or negatively) to the aesthetically ‘impure’ dramaturgy of the 17th century. Although the comic genre was more pliable and open to stylistic innovation, as shown by the development of the drame lyrique and its Italian offshoots, the dramma serio per musica or the farsa sentimentale, serious opera also proved to be ready for major evolutions, such as the staging of comédies lyriques at the Académie Royale de Musique or the burgeoning of the generically ambiguous dramma eroicomico.

Murders, suicides, battles, gothic settings and supernatural events naturally called for a spicier musical language, especially with regard to harmony and orchestration. But even the more traditional subjects were treated with strongly diversified poetic and musical means, concerning the stage action, aria types, the number of characters involved and the use of choruses; large-scale tonal planning and the use of recurring motifs promoted an overall ‘musicalization’ of opera to which contemporaries were keenly responsive. Formal flexibility and dramaturgical innovation were made possible by collaborative ventures, such as those of Goldoni and Galuppi, Calzabigi and Gluck (and perhaps Da Ponte and Mozart) or of the librettists Sedaine and Marmontel with various composers in Paris. Practices like the pasticcio or singer-induced alterations to existing works were not entirely abolished, but the creative status and public image of opera composers rose significantly, to the extent that Philidor (in 1764) and Gluck (in 1767) could be explicitly recognized as the ‘authors’ of Le sorcier and Alceste respectively. When Gluck claimed that his presence at the performance of his works was as essential as the sun to the earth, he was setting an ideal for his successors of the 19th century.



Opera



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