Chapter 14. The Invention of Opera

Chapter Outline



An opera (Italian for “work”) is a drama with continuous or nearly continuous music that is staged with scenery, costumes, and action. The text for an opera is called a libretto (Italian for “little book”), usually a play in rhymed or unrhymed verse. The art of opera is a union of poetry, drama, and music, all brought to life through performance. From its origins around 1600, opera became the leading genre of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and has remained important ever since. 

There are two ways to tell the tale of its creation. In one sense, opera was a new invention, an attempt to recreate in modern terms the experience of ancient Greek tragedy: a drama, sung throughout, in which music conveys the emotional effects. Yet in another sense, opera was a blend of existing genres, including plays, theatrical spectacles, dance, madrigals, and solo song. Both views are correct, because the creators of early operas drew on ideas about ancient tragedy and on the content of modern genres. 

Chapter Outline: 

  1. Forerunners of Opera
    1. Opera (Italian for “work”) defined
      1. Union of versified play (Italian libretto, “little book”), drama, and music
      2. Continuous or near-continuous singing
      3. Staged, with scenery, costumes, and action
    2. Renaissance antecedents
      1. Pastoral drama
        1. Play in verse, interspersed with incidental music and songs
        2. Stories of idyllic love in rural settings
        3. First staged in 1471: Favola d’Orfeo (The Orpheus Legend)
        4. The earliest opera composers borrowed heavily from this genre.
      2. Madrigal
        1. Solo madrigals and madrigal cycles had simple plots and they expressed emotion.
        2. Best-known was L’Amfiparnaso (The Slopes of Parnassus, 1594) by Orazio Vecchi (1550-1605).
      3. Intermedio (pl. intermedii) was the most direct antecedent.
        1. Musical interludes before, after, and between the acts of plays
        2. There were usually six for each play.
        3. Subjects were pastoral, allegorical, or mythological.
        4. For special occasions they could be very elaborate, including chorus, dance numbers, costumes, and staged effects (see HWM Figure 14.1).
        5. Music was embellished in performance (see HWM Example 14.1).
        6. For the 1589 wedding of Ferdinand de’ Medici and Christine of Lorraine in Florence, composers wrote intermedii on the theme of the power of ancient Greek music.
        7. These composers would later write the earliest operas.
    3. Greek tragedy as the model for drama
      1. Scholars put their theories of music’s role into practice.
      2. Andrea Gabrieli set only the choruses for his Oedipus Rex (1585), using only homophony.
      3. Giralamo Mei (1589-1594) believed that all the text was sung.
        1. He read ancient treatises in the original Greek.
        2. He concluded that Greek music consisted of a single melody.
        3. The melody could be sung by a soloist or a chorus with or without accompaniment.
        4. He persuaded others to his viewpoint via letters.
      4. The Florentine Camerata
        1. A group of scholars in Florence who discussed literature, science, and the arts.
        2. The host was Count Bardi, the man who had conceived the theme of the 1589 intermedii.
        3. Members included Vincenzo Galilei (ca. 1520-1591), theorist and composer, son of the famous astronomer.
        4. Giulio Caccini (ca. 1550-1618), one of the composers of the 1589 intermedii, was a member.
      5. Vincenzo Galilei’s Dialogo della musica antica et della moderna (Dialogue of Ancient and Modern Music, 1581)
        1. Galilei argued against counterpoint and madrigalisms.
        2. He believed the solo melody was ideal for emotional expression.
        3. Natural speech inflections of a good orator were the model.
        4. The term for accompanied vocal melodies of this era, including the type described by Galilei, is monody.
      6. Caccini’s Le nuove musice (1602)
        1. Collection of songs (arias) in monody and solo madrigals
        2. The introduction describes ornaments and their use.
        3. Ornamentation enhances the message of the text.
        4. Example: Vedrò ‘l mio sol (NAWM 64 and HWM Figure 13.9) premiered in Bardi’s Camerata.
  2. The First Operas
    1. Dafne (1598)
      1. Poetry by Ottavio Rinuccini, music by singer-composer Jacopo Peri
      2. Rinuccini and Peri had contributed to the 1589 intermedii and were members of the Camerata.
      3. Premiered at the palace of Jacopo Corsi (1561-1602), who hosted the Camerata after Bardi moved to Rome
    2. Rappresentatione di Anima et di Corpo (Representation of the Soul and Body, 1600)
      1. Music by Emilio de’ Cavalieri, who was in charge of theater at the duke’s court in Florence.
