Oakeley, Sir Herbert (Stanley)


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Opéra féerie

(Fr.). A type of French opera or opéra-ballet that has a plot drawn from fairy tales and/or makes extensive use of elements of magic and the merveilleux. In his ballet-héroïque Les fêtes de Polymnie (1745), Rameau ranked the ‘féerie’ with history and fable as a resource for the lyric stage. A huge corpus of opéras (such as Monsigny’s La belle Arsène, 1773), opéras-ballets (such as Zélindor, roi des sylphes by François Francoeur and François Rebel, 1745) and opéras comiques (such as Duni’s La fée Urgèle, 1765, and Grétry’s Zémire et Azor, 1771) of the late Baroque and Classical periods in France attests its popularity. While the term opéra féerie was uncommon in the 18th century (although it did exist, e.g. Dezède’s Alcindor, 1787), and entered the current vocabulary only after 1800, modern scholars use it with justice to refer to these earlier works. Some early 19th-century examples employ the term (e.g. Isouard’s Cendrillon, 1810, Catel’s Zirphile et Fleur de Myrte, 1818, and Carafa’s La belle au bois dormant, 1825). After this period the féerie survived in ballet. (For the German 19th-century fairy tale opera, see Märchenoper.)


D. Diderot: ‘Féerie’, ‘Merveilleux’, Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, ed. D. Diderot and others (Paris, 1751–80)

‘Fée, féerie’, Annales dramatiques, ou Dictionnaire général des théâtres, ed. Babault (Paris, 1808–12/R)

P. Ginisty: La féerie (Paris, 1910/R)


Opéra National du Rhin.

French opera and dance company founded in 1972 as the Opéra du Rhin. Based in Colmar, Mulhouse and Strasbourg, in 1998 it became the Opéra National du Rhin.

Opera North.

English opera company founded in 1977, based in Leeds.

Opera of the Nobility.

The name sometimes given to the London opera company active, in rivalry to Handel’s company, from 1733 to 1737, initially at Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre, later at the King’s Theatre. See London (i), §V, 1.

Opera Restor'd.

Touring opera company formed in 1979 as the Holme Pierrepont Opera Trust, originally based at Holme Pierrepont Hall near Nottingham.

Opera Română

(Rom.: Romanian Opera).

Opera company founded in Bucharest in 1877.

Opéra Royal de Wallonie.

Opera company based at the Théâtre Royal de Liège since 1967. See Liège.

Opera semiseria

(It.: ‘half-serious opera’).

An intermediate genre first identified during the early 19th century. The term was originally applied mainly to Italian equivalents of the French post-revolutionary ‘pièce de sauvetage’ such as Paer’s Camilla (1799) or Simon Mayr’s Le due giornate (1801), sometimes labelled ‘drammi eroicocomici’. Later it was extended to comedies, akin to the French comédie larmoyante, that contain a strong element of pathos. The range of characters is generally wider than in opera buffa, but the same types prevail, the basso buffo being often more dangerous than his purely comic counterpart (as in Rossini’s La gazza ladra, 1817). During the Romantic period opera semiseria usually has a pastoral setting, its heroine being a village maiden whose innocence, at first called into question, is finally vindicated amid general rejoicing. Examples include Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix (1842) and Il furioso all’isola di San Domingo (1833). Bellini’s La sonnambula (1831) has all the attributes of the genre except the basso buffo; hence its description as a ‘melodramma’ tout court. Opera semiseria shares with opera buffa the tradition of ‘recitative secco’. A late example is Mercadante’s Violetta (1853). Thereafter the term lapses, but it is noteworthy that in 19th-century Italian revivals Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1787) was frequently described as an opera semiseria.


E. Masi: ‘Giovanni de Gamerra e i drammi lagrimosi’, Sulla storia del teatro nel secolo XVIII (Florence, 1891), 28–354

M. Ruhnke: ‘Opera semiseria und dramma eroicomico’, AnMc, no.21 (1982), 263–74

J. Commons: ‘Donizetti e l’opera semiseria’, Gaetano Donizetti: Bergamo 1992, 181–96


Opera seria

(It: ‘serious opera’).

A term used to signify Italian opera of the 18th and 19th centuries on a heroic or tragic subject. The term was rarely used at the time; it can sometimes be found on manuscript scores, particularly in the last quarter of the 18th century, but ‘dramma per musica’ is the usual genre description on most 18th-century and many early 19th-century printed librettos. ‘Opera seria’ appears occasionally on librettos late in the 18th century, for example for Prati's Armida abbandonata (1785, Munich). Only as serious opera of this period came to be viewed historically was the term ‘opera seria’ applied exclusively to it.

