Italian opera

Italian opera

Italian opera is both the art of opera in Italy and opera in the Italian language. Opera was born in Italy around the year 1600 and Italian opera has continued to play a dominant role in the history of the form until the present day. Many famous operas in Italian were written by foreign composers, including Handel, Gluck and Mozart. Works by native Italian composers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini, are amongst the most famous operas ever written and today are performed in opera houses across the world.


During the Renaissance many Italian composers, poets and intellectuals tried their hand at creating music drama. They were inspired by the example of the ancient world, because they knew that the Greek tragedies that had come down to them had originally had musical accompaniment. However, little Greek music had survived to provide guidance. One form that emerged in Renaissance Italy was the intermedio, a sumptuous musical entertainment consisting of singing, dancing and stage effects which was inserted between the acts of a play. Another experiment was the madrigal comedy, in which a series of madrigals were strung together to provide a narrative, the most famous example of this form being Orazio Vecchi's "L'Amfiparnaso" (1594). The drawbacks of using madrigals, with their many voices singing all at once, for drama soon became obvious. A more fruitful direction was taken when musicians began to experiment with monody, in which a single voice declaimed the words over an instrumental line. This line of experimentation was led by a group of musicians and theorists who met in Florence under the name of "La Camerata". Their number included Giovanni de' Bardi, Jacopo Corsi, the poet Ottavio Rinuccini and the composer Jacopo Peri. Peri and Rinuccini collaborated on what has come to be regarded as the first ever opera, "Dafne". It was first given a semi-private performance in 1598.

The 17th century

Florence and Mantua

The music of "Dafne" is now lost. The first opera for which music has survived was performed in 1600 at the wedding of Henry IV of France and Marie de Medici at the Pitti Palace in Florence. The opera, "Euridice", with a libretto by Rinuccini, set to music by Peri and Giulio Caccini, recounted the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. The style of singing favored by Peri and Caccini was a heightened form of natural speech, dramatic recitative supported by instrumental string music. Recitative thus preceded the development of arias, though it soon became the custom to include separate songs and instrumental interludes during periods when voices were silent. Both "Dafne" and "Euridice" also included choruses commenting on the action at the end of each act in the manner of Greek tragedy. The theme of Orpheus, the demi-god of music, was understandably popular and attracted Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643) who wrote his first opera, "La Favola d'Orfeo" (The Fable of Orpheus), in 1607 for the court of Mantua.

Monteverdi insisted on a strong relationship between the words and music. When "Orfeo" was performed in Mantua, an orchestra of 38 instruments, numerous choruses and recitatives were used to make a lively drama. It was a far more ambitious version than those previously performed — more opulent, more varied in recitatives, more exotic in scenery — with stronger musical climaxes which allowed the full scope for the virtuosity of the singers. Opera had revealed its first stage of maturity in the hands of Monteverdi.

Opera in Rome

Within a few decades opera had spread throughout Italy. In Rome, it found an advocate in the prelate and librettist Giulio Rospigliosi (later Pope Clement IX). Rospigliosi's patrons were the Tuscan family of the Barberini who were leading figures in Roman society in the early decades of the seventeenth century.

Composers at work in Rome during this time included Luigi Rossi, Michelangelo Rossi, Stefano Landi, Marco Marazzoli and Virgilio Mazzocchi. In the 1630s, the subject matter of the operas began to change significantly: instead of the pastoral tradition of Arcadia, themes from chivalric poems were preferred, especially those by Ariosto and Tasso, as well as themes taken from Christian saints' lives and the commedia dell'arte. The number of characters increased and as a consequence the dramatic intrigue grew more complicated. A new, more dramatically flexible method of declaiming the recitative also developed. Roman opera was also notable for its huge choruses and elaborate staging.

Venice: commercial opera

Opera took an important new direction when it reached the republic of Venice. It was here that the first public opera house, the Teatro di San Cassiano, was opened in 1637 by Benedetto Ferrari and Francesco Manelli. Its success moved opera away from aristocratic patronage and into the commercial world. In Venice, musical drama was no longer aimed at an elite of aristocrats and intellectuals and acquired the character of entertainment. Soon many other opera houses had sprung up in the city, performing works for a paying public during the Carnival season. The opera houses employed a very small orchestra to save money. A large part of their budget was spent on attracting the star singers of the day; this was the beginning of the reign of the castrato and the prima donna (leading lady).

