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A Brief Introduction to Baroque Opera

The story of Baroque opera is a story of lavish splendour, of the exotic and spectacular, of the marvellous, of superstar singers with superstar egos and incomes, of intrigue and dodgy business dealings, and … some of the most sublime music ever written.

It starts as a very Renaissance story in Florence in the early 1570s with a group of noblemen, scientists and artists who called themselves the Camerata. They held meetings at which they theorized about the way in which ancient Greek drama and its music was performed. A misreading of sources meant that they failed, but their experiments led to the creation of a new kind of music based on speech rhythms. Called recitative it was soon taken up by the composers in the Camerata, among them Giulio Caccini and Jacopo Peri. At first put to service in the spectacular court festivities that included entertainments called intermedi, recitative was soon adopted to form the basis of a new kind of drama - opera. Appropriately (and for historians conveniently) opera’s birth arrived with the new century. In 1600 two settings of a text (or libretto) by Ottavio Rinuccini, another member of the Camerata, in the new style appeared with music by Giulio Caccini and Jacopo Peri. Much controversy surrounds this momentous event, but it seems that the performance given in the Palazzo Bardi in Florence on 6 October was a composite version including music by both composers. The subject of these first operas was the fable of Orfeo, though the title L’Euridice was named after the wife Orfeo famously tried to claim back from the underworld.

Opera was born, but it needed a great composer to thrust it into maturity. The wait was short. In 1607 Orfeo, an opera by Claudio Monteverdi, was presented at the court of Mantua, where its composer was then in service. As the title suggests, the topic was once again the story of Orpheus and Euridice, but Monteverdi’s Orfeo is a very different proposition to those early operas by Caccini and Peri. More flexible and, critically, more dramatic, in addition to the recitative that carries the story forward, it includes passages of lyrical contemplation, a development that would lead increasingly toward the eventual separation of these features. But that’s way ahead. For now the story pauses, though in parenthesis we might note that in 1608 Monteverdi’s lost opera Arianna was given in Mantua. From now opera quickly spread its tentacles throughout Italy, reaching, among other centres, Rome in the 1620s and Venice in the 1630s.

It is to Venice that the story now moves. It's republican credentials made it the ideal place for opera to undertake a critical step forward - to expand from being simply courtly spectacle to public entertainment. In this it was aided by a number of existing small theatres owned by the patrician families of Venice in which the ever-popular commedia dell’arte shows were given to socially mixed audiences. So it was that the first public opera, the now-lost Andromeda by the now-forgotten Francesco Manelli was given in 1637. The floodgates opened. Theatres were expanded to accommodate the needs of opera, or even newly built to accommodate it. Even the aged Monteverdi, who had moved to Venice as director of St Mark’s in 1613, was called upon to provide operas, composing his valedictory masterpieces Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, staged in 1640 and L’incoronazione di Poppea (1643), along with the lost Le nozze d’Enea in Lavinia. Monteverdi’s Poppea was significant for being the first major opera to take history rather than mythology for a subject, while both extant late operas included comic scenes in essentially serious works, a feature that was to become a characteristic of Venetian opera until the end of the century.

For some two decades there was feverish operatic activity in Venice. Impresarios emerged and went bankrupt, staging became ever more extravagant, houses opened and closed, but even in these chaotic conditions an astonishing number of operas were mounted. The major figure during these years was Francesco Cavalli, a pupil of Monteverdi, who as both impresario and composer staged more than 30 operas between 1640 and 1673, including famed masterpieces such as Xerses (1654). The last quarter of the century witnessed a cooling of operatic fervour in Venice, allowing us to move on not only from La Serenissima, but also out of Italy, to the birth of opera in France, a story in which Cavalli also features.

By the mid 1650s opera had started on its worldwide conquest. In France, where lavish spectacle was no stranger at the court of Louis XIV, it arrived as an Italian import, notably with productions of Cavalli’s Xerses in 1660 and, exceptionally, the same composer’s Ercole amante, staged at the Tuileries in 1662 with a magnificence that astounded all during the course of a six hour performance. But Ercole amante was to prove the swan song of Italian opera in France for more than a century. In keeping with convention at the French court, its massive length included ballets in which the king himself participated. The principal composer of these ballets was Louis’ composer of instrumental music, Jean-Baptiste Lully. It was Lully who was destined to become the founder of French opera, a rich paradox given that he was Florentine born as Giovanni Battista Lulli. But the adopted Frenchman Lully set about finding a distinctive style that owed little to Italian opera, his observation of the rhythms of the French language leading him to create a new form of lyrical recitative. Manipulative and unscrupulous, Lully worked himself into a powerful position both at court and the newly established Paris Opéra, allowing him to dominate opera to the exclusion of other composers. Between 1673 and 1686 Lully composed 14 operas, or tragedies en musique, mostly staged both at court and the Paris Opéra. By the time of his death in 1687 Lully’s dominance of French opera was so complete that it would be 40 years before his hegemony was challenged.