      2. Longer than any previous staged musical play.
  3. L’Euridice (1600)
    1. Creation
      1. Music by Peri and libretto by Rinuccini, directed by Cavalieri
      2. Produced for the wedding of Maria de’ Medici and King Henry IV of France
      3. Some sections were written by Caccini.
    2. The story demonstrates music’s power to move the emotions.
      1. Orfeo (Orpheus) causes denizens of the underworld to weep through his music.
      2. He persuades the underworld to restore his wife, Euridice, to life.
    3. Recitative style (see HWM Example 14.2 and NAWM 65c)
      1. Peri invented a new idiom, recitative, to bridge the Greek ideas of pitch in speech and intervallic (diastematic) pitch in song.
      2. Basso continuo sustains a chord and plays the bass line as the singer moves between pitches that are consonant and dissonant against it.
      3. Consonances occur on all stressed syllables.
      4. Peri’s goal was dramatic expression, and he performed the role of Orfeo in the premiere.
    4. Monody types in L’Euridice (NAWM 65 a-c)
      1. Aria, for singing strophic poetry (NAWM 65a)
        1. Same as sixteenth-century song styles
        2. Ritornellos, instrumental refrains, separate the strophes.
      2. Song (NAWM 65b)
        1. Dance-song or canzonetta style
        2. Framed by a sinfonia, an abstract instrumental piece used especially in introductions
      3. Recitative (NAWM 65c)
        1. Dafne (Euridice’s maid) tells Orfeo that Euridice has died from a snake bite.
        2. Orfeo’s reaction (HWM Example 14.3) portrays grief and shock through suspensions, chromaticism, and rests.
  4. Claudio Monteverdi’s Operas
    1. L’Orfeo (1607)
      1. Monteverdi’s first opera, produced in Mantua on commission
      2. Libretto
        1. Five acts, each ending with a vocal ensemble that comments on the action, like a Greek chorus
        2. The centerpiece of each act is an aria sung by Orfeo.
      3. Monteverdi specified instruments in his score.
        1. Recorders, cornetts, trumpets, trombones, strings, and continuo
        2. A regal, a buzzy-sounding reed organ, portrays the underworld.
      4. Monody styles
        1. Arias are strophic, but strophes are varied to reflect the text (strophic variation).
        2. Recitative style varies depending on the situation in the drama.
      5. Ensembles and choruses provide contrast, with ritornellos as division points.
      6. Structure of Act II (NAWM 66)
        1. It begins with a series of cheerful celebrations (e.g., NAWM 66b, Orfeo’s strophic aria).
        2. The tonality changes to Aeolian (A minor) when a messenger delivers news of Euridice’s death from a snake bite.
        3. Joy and grief alternate as Orfeo’s companions continue celebrating, not having heard the news.
        4. The messenger’s melody recurs as a refrain throughout the act.
      7. Orfeo’s lament (NAWM 66d, HWM Example 14.4)
        1. It begins with expressions of grief, por trayed by built-up phrases and dissonances.
        2. It ends with Orfeo’s resolve to retrieve Euridice from the underworld, portrayed by the descending line.
    2. Monteverdi’s later works
      1. L’Arianna
        1. Commissioned by Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga in 1608
        2. Only a fragment survives, Arianna’s Lament.
        3. Staged in other cities after its premiere (as was L’Orfeo)
      2. In 1613 he moved to Venice to assume the post of maestro di capella at Saint Mark’s, but he continued to compose dramatic works.
      3. Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (The Combat of Tancred and Clorinda, 1624)
        1. Narrative poem with music for singing and mime, accompanied by strings with continuo
        2. Most of the narration is sung by tenor in recitative.
        3. The tenor and soprano mime to their short speeches and the narrative.
        4. Instrumental interludes suggest action (e.g., horses and sword fighting).
        5. Passages in stile concitato (excited style), which uses repeated notes to convey agitation (this technique would be widely imitated by others)
    3. Operas for public theaters in Venice
      1. The first public theater opened in 1637.
      2. Ritorno d’Ulisse (Return of Ulysses, 1640), based on Homer’s Odyssey
      3. L’Incoronazione di Poppea (Coronation of Poppea, 1643)
        1. Based on a historical subject, Roman emperor Nero’s second marriage, rather than myth
        2. Often considered Monteverdi’s masterpiece because of its expressiveness
        3. NAWM 67, a scene in which Poppea pleads with Nero to stay with her, shifts between simple recitative, aria, and a style midway between them, recitativo arioso, or arioso.
  5. Spread of Italian Opera
    1. Florence after L’Euridice
      1. The court preferred ballets and intermedii for celebrations of important events.