The chief composer of Venetian opera was Monteverdi, who had moved to the republic from Mantua in 1613. He wrote three works for the public theatres: "Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria" (1640), "Le nozze d'Enea con Lavinia" (1641, now lost) and, most famously, "L'incoronazione di Poppea" (1642). The subjects of the new operas by Monteverdi and others were generally drawn from Roman history or legends about Troy, in order to celebrate the heroic ideals and noble genealogy of the Venetian state. However they did not lack for love interest or comedy. Most of the operas consisted of three acts, unlike the earlier operas which normally had five. The bulk of the versification was still recitative, however at moments of great dramatic tension there were often arioso passages known as "arie cavate". Under Monteverdi's followers, the distinction between the recitative and the aria became more marked and conventionalised. This is evident in the style of the two most successful composers of the next generation: Francesco Cavalli and Antonio Cesti.

The spread of opera abroad

In Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth a tradition of operatic production began in Warsaw in 1628, with a performance of "Galatea" (composer uncertain), the first Italian opera produced outside Italy. Shortly after this performance, the court produced Francesca Caccini's opera "La liberazione di Ruggiero dall'isola d’Alcina", which she had written for Prince Władysław Vasa three years earlier when he was in Italy. Another first, this is the earliest surviving opera written by a woman. "Gli amori di Aci e Galatea" by Santi Orlandi was also performed in 1628. When Władysław was king (as Władysław IV) he oversaw the production of at least ten operas during the late 1630s and 1640s, making Warsaw a center of the art. The composers of these operas are not known: they may have been Poles working under Marco Scacchi in the royal chapel, or they may have been among the Italians imported by Władysław. A "dramma per musica" (as Italian opera was known at the time) entitled "Giuditta", based on the Biblical story of Judith, was performed in 1635. The composer was probably Virgilio Puccitelli.

Cavalli's operas were performed throughout Italy by touring companies with tremendous success. In fact, his "Giasone" was the most popular opera of the 17th century, though some critics were appalled at its mixture of tragedy and farce. Cavalli's fame spread throughout Europe. One of his specialties was giving his heroines "ground bass laments". These were mournful arias sung over a descending bass line and they had a great influence on Henry Purcell, whose "When I am laid in earth" from "Dido and Aeneas" is probably the most celebrated example of the form. Cavalli's reputation caused Cardinal Mazarin to invite him to France in 1660 to compose an opera for King Louis XIV's wedding to Maria Teresa of Spain. Italian opera had already been performed in France in the 1640s to a mixed reception and Cavalli's foreign expedition ended in disaster. French audiences did not respond well to the revival of "Xerse" (1660) and the specially composed "Ercole amante" (1662), preferring the ballets that had been inserted between the acts by a Florentine composer, Jean-Baptiste Lully, and Cavalli swore never to compose another opera.

Cesti was more fortunate when he was asked to write an opera for the Habsburg court in Vienna in 1668. "Il pomo d'oro" was so grandiose that the performance had to be spread over two days. It was a tremendous success and marked the beginning of Italian operatic dominance north of the Alps. In the late 17th century, German and English composers tried to establish their own native traditions but by the early 1700s they had given ground to imported Italian opera, which became the international style in the hands of composers such as Handel. Only France resisted (and her operatic tradition had been founded by the Italian Lully). This set the pattern until well into the 19th century: the Italian tradition was the international one and its leading exponents (e.g. Handel, Gluck and Mozart) were often not natives of Italy. Composers who wanted to develop their own national forms of opera generally had to fight against Italian opera. Thus, in the early 19th century, both Carl Maria von Weber in Germany and Hector Berlioz in France felt they had to challenge the enormous influence of the Italian Rossini.