But we must return to Italy. Some time before the end of the century scholars and literati started to challenge what they saw as the frivolity of the comic scenes in Venetian opera. They had noted the high-minded seriousness of French opera, with its employment of librettos by such outstanding poets as Quinault and Corneille. 1690 witnessed the formation in Rome of the Arcadian Academy, an association of scholars and artists who sought to reform opera by expelling frivolous comedy and concentrating on the high-minded worlds of heroic historic figures and idealized pastoral themes. The poet that would take Italian opera in a new direction was Apostolo Zeno, later followed by one of the greatest poets of the 18th century, Pietro Metastasio. Among composers the towering figure in the transitional period between 17th century Venetian opera and what became known as dramma per musica or opera seria is Alessandro Scarlatti, in whose operas we can also find the final establishment of the da capo aria, the musical form that would dominate Italian opera for much of the following century. The gradual separation of recitative from more lyrical sections of the continuous score seen in the operas of Cavalli and contemporaries like Cesti ultimately arrived at a point where they became separate entities. Scarlatti’s large body of operas, composed between 1679 and 1721, provide an ideal platform from which to explore the transition from 17th century Venetian opera to opera seria. Scarlatti also introduces us to a major new centre for Italian opera – Naples. Opera had in fact been given in Naples, then the largest city in Italy, since the mid-1600s, but it was Scarlatti who established what became known as the ‘Neapolitan style' that dominated Italian opera during the first half of the succeeding century.


One composer to benefit from direct contact with Scarlatti was a young German, Georg Frederic Händel, who had arrived in Italy in late 1706. The 21-year old Händel had been employed in Hamburg, the leading centre for opera in Germany, where it had been given at the Gänsemarkt theatre, the first public opera house outside Venice, since 1678. Opera in Germany was at this stage either Italian or a hybrid that introduced popular German song, it being not uncommon in the operas of Telemann and his Hamburg colleagues for both languages to be employed in the same opera. Händel’s stay in Italy, where he visited Florence, Venice (where his Agrippina was given in 1709), Rome and Naples, exercised a profound influence on the development of his style. In late 1710 Händel, now to all intents and purposes a fully-fledged Italian opera composer, arrived in London, where the public demand for entertainment and the financial rewards it could provide would prove a unique draw to European performing artists throughout the century. Opera had failed to establish itself in England, where a preference for spoken drama prevailed, despite stirrings of the hybrid form known as ‘semi-opera’ particularly associated with Henry Purcell, whose role in the creation of English opera might not have been restricted to Dido and Aeneas and such semi-operas as The Fairy Queen and King Arthur had it not been for his premature death. As it was the stage was now set for Handel - now a British national - to establish the domination of Italian opera in London, where between 1711 and 1741 nearly 40 of his operas were staged in addition to those of other leading Italian composers such as Nicola Porpora.

We have seen how the reform of Italian opera resulted in the expulsion of the comic episodes that had become an integral part of 17th-century Venetian opera. Just as the principal focus now switches to Naples and its influence, so too does the concentration on the seria operas of composers such as Leonardo Vinci, Porpora, Pergolesi and Hasse, like Handel an Italianized German. In Venice, which itself succumbed to the Neapolitan style, among true Venetian composers only Antonio Vivaldi can claim fame today, although the importance of Antonio Lotti and Leonardo Leo in the field remains to be fully revealed. If dramma per musica, with its munificent monarchs, heroic princes and hard put-upon, if often feisty, heroines occupied the high ground of splendour and moral example, comedy was about to strike back. Before the end of the first decade of the new century, the first intermezzos, or brief comic operas, were being inserted into the intervals of serious operas in both Naples and Venice. In total contrast to the seria piece, these comic interludes featured the kind of everyday character the audience found in the street after leaving the theatre, frequently lampooning their foibles in common dialogue frequently employing local dialect. In Naples the emergence of full-length comic operas occurred almost simultaneously, thus setting the scene for opera buffa, which during the second half of the century was destined to take revenge on opera seria by achieving a popularity that surpassed its grand relation, a development that would culminate in the immortal comedies of Mozart.

By the middle of the 18th century the European domination of Italian opera was complete. Save for one country. In France the legacy of Lully, the Italian-turned-Frenchman, continued to hold sway until the arrival of Jean-Philippe Rameau, who in maturity turned to the tragédie en musique in a challenge to the Lulliste legacy that fiercely divided both scholarly and public opinion. Much of the controversy was the result of Rameau’s admission of what his critics thought to be Italianate influences. Later still a converse admission of French traits into Italian opera would play a significant role in leading to the so-called ‘reforms’ of Gluck. But that’s a story for another day …   

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