1. Dramaturgy.

2. 1720–40.

3. 1740–70.

4. 1770–1800.



Opera seria

1. Dramaturgy.

The characteristics of opera seria took shape during the first two decades of the 18th century as part of a literary reform led by the Arcadian Academy of Rome established in 1690. Responding to French criticism of Italian poetry and drama, the reformers looked with particular disfavour on the undisciplined, irrational and often licentious opera librettos then in use. They took steps to bring the libretto into accordance with the principles of classical Greek drama as set forth in Aristotle's Poetics and as exemplified in the 17th-century French neo-classical dramatists, Jean Racineand Pierre Corneille.

By the end of the first decade of the 18th century a number of practices had been established as desirable. The action should be limited to a single, central argument involving no more than eight characters, whose entrances and exits were strictly regulated so that the stage was never empty except during set changes and between acts. The action should take place within a short period of time, preferably 24 hours, and in locations of close proximity.

The rules of verisimilitude and good taste rejected tragic endings as unworthy of the civilized state now enjoyed. Poets were expected to portray what, according to an orderly moral system, should have happened rather than what actually did happen. Death, if unavoidable, should be handled with dignity, and preferably off stage. Suicides and deaths in battle could be tolerated but murder could not. Subject matter from ancient history was preferred to fables or myths. Spectacle should be confined to natural phenomena and human activity. Resolutions should occur through natural means, not through supernatural intervention (in contrast with French opera). Trips to the underworld were banished, along with all but an occasional ceremonial chorus. Ballet and the coarse, unseemly behaviour endemic to comic scenes were relegated to entr'actes (or intermezzos) unrelated to the serious drama.

Poets were admonished to strive for simplicity, naturalness, verisimilitude and dignity, and to instruct as well as to entertain. The end result should be of high enough literary quality to be enjoyed as literature. No attempt was made to alter the established theatrical format. The action moved forward in versi sciolti (freely alternating, unrhymed seven- and eleven-syllable lines) to be realized in spare, continuo-accompanied recitative, broken from time to time with moments of reflection, reaction or summation, in strophic verse, to be realized in da capo arias accompanied by strings, possibly with horns and oboes (occasionally flutes). The reform produced librettos with a greatly expanded number of versi sciolti and a decrease in the number of arias to no more than 30. Theatres, in turn, persistently reduced the amount of recitative to a minimum, indicating cuts in the versi sciolti by enclosing them in virgole or quotation marks in the printed libretto: the original text might thus be read in full, though only those lines essential to the understanding of the plot might survive in the setting. Operas in three acts persisted, unaffected by attempts to follow the French pattern of five. Ensembles were restricted to one per opera, usually a duet for the principal couple, and a closing tutti (coro) for all the characters at the end of Act 3.

By 1710 the ‘exit aria’ was firmly established as the norm: arias were always placed at the end of a scene, after which the singer would leave the stage. Occasionally a cavatina (a short aria without exit) would appear in a scene in which the same singer would later perform a full-length exit aria. In an opera seria libretto the scene as a block of text with a stable number of characters on stage was generally observed. As soon as someone arrived or left, a new scene began.

At the next level of organization in an opera seria libretto, a set of scenes is terminated either by a change of stage setting or by the end of an act. There is normally one set change in the middle of each act. The number of characters on stage tends to increase towards the centre of each set of scenes and then to decrease to the point where one character is left on stage to sing a monologue and aria. Only Act 3 ends with everyone on stage, to celebrate the happy conclusion. The second stage setting in each act tends to be a public scene with many extras and perhaps some spectacle – often a public ceremony or a military procession. By about 1750 the emphasis began to shift from the middle to the end of each act, which then becomes the province of the principals, whether in solo, duet or trio.

Librettists usually served as poets for a specific court or theatre, where they often remained for their entire careers; their duties included the revising of existing librettos and the writing of new ones to suit local requirements. Composers took similar permanent positions as maestro di cappella for a theatre or court; their duties included preparing revivals of their own operas and those of others as well as composing new operas, always designed to enhance the strengths and to conceal the weaknesses of the singers assembled for the season. They directed performances while providing continuo realizations from the harpsichord. Haydn's operatic activities at Eszterháza conformed to just such a position. Many composers depended on church-affiliated posts for their livelihood and contracted with individual theatres to compose one or more operas per year; such composers were expected to travel to each theatre in time to become acquainted with the singers and to write their arias and ensembles (recitatives might be written in advance; the opening sinfonia was often the last component to be written). Whereas the same setting of an opera buffa might be performed at 20 different theatres, and opera seria setting was usually performed only one season; for subsequent productions, the libretto was usually heavily revised and would either be set afresh or would acquire new or borrowed arias, thus moving towards a Pasticcio. Such borrowed arias were often the favourites of the singers, who carried them from theatre to theatre. In most theatres, pasticcios were used to round out the season, though in theatres of modest means, and in London, they predominated.