The 18th century

Opera seria

By the end of the 17th century some critics believed that a new, more elevated form of opera was necessary. Their ideas would give birth to a genre, opera seria (literally "serious opera"), which would become dominant in Italy and much of the rest of Europe until the late 1700s. The influence of this new attitude can be seen in the works of the composers Carlo Francesco Pollarolo and the enormously prolific Alessandro Scarlatti.

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

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

By far the most successful librettist of the era was Pietro Metastasio and he maintained his prestige well into the 19th century. He belonged to the Arcadian Academy and was firmly in line with its theories. A libretto by Metastasio was often set by twenty or thirty different composers and audiences came to know the words of his dramas by heart.

Comic opera

In the 1600s comic operas were produced only occasionally and no stable tradition was established. Only in the early years of the 18th century was the comic genre of "opera buffa" born in Naples and it began to spread throughout Italy after 1730.

Opera buffa was distinguished from opera seria by numerous characteristics:

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

In the second half of the 18th century comic opera owed its success to the collaboration between the playwright Carlo Goldoni and the composer Baldassare Galuppi. Thanks to Galuppi, comic opera acquired much more dignity than it had during the days of the intermezzo. Operas were now divided into two or three acts, creating libretti for works of a substantially greater length, which differed significantly from those of the early 18th century in the complexity of their plots and the psychology of their characters. These now included some serious figures instead of exaggerated caricatures and the operas had plots which focussed on the conflict between the social classes as well as including self-referential ideas. Goldoni and Galuppi's most famous work together is probably "Il filosofo di campagna" (1754).

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

The one-act farsa had a significant influence on the development of comic opera. This was a type of musical drama initially considered as a condensed version of a longer comic opera, but over time it became a genre in its own right. It was characterised by: vocal virtuosity; a more refined use of the orchestra; the great importance given to the production; the presence of misunderstandings and surprises in the course of the drama.

Gluck's reforms

Opera seria had its weaknesses and critics, and the taste for embellishment on behalf of the superbly trained singers, and the use of spectacle as a replacement for dramatic purity and unity drew attacks. Francesco Algarotti's "Essay on the Opera" (1755) proved to be an inspiration for Christoph Willibald Gluck's reforms. He advocated that "opera seria" had to return to basics and that all the various elements -- music (both instrumental and vocal), ballet, and staging -- must be subservient to the overriding drama. Several composers of the period, including Niccolò Jommelli and Tommaso Traetta, attempted to put these ideals into practice. The first to really succeed and to leave a permanent imprint upon the history of opera, however, was Gluck. Gluck tried to achieve a "beautiful simplicity". This is illustrated in the first of his "reform" operas, "Orfeo ed Euridice", where vocal lines lacking in the virtuosity of (say) Handel's works are supported by simple harmonies and a notably richer-than-usual orchestral presence throughout.

Gluck's reforms have had resonance throughout operatic history. Weber, Mozart and Wagner, in particular, were influenced by his ideals. Mozart, in many ways Gluck's successor, combined a superb sense of drama, harmony, melody, and counterpoint to write a series of comedies, notably "Così fan tutte", "The Marriage of Figaro", and "Don Giovanni" (in collaboration with Lorenzo Da Ponte) which remain among the most-loved, popular and well-known operas today. But Mozart's contribution to "opera seria" was more mixed; by his time it was dying away, and in spite of such fine works as "Idomeneo" and "La Clemenza di Tito", he would not succeed in bringing the art form back to life again.

Romantic period

Romantic opera, which placed emphasis on the imagination and the emotions began to appear in the early 19th century, and because of its arias and music, gave more dimension to the extreme emotions which typified the theater of that era. In addition, it is said that fine music often excused glaring faults in character drawing and plot lines. Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868) initiated the Romantic period. His first success was an "opera buffa" (comic opera), "La Cambiale di Matrimonio" (1810). His reputation still survives today through his "Barber of Seville", and "La Cenerentola". But he also wrote serious opera, "Otello" (1816) and "Guilliame Tell" (1829).

Rossini's successors in the Italian "bel canto" were Vincenzo Bellini (1801–35), Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1843) and Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901). It was Verdi who transformed the whole nature of operatic writing during the course of his long career. His first great successful opera, "Nabucco" (1842), caught the public fancy because of the driving vigour of its music and its great choruses. "Va, pensiero", one of the chorus renditions, was interpreted and gave advantageous meaning to the struggle for Italian independence and to unify Italy.

