Operas are like dramas
in which the text is set to music and the
performance includes singers and orchestra. Many operas also
have instrumental interludes (intermezzi) and dances, extended
ballets that interrupt the story.
The first traces of opera
are from Italy: it was an entertainment for the aristocracy;
the performances were staged on outdoor terraces or any place
adapted for the opera's needs. The first operas are dated in
the last years of the 16th century, and it started out small.
However, as time progressed,
this new form of entertainment became popular, and attained
its apotheosis in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Many European
composers wrote operas that were so successful that they were
invited to hold in court the sumptuous opera houses of Naples,
Saint Petersburg, Rome, Venice, Milan, Vienna, Berlin, Paris
and even New Orleans, which had a great importance for the French
opera in the 19th century. Many discoveries that shaped the
course of music have their origins in opera's history. Thanks
to the magic of romanticism, opera became more grandiose and
lush. In grand opera in particular, we find larger orchestras,
huge choruses, and incredible harmonies. Romanticism brought
a change in subjects, tempestuous and strong romances; unstable,
mad or devastated characters, and supernatural or occult elements.
This heavily emotional
environment brought an interest toward realism and contemporary
social issues. However themes of royalty, myths, remained very
popular. On the other hand, operas featured innovative characters
as artists, peasants, and even prostitutes.
The romantic novel inspired Italian operas. Gioacchino Rossini
was one of the key figures of Italian new style of opera: he
mastered the sparkiling opera buffa. All of his operas except
Turco are still in the operatic repertory of
today. His operas focus on clear and pointed orchestration,
creating a climax through a lengthy, gradual crescendo. Rossini
is pungent, vigorous, and dramatic. His contemporary Vincenzo
Bellini is aristocratic and languid. Bellini worked with the
best singers of his day, providing elegant melodies decorated
with innovative embellishments. His major work is Puritani (1835).
His melodies gained favor for their simple, lyrical poise. Conteporary
to Rossini and Bellini, was Donizetti, one of the most prolific
composer of that age. His melodies were less delicate than Bellini's
but not as violent in motion as Rossini's. Donizetti is the
precursor of Verdi, his skill in creating lyricism, dramatic
moments and theatricality are a clear demonstration of his gift.
But Donizetti's true power was not clear until the middle ages
[Anna Bolena (1830)].
As said, Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini created the bridge
between the post-Neapolitans and Giuseppe Verdi, considered
the greatest of Italian opera composers. Verdi created his style
without caring of contemporary musical fashions and was more
likely to be influenced by the works of Beethoven and Joseph
Haydn than by what was happening in other opera houses. After
Verdi's time, it was evident that Italy needed a successor
to carry the quality of serious opera forward. What was developed
from Verdi's realism was a movement called Verismo (Italian
for "realism"). Verismo composers include Pietro Mascagni
and Ruggero Leoncavallo. Their most popular operas were Mascagni's
Cavalleria Rusticana (1890) and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci (1892)
Composer Giacomo Puccini followed verismo and produced warm
and beautiful melodies. Examples are La Bohème (1896),
Madama Butterfly (1904).
Apart from Verdi,
the major character in 19th-century opera was a Richard Wagner
from Germany. German Opera wasn't defined at the beginning of
the romantic period; the popular German Singspiel flourished
later than the opera buffa and opéra comique. However,
the poets Friedrich von Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
encouraged german society to adopt the Singspiel, after Mozart's
death. So, Romanticism appeared with Fidelio (1805), the only
opera by Ludwig van Beethoven. The first works of Wagner were
a little influenced by Weber and
Marschner, and Spontini and Cherubini. Rienzi (1842), his first
successful opera, was incredibly heroic and it was emulated
and discussed by the members of school of French grand opera.
Tristan und Isolde (1865) classical music for the next century.
His last masterpiece, Parsifal (1882), was a great combination
of Wagner's ability about vocal writing and orchestration and
it dealed with the myth of the Holy Grail. Such beautiful works,
anyway, could not be confined, and it was immediately stolen
by other opera houses. Every critic agrees that 'there is no
more fitting capstone to Wagner's work than Parsifal'.
Eugène Scribe, a playwright, and Giacomo Meyerbeer, a
German émigré delighted for three decades France
and Europe with the amazing innovation of opéra grande
(grand opera). Scribe and Meyerbeer collaborated in le Diable
(1831), Le Prophète (1849), and L'Africaine
(1865) and others opera treating historical fact and mass bloodshed
with equal unconcern. Meyerbeer is the creator of new novel
orchestral effects, and choreography innovations: it is interesting
to notice that Le Prophète devotes half an hour
to an ice-skating ballet. Georges Bizet had his success with
opéra comique. In Carmen (1875) Bizet infused
that incisive musical energy missing from the French operatic
works since Rameau. Many other composers contribuited to the
romantic opera. Camille Saint-Saëns composed Samson
et Dalila (1877), Jules Massenet produced Manon (1884),
based on a novel by Abbé Prévost, and his great
masterpiece, Werther (1892), based on a novel by Goethe.
Claude Debussy presented Pelléas et Mélisande
(1902), his only complete opera, that was trying to emulate
Wagner's Tristan in melting music and drama.
Debussy's did it in a new way: his music is delicate, timed
to natural rhythms, and accompanied by unusual harmonies. Among
other composer Jacques Offenbach was another German émigre
who came to Paris and achieved a great success: Parisian operetta,
his compositions include Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus
in the Underworld, 1858), La Belle Hélène
(1864), La Vie Parisienne (1866), La Grande-Duchesse
de Gérolstein (1867), and La Périchole (1868).
Russia and central
Europe were influenced by Italian, French, and German romantic
opera and vice versa. Any other composer dealing with the influence
of Wagner's operas, could not avoid to be influenced by Modest
Mussorgsky of Russia. He committed himself to create a characteristically
Russian opera, he rejected the old fashion of His compatriot
Mikhail Glinka in A Life for the Tsar (1836) and Russlan
and Ludmilla (1842). Mussorgsky adapted a grim drama of psychological
realism, Aleksandr Pushkin's tragedy Boris Godunov in 1874.
We also mention Prince Igor (1889) by Aleksandr Borodin, an
episodic military drama completed by Aleksandr Glazunov and
Rimsky-Korsakov after Borodin's death.
Czech opera followed
essentially two movements: one of pro-Russian Slovaks and the
other of German-influenced Bohemians. The most important figure
among the Bohemians was Antonín Dvorák. Prague
was the main city of Bohemian culture, and its most recognizable
operatic figure was Bedrich Smetana [The Bartered Bride (1866)].
LA scrittura e L'interpretazione
VOLUME 2: Dal barocco al romanticismo, G.B. Palumbo Editore,
Romano Luperini, Pietro Cataldi, Lidia Marchiani, Franco Marchese,