By the middle of the century the concentration of musical interest in the aria and the practice of tailoring roles to suit individual performers gave extraordinary power and control to singers. A complex set of rules maintained a strict hierarchy of rank, regulated the distribution of arias and determined their characteristics. At the pinnacle of the profession were the best of the castratos – an aberration inherited from the previous century and fostered in part to maintain the treble voice in both ecclesiastic and secular situations where women were prohibited. A castrato played the leading man (primo uomo or primo musico); he and the first woman (prima donna), male or female, usually formed the principal romantic couple. The number of arias per opera had been further reduced to about 20; the principal couple would have four or five each. Duets were virtually the exclusive province of this pair. The tenor, usually a patriarchal or ruling figure, might be either first or second ranking; he might join the principal couple in a trio. The second ranking couple had three or four arias each. Advisers and confidants would have no more than one or two each. Librettos were often revised to ensure that the least of this group sang the ‘sorbet’ aria (aria di sorbetto), at the beginning of Act 2, when sorbet was served and the clinking of spoons on glass is said to have obscured the singing. As the total number of arias decreased, the number assigned to individuals of each rank decreased proportionately. Ensembles might be counted as arias, as might sizable monologues. Each role required arias in a variety of affections or styles (aria cantabile, aria d'affetto, aria di bravura, aria di mezzo carattere). A character with a dominant musical personality would have at least one aria in contrasting style. Arias in the same style or key could not follow one another. The loose textual relationship between an aria and the preceding scene made it easy for a singer to substitute a favoured aria or aria text of the appropriate affection.

Meeting both the strict literary requirements and the unyielding theatrical conventions presented the librettist with a formidable task. Often little remains of a historical plot once the librettist has altered events to avoid offence while at the same time inventing enough political and amorous intrigue to create dramatic tension and provide excuses for 25 arias, properly distributed among six singers, and strategically placed to allow each character reasonable exits. Critics agreed that the two who came closest to realizing the ideal were Apostolo Zeno and Pietro Trapassi, known as Metastasio.

Zeno, greatest of the first generation Arcadian reform librettists, took little interest in how his librettos were translated into musical productions. An appointment to the Vienna court late in his career finally allowed him to write librettos without the love interest and intrigue required in Italy. Metastasio, on the other hand, inherited the reform libretto in its mature form. The remarkable success of his librettos resulted from a number of factors. First and foremost they embodied Enlightenment ideals, portraying characters able to overcome selfish human desires in order to achieve greatness in thought and deed in a world where monarch and subject alike must adhere to the highest moral principles. In their universality his messages remained apolitical and so posed no threat to the nobility who supported the theatre in most Italian centres. Secondly, Metastasio was greatly admired for his rational approach to the libretto, for the purity, elegance, clarity and dignity of his texts, and for the skill and artistry with which he was able to breathe realism and drama into the form he had inherited and went on to perfect. A third aspect of Metastasio's librettos was their supreme suitability for musical setting. Metastasio had begun his career under the tutelage of the venerable soprano Marianna Benti-Bugarelli, called ‘La Romanina’, and during his early career had worked closely with the young composer Vinci, whom 18th-century critics and historians consistently cited as among the originators of the modern or galant style in opera. The librettos Metastasio wrote for Vinci during the 1720s endured for 75 years, were set and reset by composers of several generations, and became the ideal against which all subsequent works were measured. The association ended with Vinci's death and the appointment of Metastasio to replace Zeno in Vienna, where he remained. Though Metastasio continued to experiment in his own librettos, by the middle of the century his Artaserse (1730) had become a rigid model that theatre poets followed in reworking librettos (Metastasio's as well as others') for local presentation (see fig.1). Thus the genre and the dramaturgy it represents came to be called Metastasian.

The format of the reform libretto endured in no small part because it produced an evening of entertainment that served the social functions of the theatre. The opera house in 18th-century Italy was an important social meeting place. The fashionable part of the audience, who customarily owned boxes or rented them by the season, attended night after night. Since the season consisted of a few works, each given a continuous run of up to several dozen performances, the audience could scarcely have been expected to sustain a close interest in the stage action; and since the literate part of it knew Metastasio's dramas virtually by heart, they could dip in and out at will, interrupting the flow of social intercourse to attend to the most affecting scenes or the favourite arias of the leading singers. From this resulted the audience's noisiness and inattention, so often remarked upon by foreign visitors.

