BEGINNINGS: LET’S MAKE AN OPERA
Opera, or melodramma, is an artistic form that brings together music and stage action. Central to it is the development of a dramatic plot, although opera buffa, or farcical, was also to appear in time. Music is usually performed by an orchestra and many are the artists involved in the creation of an opera: the composer and the performers, of course, but also the librettist, the one turning the plot into lyrics, the orchestra and the choir directors, scenographers, actors and costume designers.
It all began in Italy, during the late Renaissance, a time of cultural and artistic upheaval. It was then that the idea of bringing together stage arts and music came into being. A name, history tells us, may lay behind the first examples of opera, Giovanni Bardi. Bardi was a Florentine arts patron, who loved writing and composing music. In his home, artists and intellectuals of the time had found a safe harbor to create and discuss: here and among them, apparently, stories were put into music for the first time. Mind, the association of acting and singing was not new, as the popularity of the medieval recitar cantando (quite literally, acting while singing) tells us, however it was thanks to the Bardi group that the idea was, so to speak, institutionalized.
The 17th and 18th centuries represented the moment of opera’s first, pan-European diffusion, also thanks to the spreading of public music theaters on the continent, the first, the Teatro di San Cassiano, having opened in Venice in 1637.
Early opera loved mythology and used it as a wide source of inspiration. Heroic narrative, embodied to perfection by Homer and Virgil’s works, but also by more recent chivalry epics by Torquato Tasso and Ludovico Ariosto, was the bread and butter of opera librettists. This was hardly surprising considering those were the years of Classicism, when all that belonged to the Classics, in all art forms, was viewed as an example of perfection.
Jacopo Peri’s Daphne (1597) is considered the first opera to be represented, but the first to be successful was Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo, penned in 1609, the operatic rendition of the evergreen Greek myth of Orpheus and Euridice. Indeed, Monteverdi, whose work is still popular today, is considered the highest representative of early opera.
But melodramma wasn’t to remain an entirely Italian phenomenon for long, with composers like Schutz in Germany, Purcell in England and Lully in France leading the way. Great composers like Handel and Gluck, both German, found their Promised Land in England and France respectively, where they met popularity and rose to fame. These are years of profound change and evolution for opera, with music becoming more and more relevant and taking over the “acted” part of the piece. This is not to say that opera was to forget its theatrical roots: at the end of 18th century, Pietro Metastasio, the most important opera seria librettist of the time, applied Aristotle’s dramatic units to it, giving it structure and linearity.
The greatest changes, however, came from composers themselves, who harmonized the narrative with the music, creating a real embrace between the two: Gluck and Mozart, along with Traetta and Jommelli, are to be remembered for this reason. Mozart’s geniality supported also the diffusion of opera buffa, up to then considered less relevant than opera seria, thanks to successes like Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così Fan Tutte. In this period opera develops two different styles, the French and the Italian and it was only with the work of Gioacchino Rossini and the emergence of Bel Canto at the beginning of the 19th century that the stylistic gap between the two was, at least in part, filled. Rossini himself wrote and worked in Paris: his Guillaume Tell is considered one of the first examples of the Grand Opéra genre, of which the German Meyerbeer was to become a main representative. Typical of it are the historical settings, the grandiosity of the scenes, the association of specific musical themes to characters and the larger weight of the choir in the musical dénouement of the piece.
These are all characteristics which were to be reprized in Romantic opera. It is all about dramatic flair and richness and fullness of sounds, with voices characterized by deep, cream-like textures, much different from Baroque airiness and lightness of timbre. Even in content, Romantic opera sets itself apart from the past: history becomes source of inspiration and on scene action is often used as a form of criticism or support to specific political ideals – a trait common to all Romantic art. Verdi, the ultimate embodiment of the Romantic composer, placed the idea of national independence at the center of many of his works, as his own country, Italy, had been fighting to obtain it in those very years.
The late 19th century and, especially, the early decades of the 20th century were times of profound innovation in opera. Themes mirrored those embraced by the most popular literary genre of the time, Realism, and music became more “experimental” and modern, with the introduction of unusual intervals and exotic influences, as it becomes evident, for instance, in Puccini’s Turandot or Madama Butterfly. Realist opera had in Puccini its most popular figure, but many others are the names to be remembered: Pietro Mascagni with Cavalleria Rusticana, Francesco Cilea with Adriana Lecouvreur , Ruggero Leoncavallo with Pagliacci.
As all arts, opera has developed in contemporary times, too. Often bordering on the experimental and virtually breaking all structural formalities, contemporary opera, just as much of contemporary art, strikes chiefly for its thirst for innovation and for the creative effort placed into its production. More interesting is, probably, the trend of setting famous operas into different historical times, including the present and an often dystopic, post apocalyptic future.
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