After "Nabucco", Verdi based his operas on patriotic themes and many of the standard romantic sources: Victor Hugo ("Ernani", 1844); Byron ("Il Duo Foscari", 1844); and Shakespeare ("Macbeth", 1847). Verdi was experimenting with musical and dramatic forms, attempting to discover things which only opera could do. In 1877, he created "Otello" which completely replaced Rossini's opera, and which is described by critics as the finest of Italian romantic operas with the traditional components: the solo arias, the duets and the choruses fully integrated into the melodic and dramatic flow.

Verdi's last opera, "Falstaff" (1893), broke free of conventional form altogether and finds music which follows quick flowing simple words and because of its respect for the pattern of ordinary speech, it created a threshold for a new operatic era in which speech patterns are paramount.

Opera had become a marriage of the arts, a musical drama, full of glorious song, costume, orchestral music and pageantry; sometimes, without the aid of a plausible story. From its conception during the baroque period to the maturity of the romantic period, it was the medium through which tales and myths were revisited, history was retold and imagination was stimulated. The strength of it fell into a more violent era for opera: verismo.

Contemporary period

The greatest Italian operas of the twentieth century were written by Giacomo Puccini (1858 – 1924). These include "Manon Lescaut", "La bohème", "Tosca", and "Madama Butterfly", "Turandot" and "La rondine", the last two being left unfinished. In 2002 Luciano Berio attempted a completion of "Turandot", and in 1994 Lorenzo Ferrero completed the orchestration of the third version of "La rondine".
* Luciano Berio himself wrote two operas: "Un Re in Asciolto" and "Opera"
* Lorenzo Ferrero (b.1951- ) wrote 11 operas::: "Rimbaud, ou le fils du soleil" (1978) Quasi un melodramma in three acts:: "Marilyn" (1979) Scenes from the 1950s in two acts:: "La figlia del mago" (1981) Giocodramma melodioso in two acts:: "Mare nostro" (1985) Comic opera in two acts:: "Night" (1985) Opera in one act:: "Salvatore Giuliano" (1986) Opera in one act:: "Charlotte Corday" (1989) Opera in three acts :: "Le bleu-blanc-rouge et le noir" (1989) Marionette opera :: "La nascita di Orfeo" (1996) Musical action in one act:: "La conquista" (2005) Opera in two acts:: Le piccole storie - ai margini delle guerre (2007) Chamber opera in one act
* Luigi Dallapiccola (1904 – 1975) wrote two operas::: "Ulisse" (1960 – 1968, "Ulysses") :: "Il Prigioniero" (1944 – 1948, "The Prisoner").
* Salvatore Sciarrino (b. 1947- ) wrote several operas, including "Luci mie traditrici"
* Sylvano Bussotti (b. 1931- ) has a prolific work history ("Le Racine", "pianobar pour Phèdre", "Nympheo", "Bozzetto siciliano", et al).


*The "New Grove Dictionary of Opera", edited by Stanley Sadie (1992), 5,448 pages, is the best, and by far the largest, general reference in the English language. ISBN 0-333-73432-7 and ISBN 1-56159-228-5

* "The New Penguin Opera Guide", ed. Amanda Holden (2001), 1142 pages, ISBN 0-140-51475-9

* "The Viking Opera Guide" (1994), 1,328 pages, ISBN 0-670-81292-7

* "The Oxford Illustrated History of Opera", ed. Roger Parker (1994)

* "The Oxford Dictionary of Opera", by John Warrack and Ewan West (1992), 782 pages, ISBN 0-19-869164-5

* "Opera, the Rough Guide", by Matthew Boyden et al. (1997), 672 pages, ISBN 1-85828-138-5

* "Opera: A Concise History", by Leslie Orrey and Rodney Milne, World of Art, Thames & Hudson

*Dr. Anthony A. Abruzzese of the PIRANDELLO LYCEUM Institute of Italian American Studies, Research and Cultural Dissemination.

See also

* category.

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