Opera seria

2. 1720–40.

Although opera seria acquired its definitive literary and dramatic form only during the 1720s, many of its musical characteristics were present earlier. In Naples, Alessandro Scarlatti began to simplify his accompaniments, thus placing greater emphasis on the melodic line. In his La Griselda (1721), arias in the old style co-exist with a newer type characterized by static bass lines and slower harmonic change.

Excluding Handel, whose operas, written for London, lie outside the Italian tradition and had little or no influence, the dominating figures of the first age were Vinci, Leo, Porpora, Hasse and Pergolesi, who followed Scarlatti in pursuing the new, more clearly articulated melodic style and its simple, harmonically generated accompaniment. Their style was perceived as a departure; its success carried their music not only all over Italy but also throughout Europe. Vinci was credited with a major role in its formation, especially as regards periodic melody, with balanced (often three-bar) phrases. His settings of Metastasio for Naples, from Didone abbandonata for Carnival 1726 to Artaserse, completed shortly before his death in 1730, proved epoch-making. Through their collaboration the Arcadian reform libretto and the new galant or early Classical style became inextricably linked.

For composers, the primary problem in putting together an opera of 25 or more arias was that of contrast. Metastasio's fine control and subtle variety of moods helped solve it. Departures on the composer's part, such as the omission of a ritornello, as well as the singer's improvised decorations, accomplished still more. Instrumental colour remained fairly uniform and minimal. Metric variety was limited. Expressive harmonic nuance was used sparingly and restricted to Neapolitan 6ths, augmented 6ths, diminished 7ths, deceptive moves, modulation and modal contrast. Tonal planning consisted of selecting keys to suit the affections of the arias. The recitative that connected them moved towards the flat side or into the minor mode for tender emotions or ‘negative’ events and towards the sharp side for ‘positive’ events or aggressive actions. The keys used rarely went beyond three accidentals. As a result several arias were likely to share the more popular ones (such as D major for bravura, D minor for rage, E for pathetic affects, G minor for lyrical yearning, G major for pastoral tone, A major for amorous sentiment, etc.). D major remained the overwhelming favourite for the opening sinfonia and the closing coro. Characters tended to acquire either a sharp- or flat-dominated personality and even occasionally a predominant tonal reference, but always with one aria in a contrasting tonality. In observing the rules dictating that affections must alternate between successive arias, composers often wrote arias alternately in sharp and flat keys; some composers also seem concerned with establishing close key relationships among arias within a set of scenes or at major articulations, such as the beginning and ending of an act or a group of scenes. Symbolic relationships of a tritone or a semitone may be found, and the composer may also set up moves in one direction or the other (towards the sharp or flat side) within groups of scenes or acts. Last-minute revisions, transpositions and substitutions may obscure such planning, which tends to disappear in later revivals, especially when additions and substitutions are made. In spite of whatever tonal planning the composer might have had in mind, the stark stylistic contrast between aria and recitative tends to produce the impression of a loose stringing together of individual numbers rather than an organic unity; efforts in achieving the latter were made only slowly and fitfully.

Opera seria

3. 1740–70.

The second age of opera seria was dominated by Hasse, Jommelli, Galuppi, Traetta, G.F. de Majo, Perez, Terradellas and J.C. Bach, most of them Neapolitan or Neapolitan-orientated. The careers of Gluck and Graun ran parallel with it. Several important composers worked outside Italy, and this period was marked by the diffusion of opera seria and its associated styles throughout Europe. Hasse carried the perfected form to Germany in the 1730s and was long maestro di cappella at Dresden. In 1737 the great castrato Farinelli, Metastasio's adopted brother, entered the employment of the Spanish court in Madrid, where he directed Italian opera seria until his retirement in 1759. In 1749 Jommelli and Galuppi, at turning-points in their careers, were called to Vienna; Majo and Traetta were later called to both Vienna and Mannheim. Perez moved to Lisbon in 1752 and Jommelli began his long reign at Stuttgart in 1754. During the 1760s in Mannheim, the Italian librettist Mattia Verazi provided innovatory librettos for a succession of guest composers. In France, at the middle of the century, an Italian buffo troupe inspired the Querelle des Bouffons and paved the way for the eventual arrival in Paris of Gluck, Piccinni and others, who established an international style in the French tragédie en musique during the 1770s and 80s.