      2. Francesca Caccini (1587-ca. 1645): La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina (The Liberation of Ruggiero from the Island of Alcine, 1625)
        1. She was the highest-paid musician employed by the grand duke of Tuscany.
        2. Daughter of Guilio, she sang with her sister and stepmother in a concerto delle donne rivaling that of Ferrara (see HWM Chapter 11).
        3. This work is now considered an opera, but it was originally billed as a ballet.
        4. Musical elements include an opening sinfonia, recitatives, arias, choruses, instrumental ritornellos, and chorus.
        5. The staging was elaborate (see HWM Figure 14.5).
    2. Rome became the center for opera development in the 1620s.
      1. The range of topics expanded to include epics, saints’ lives, and comedy.
      2. Stage effects were spectacular (e.g. flames consuming devils).
      3. Recitative and aria became more clearly defined.
      4. Music and poetry were nearly synonymous.
        1. Recitative became more speech-like.
        2. Arias were melodious and usually strophic.
      5. Other musical elements
        1. Vocal ensembles
        2. Extended finales for each act, including choral singing and dancing
      6. Two-part instrumental sinfonias introduced the operas.
        1. The first part is a slow chordal section.
        2. The second part is a lively imitative canzona.
        3. This two-part form became standard for the opening movements of seventeenth-century opera.
      7. Castrato singers
        1. Men who had been castrated before puberty sang treble parts in church because women were not permitted to sing in church.
        2. In Rome, women were not permitted on stage, so castrati sang the treble roles.
        3. Castrati later sang outside of Italy as well, but only in male roles.
    3. Venice/li>
      1. The first public theaters
        1. 1637: Teatro San Cassiano opened as the first public opera house.
        2. By 1678, there were nine stages devoted to opera.
        3. Visitors who celebrated carnival season from December 26 to Lent attended operas in public theaters.
      2. Librettos
        1. Stories for librettos were chosen for their dramatic content and opportunity for special effects.
        2. Sources for plots included mythology, classic epics, and Roman history.
        3. A three-act structure replaced the earlier five-act convention.
        4. Choruses and dances were limited due to financial constraints.
      3. Musical style
        1. Recitative and aria became further delineated.
        2. Arias became very lyrical, with persistent rhythmic motives and simple harmonies.
        3. There were more arias per act.
      4. The main composers were Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676) and Antonio Cesti (1623-1669).
      5. Singers commanded high fees and had music written especially for them.
    4. Italian opera abroad
      1. Italian operas were performed in Paris in the 1640s.
      2. No known performance of Italian opera in England in the seventeenth century, but a copy of a Cavalli opera reached England
      3. Austria became a major center of Italian opera.
        1. Cesti composed operas for the archduke of Tyrol and for the imperial court at Vienna.
        2. 1654: Venetian-style opera house built for the archduke of Tyrol
        3. Cesti’s most famous opera, Il pomo d’oro (The Golden Apple, 1667), was performed at the emperor’s wedding in Vienna.
    5. Italian opera at midcentury
      1. Many style features established during this era would remain standard for Italian opera over the next two hundred years.
        1. Concentration on solo singing
        2. Separation of recitative and aria
        3. Use of varied styles
        4. Singers and spectacle replaced drama as the focus of interest.
      2. Cesti’s Orontea
        1. Composed in 1656 for Innsbruck
        2. Popular throughout Italy and German-speaking lands
        3. The plot concerns love at first sight across social levels, not myth or history.
        4. The libretto interweaves comic and romantic scenes.
      3. Recitative style (NAWM 68a and HWM Example 14.5)
        1. The definitive style for the next hundred years
        2. Used for most of the action
        3. Many repeated notes, with modulating harmonies
      4. Aria style (NAWM 68b and HWM Example 14.6)
        1. Strophic with some modification
        2. Smooth, diatonic melody with easy rhythms
        3. Violins accompany the voice throughout.
  6. Tension between Drama and Spectacle
    1. Opera began as an effort to place drama at the center of a staged musical performance, but solo singing and spectacle soon overcame this effort.
    2. Later composers would seek to reform opera, bringing drama to the fore again.
    3. Current theatrical productions face the same tension between drama and spectacle.

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