Moving forward from Baroque opera | Zeno, Metastasio, Gluck
The excesses of Baroque opera
Baroque opera was a complete excess. Its language, the mix of serious and comic scenes, supernatural events, frequent changes of scene by complicated machinery, grandiosity: every aspect of baroque opera is artificial.
The reform by Zeno and Metastasio
Apostolo Zeno and then Metastasio felt a modernization was urgently needed, to bring opera back to its origins.
For that reason they introduced 2 main changes: they made recitatives faster and more natural and set a format for aria repetitions and embellishments, which now take the name of variazioni.
The endless range of aria con variazioni
Arias and their variazioni could be over different themes and character. They were minutely classified in a fixed but wide range depending on the feelings expressed: from disdain to anger, from sweetness to melancholy, from wrath to tenderness to fear and dispear and so forth.
The following was actually one of the most popular, the tempest.
Verses were the singers’ repertoire, whilst music was ever-changing
Singers’ repertoire was made primarily of verses, of which music was only a temporary, ever-changing “dress”. It often happened that a singer in a short period of time performed several scores of the same text. The harsh competition was therefore between performances and performers.
Italian, the universal language of opera
In 1700 Italian was still the universal language of opera, also outside Italy as the new music genre increased its success and spread throughout Europe.
Metastasio’s operas became very popular, particularly in Vienna. They combined the lavishness of court performances with the popular taste for extravaganza. Its educational purposes also suited very well the Habsburg, the most powerful and enlightened monarchy in Europe at the time.
The constantly changing social contest though was urging for more changes to be made to the European new favourite entertainment. It was a Bavarian composer, Christoph Willibald Gluck who would become the architect of the next crucial opera reform.
Christoph Willibald Gluck
Gluck was forced to leave at a very young age his home, to follow his musical inclinations against his father’s will. To earn a living he performed in churches and on the streets of London, Paris and Italy.
When Gluck moved to Vienna in 1735 he had the opportunity to meet with the Italian poet and librettist Ranieri De’ Calzabigi .
Orfeo and Euridice: a groundbreaking opera
With Calzabigi, Gluck worked on the groundbreaking opera Orfeo and Euridice (1762) which was the start of a reform of paramount importance in opera.
The composer reduced duplications and embellishments, giving arias a more lyric and dynamic character. He also organized the score in a more flexible and less repetitive way, so that music could be more effective in emphasizing words.
There was also a change in the subjects used: from mythological and classical stories there a swift towards romantic gloomy dramas.
The indissoluble link between music and words
Moreover, it was finally estabilished an indissoluble link between music and words, with music becoming the main element for the success of an opera.
As in the striking aria “What shall I do without Euridice?”. It is through to the incomparable beauty and expressiveness of the melody sung by Orpheus that Love is presuaded to bring Euridice back to life.
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