Metastasian librettos quickly gained popularity and dominated the Italian repertory during the 1750s. Thereafter the works of younger librettists, reworkings of earlier librettos, and a growing interest in comic opera gradually eroded this monopoly. Opera continued to consist of a succession of simple or continuo-accompanied recitatives and orchestrally accompanied arias. The action moved forward in recitativo semplice (simple recitative), composed in a spare, narrow-ranging, declamatory style with a basso continuo made up of a harpsichord, cello and violone providing one or two harmonies per bar. Usually no more than one or two select solo scenes or speeches leading to an aria or ensemble would be set in recitativo obbligato, where strings enhance the drama by providing expressive ritornellos and obbligato motivic commentary in vocal caesuras. To heighten the effect of solemn pronouncements, the strings might play sustained harmonies, a style known as accompagnato or accompanied recitative. Occasionally a composer provided recitative with a measured accompaniment in aria style. Jommelli, a commanding figure in opera seria at the middle of the century, was among the first to exploit the heightened dramatic intensity inherent in orchestral recitative. As early as the 1740s, before his foreign visits, he was transforming opera seria through the use of obbligato recitative and through the introduction of declamatory elements into the arias, the exploration of orchestral sonorities (including four-part textures) and the development of the crescendo and other dynamic contrasts.

Ensembles gradually became more frequent, often contributing to a decrease in the number of arias by replacing the last few scenes and arias of an act, where the characters were reflecting on the action, singing arias and leaving one at a time. The quartet in Act 1 of Galuppi's Artaserse for Vienna (1749) is an early example (Mozart may well have modelled his quartet in Idomeneo on it). In the 1760s only Jommelli in Stuttgart and Galuppi in Venice regularly concluded Act 1 and Act 2 with ensembles, a duet and a trio (occasionally a quartet). The predominantly French-inspired modifications in opera seria that Algarotti sought to promote were much more likely to be realized, as he noted, in the great authoritarian capitals – the court-sponsored theatres of Berlin, Dresden, Vienna, Paris and St Petersburg – than in the mainly civic enterprises of the Italian towns or London.

Efforts to escape from the rigidity of the Arcadian reform libretto began in 1755, with Jommelli and Verazi's French-inspired Enea nel Lazio and Pelope, for Stuttgart. They blurred the lines between recitative and aria (with obbligato recitative and the infusion of the aria with declamatory elements and action), circumvented the exit-aria convention with cavatinas and reintroduced long-banished spectacular elements. These works, based on mythological subject matter involving deities, superimpose supernatural appearances, machine spectacle, chorus and pantomime on an italianate format. In 1759 Traetta, in Parma, became involved in quite another approach, that of setting Italian translations by C.I. Frugoni of two reworked French operas by Rameau, as Ippolito ed Aricia and I tindaridi. This much-heralded breakthrough produced similar results: Italian aria opera on mythological subject matter with choruses, programmatic orchestral music and spectacle. In 1762 Traetta was invited to Mannheim for a collaboration with Verazi on Sofonisba. Here can be found the earliest of Verazi's efforts to challenge Italian formal and dramaturgical conventions: the tragic ending (Sophonisba dies after drinking from a poisoned cup) is a flagrant departure from the laws of verisimilitude; pantomime ballet invades the programmatic overture as well as the opera itself; extensive obbligato recitative and declamatory elements in the arias blur the normally stark demarcations between the two. Finally, Verazi invented for Traetta a trio of diminishing forces which, like the ending of an opera seria act, closes with a single character on stage.

In Vienna, as early as 1760, Hasse's festa teatrale Alcide al bivio showed French influence. Traetta was invited to Vienna in 1761 to write a short, French-inspired serious piece, Armida, which closely follows Quinault's libretto for Lully (1686). An azione teatrale in 20 scenes, it carries the divertissements for chorus, dance and pantomime found in the original. Gluck's celebrated Orfeo, a similar piece, followed in 1762. Spectacular elements as well as the suspension of the exit aria convention are not uncommon in the azione teatrale and do not constitute the same deviation from conventional practice that they would if appearing in a full-length opera seria. In 1763 Traetta wrote the first such opera for Vienna, on a text by Coltellini, Ifigenia in Tauride. The libretto is based on classical subject matter and focusses on a single action, but the work still largely adheres to the formal and musical conventions of opera seria. Its principal departures take the form of several scene complexes (single scenes encompassing a multiplicity of set pieces, usually cavatinas, choruses and dance, without the disruption of an exit aria), a duet with chorus and a duet for Iphigenia and her confidante. The French-inspired scene complex stands at odds with Italian practice, which dictated that exits must follow all ensembles and most arias, and that choruses and ensembles must be kept to a minimum. Furthermore, composers frequently set scene complexes in orchestrally accompanied recitative, whereas in Italian opera before 1790 orchestrally accompanied recitative was still invariably reserved for emotional solo scenes and seldom accompanied action. In Mannheim, Verazi responded with his own Ifigenia in Tauride libretto the following year. Here the emphasis is on spectacle – ship-wrecks, battles, gladiatorial games, magnificent ceremonies and processions. Formally, Verazi too builds great scene complexes; but most challenging to Italian formal tradition are the multiple ensembles – a quartet, two duets and two trios that slim down to duets and then solos. Majo responded with through-composed arias and ensembles, elaborate choruses and programmatic orchestral music. Gluck's Alceste had its première in Vienna in 1767, and in Stuttgart the next year Verazi and Jommelli produced their most radical collaboration, Fetonte. Here the multiple ensembles of diminishing personnel, the choruses, the great scene complexes and the first action finale in an opera seria cut the exit arias to less than half the usual number. As in Alceste, neither the exit aria nor the simple continuo-accompanied recitative has entirely disappeared, but the restoration of death and tragedy, chorus, ensemble and pantomime to the stage as well as the formal innovations look forward 20 years.

Gluck's unique contribution in Orfeo and the principal implications inherent in his reform efforts as they impinge on the history of opera seria lie in his attempts to erase the harsh lines of demarcation between action (recitative) and reflection (aria) and to create a musical and dramatic unity from diverse components of chorus, air, ballet, ensemble – a scene complex that encompasses the entire work. Secondly, he maintained a heightened dramatic intensity by confining the action to a single central argument taken from classical Greek sources. Calzabigi's libretto is sui generis: it is neither a translation of a French opera nor an Italian opera with French elements. There are no secondary characters, and there is no attempt to provide scenes with arias for the third-ranking ones (except for Ismene's sorbet aria at the beginning of Act 2). As a result the number of arias is greatly reduced, and various choruses step to the forefront, becoming characters in the drama and bringing the first and third acts to a close. The classical subject matter and the superimposed, divinely achieved happy ending betray its French origins even if the remnants of simple recitative and the occasional exit aria point to two of the strongest and most persistent Italian practices. The fluidity of its scene complexes and its great stretches of orchestrally accompanied recitative remain a bold challenge to formal and musical conventions in opera seria for the rest of the century.

Opera seria

4. 1770–1800.

About 1770 a stylistic break was apparent on several levels, one that condemned most of the mid-century composers to rapid oblivion. The last works of Hasse and Jommelli, composed for Italy in the early 1770s, were not particularly successful, and Galuppi wrote his last serious opera in 1772, 12 years before he died. Traetta spent most of his years after 1770 in St Petersburg. The major figures replacing them were Piccinni, Sarti, Sacchini, Anfossi, Salieri, Paisiello and Cimarosa, and among non-Italians J.G. Naumann, Haydn and Mozart. There was some overlapping of generations: Piccinni managed to modify his style and to stay active into the last decade of the century, including a successful sojourn in Paris, where he was placed in competition with Gluck. Near the end of his life he made yet a second transition to the new Venetian style in his Ercole al Termedonte (1793, Naples). These composers were melodists in a more modern style, using a greater variety of aria forms including a new popular favourite, the expressive Rondò (a two-tempo aria, slow–fast). Paisiello appears to have been a leading figure in the establishment of the new style. His broad, simple melodic lines and longer periods took centre stage, while accompaniment styles carried over entire sections with little change and seldom stepped out of the role of beat-keeping repeated notes or arpeggiation except to insert brief obbligato motif ‘comments’ during vocal caesuras. Orchestras had become larger, making the contrast between segments for full orchestra and the thin string accompaniments maintained during the vocal sections even greater than before. Great crescendos of thickening texture and quickening rhythmic motion combined with expansive displays of vocal fioritura to articulate major sections.

During the 1770s da capo and dal segno aria forms quickly disappeared in favour of various types of through-composed ternary, binary and rondo forms that shared characteristics with instrumental sonata and concerto forms. By the 1780s, most operas showed a combination of very long arias, some based on three strophes of poetry, with very short ones often based on only one. The climactic arias for the principal roles was usually a rondò. Only the newly fashionable minuet retained the da capo form. The number of arias per opera continued to decline, from about 15 during the 1780s to fewer than ten in the 1790s. The third act often had only one or two scenes and sometimes disappeared completely. Ensembles took the place of the solo scenes and arias at the ends of Acts 1 and 2. They no longer took the prevailing aria forms but were through-composed, usually with one or more tempo changes moving from slow to fast. During the 1780s, the final coro began to expand to include soloists. These as well as the ensemble finale gradually began to fluctuate in personnel and to incorporate action. After 1785, finales that function in the same way as those of comic opera appeared in opera seria in all the major musical centres. The extensive action finales in Paisiello's Pirro (De Gamerra; 1787) were neither the first (they had earlier appeared in operas to librettos by Verazi) nor the only ones of that year, though they were certainly new to the Italian operatic mainstream, as De Gamerra claimed in his preface. In the mid-1790s action ensembles moved to the interiors of acts when the scene complex became the preferred closing construction. During the 1780s scenes realized in obbligato recitative became more common and longer. They became quite elaborate, involving wind instruments, and combining obbligato commentary during vocal caesuras with accompagnato chords or tremolo during the vocal declamation, and occasionally moving into measured style or cavatina; often they were the ravings of a character insane with fear and dreadful imaginings. They remained introspective solo scenes for the principals until the late 1780s, when they began to encompass action.

Metastasio's librettos still provided a substantial proportion of the repertory, enduring the usual cuts in recitatives and arias, the substitution of new texts, the addition of a scene for the sorbet aria, the condensing of act endings into ensembles, the omission of choruses, and the combining of the second and third acts into one. As the number of arias shrank, the number of exits without aria increased, giving rise to many compound exits at the end of an aria and the practice of having the remaining character deliver a short speech before an aria-less exit. Among the steady supply of new librettos, a goodly number originated in French librettos and plays.

The 1780s were a decade of experimentation and innovation, but actual change in the make-up of the theatrical repertory came gradually, and most operas remained solidly based in traditional practices and precepts that harked back to the Arcadian reform. These did not truly begin to give way until the 1790s. Not surprisingly, among the most widely performed operas of the decade were settings of Medonte, to the innovatory librettist De Gamerra's most conservative libretto, and of Giovannini's Giulio Sabino, which was performed more widely and more frequently than any other opera seria setting in the history of the genre. Sarti's masterly settings of these librettos contributed greatly to their success. His Giulio Sabino (1781, Venice) shows how little mainstream opera seria had changed since the 1760s. Composers and librettists, when writing for the Italian public, continued to rely mainly on the aria and on principles originating in the Arcadian reform.

In 1778 Verazi was called back to Italy from Mannheim to produce four spectacle operas for the opening of La Scala, Milan. The goals of his drammi in azioni differ little from those of Calzabigi and Gluck in Alceste. His approach shares some of their means – spectacle, ballet, chorus and scene complexes connected by obbligato recitative – but the differences are pronounced. In Verazi's librettos the secondary characters and complex intrigues remain. Rather than attempt to re-create an aura of antique tragedy with a French-inspired deus ex machina to soften the unhappy ending, Verazi amplified the spectacular, the terrifying and the horrific and ignored the laws that proscribed death on stage and unhappy endings. The first of the new La Scala works, Salieri's L'Europa riconosciuta, inspired a storm of outraged protest. In the last two operas Verazi was forced to relinquish chorus and dance and to restore the exit aria without disruptive dramatic action. Apparently the Italians were willing to tolerate the multiple ensembles, the introductions and finales, and in Anfossi's Cleopatra the unhappy ending with two staged deaths. After 1785 these and other of his innovations gradually gained acceptance – single sex duets, arias and ensembles with interjections from others (pertichini) in solo, ensemble or chorus (possibly yet another borrowing from French opera), the integration of chorus and dance into the action, multiple scene complexes, and the abrogation of many of the rules pertaining to the hierarchy of singers, including a suspension of the exit-aria convention.

Verazi's innovations were not the only factors pushing Italian theatres towards change. Coltellini's French-inspired librettos received new settings for Italian theatres in the 1780s and Bertoni reset Calzabigi's Orfeo for Venice. Gluck's Alceste was performed without the usual revisions and substitutions, as an integral unit. Their multiple scene complexes, ballets and choruses remain anomalies until the 1790s, though the increasing attraction of the ‘merveilleux’ of French-style subjects was evident even in conservative Naples in such works as Cimarosa's Oreste (1783) and Paisiello's Fedra (1788). Turin, close neighbour to Stuttgart and Mannheim, borrowed the man- and nature-inspired spectacle but not the attendant dramaturgical innovations, a tendency observed throughout the repertory of the 1780s. Paisiello returned from St Petersburg to compose opere serie incorporating action ensemble finales (Pirro) and French spectacle (Fedra). He also brought a Metastasian text infused with scene complexes (Nitteti), which was quickly adopted by others. Marmontel's Les Incas offered the exotic Peruvian setting for Moretti's Idalide and Foppa's Alonso e Cora. Voltaire's tragedy Sémiramis, Noverre's bloodstained ballets and Alfieri's equally bloody tragedies impelled the Italians towards the restoration of tragedy and death to the stage.

Several composers working with innovatory librettists in the 1780s escaped the notice of contemporary critics and commentators. Bianchi, who became associated with Sertor, the earliest of the innovatory Venetian librettists, specialized in opera seria at a time when most composers were engaged in opera buffa. He was the first to set several of Sertor's librettos, among them the first of a number of ‘morte’ operas, La morte di Cesare (1788), a work also distinctive for the active role of the chorus as a participant in the drama. Bianchi's Alonso e Cora (1786), also a pioneering work, was the product of a collaboration with Foppa, another innovatory Venetian librettist probably ten years younger than Sertor. Here the extensive opening chorus, the many cavatinas of up to three strophes, and the scene complexes incorporating cavatinas, ensembles, chorus and dance that conclude Act 1 and Act 3 served to reduce the number of exit arias from about 14 or 15 to only 11. Angelo Tarchi worked with the innovatory Milanese librettist Moretti before the latter was called to St Petersburg. Their landmark opera Il conte di Saldagna (1787) treats a subject from medieval history in which the hero dies by design of an unrepentant ruler on stage during a celebration of his marriage. In applying French-inspired elements to plots based on human affairs rather than mythology, this opera and Bianchi's Alonso stepped beyond the innovators of the past and opened the door for Romantic opera of the 19th century. Prati's setting of Giovannini's libretto La vendetta di Nino (1786, Florence) contained the first staging of a parricide in more than a hundred years and initiated a vogue for ghost scenes.

Thus the way was paved for a group of Venetian librettists led by Sertor, Foppa and Sografi to break away from singer-dominated Arcadian reform dramaturgy and to begin providing operas with a rich variety of newly available dramatic and spectacular options. Their activities may account for the increase in the output of opera seria in the 1790s, especially in Venice where production nearly doubled. Choruses, ballet, introductions, finales, ensembles (including single-sex duets, trios and quartets), cavatinas and scene complexes reduced the number of arias to below ten. Arias, ensembles and obbligato recitatives increasingly carried the action. Arias often included interjections by other characters or incorporated chorus, and ensembles frequently fluctuated in personnel. Action ensembles began appearing within acts when divertimento-like scene complexes became the favoured act ending.

Divertimentos within the opera itself succeeded in absorbing the ballet, which as entr'actes had threatened to engulf the parent genre a decade earlier. Sografi led the way towards the development of an entirely new concept of operatic dramaturgy moving freely among textual options in such fluid constructions that by the mid-1790s most operas no longer fitted the traditional definition of opera seria. At the same time subject matter came increasingly from medieval European history, imparting a decidedly ‘modern’ aspect. The plot for Andreozzi's and Giordani's Ines de Castro (1793, Venice) was taken from medieval Portuguese history, and Trento's Bianca de' Rossi (1797, Venice) was a medieval Italian tragedy in which Bianca kills herself with her dead husband's falling tomb cover. There were even a few plots based on 18th-century history in locations far removed: Cook o sia gl'inglesi in Othaiti (anonymous, 1785, Naples) and Rossi's operas for Venice: Pietro il grande (1793) and Carolina e Mexicow (1798). These developments coincided with the social and political turmoil caused in Italy by the French Revolution, culminating in the French invasion of 1796 and engendering an egalitarian climate in which Arcadian idealism and the dramaturgy it spawned seemed increasingly obsolete. Under these conditions the most persistent of all the opera seria conventions – the exit aria and the hierarchy of singers – gave way, hastening the demise of ‘aria’ opera and its attendant excesses. In the newly established Italian republics, rulers were no longer free of vice nor immune to violent ends. In the conclusion of Nasolini's Merope (Zeno's libretto reworked by Botturini, 1796, Venice), the dead monarch, victim of his own son's treachery, lies unnoticed during the victory celebrations. At the same time the principal composers of the preceding period – Cimarosa, Sarti, Paisiello and Guglielmi – were replaced by a group of new composers, including Nasolini, Zingarelli, Mayr, Paer, Portugal and Generali.

Opera seria


Burney H






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D. Goldin: ‘Aspetti della librettistica italiana fra 1770 e 1830’, ibid., 128–91

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P.Gallarati: ‘Zeno e Metastasio tra melodramma e tragedia’, ibid., 89–104

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