4 centuries of opera
The 17th century: the baroque period and the beginnings of opera
Opera was born in Italy at the end of the 16th century. A group of Florentine musicians and intellectuals, la camerata fiorentina, were fascinated by Ancient Greece and opposed to the excesses of Renaissance polyphonic music. They wanted to revive what was thought to be the simplicity of ancient tragedy. The first opera still performed today was La favola d’Orfeo (The Legend of Orpheus), composed by Monteverdi in 1607, 400 years ago. In the first operas, the intention was to make music subservient to the words. They were made up of successive recitatives with a small instrumental accompaniment, punctuated by musical interludes. After Florence and Rome, Venice rapidly became the centre of opera, where the first commercial opera house opened in 1637, thus making the art form accessible to a wider public. Opera soon spread throughout Europe, and in 1700 Naples, Vienna, Paris and London were major operatic centres.
The 18th century: Bel Canto and classical reform
Two opera forms developed in the 18th century: opera seria and opera buffa. Opera seria, or serious opera, was akin to tragedy and often inspired from mythology. The important solo parts were often sung by the famous castrati. Ariodante by Händel (1735) is an example of opera seria. On the contrary, the comic opera buffa staged ordinary characters and dealt with lighter topics. Main roles were played by tenors or basses. An example of this type, which appeared at the beginning of the 18th century, was Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro (1786).
Whereas the first operas endeavoured to highlight the words, the end of the baroque period was that of great bel canto tunes. This ‘beautiful singing’ gave primacy to vocal virtuosity. In reaction, a more simple style in which text and music were more closely allied, throve from the end of the 18th century. In classical operas, singing served the dramatic idea, not the reverse. They also used choruses and ensembles to stress the collective nature of human emotions. Christoph Willibald Gluck initiated this reform (Iphigenia in Tauris, 1779) which then influenced many composers.
The 19th century: Verdi and Wagner, the golden age of opera
With the rise of nationalism, different traditions developed in different countries. The romantic era began with the works of the German composer Carl Maria von Weber (Der Freischütz, 1821 ; Oberon, 1826). The genre intermixed serious and comic opera traits, absorbing aspects of symphonic music, with subjects drawn from contemporary life and recent history. Richard Wagner revolutionised opera in the second half of the century, from The Flying Dutchman (1843) to Parsifal (1882) and the four operas of the Ring of the Nibelung (1869-1876). Wagner gathered music, drama, poetry and staging in what he called ‘music drama’. In his operas, the orchestra became part of the story, and he frequently used the leitmotiv, a musical phrase associated with a character, an event or an idea.
In Italy, the voice remained predominant. The bel canto tradition went on, combined with opera buffa characters and themes. Examples are Rossini’s The Barber of Seville (1816), Bellini’s Norma (1831) or Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore (The Love Potion, 1832). Giuseppe Verdi was the last great Italian composer of the 19th century. In a passionate and vigorous style, he wrote pieces which allied spectacular show and subtle emotions (La traviata, 1853, Aïda, 1871).
A specific tradition developed in Russia and Eastern Europe, inspired by history (Boris Godunov,Mussorgsky, 1869-1874) or from national literature (Eugene Onegin, Tchaikovsky, 1879). In France, ‘Grand Opéra’ flourished, with great scenic effects, action and ballet. Opéra Comique, which included spoken dialogues, was also very popular (Bizet’s Carmen, 1875).
The 20th century: the rise of individuals
The beginning of the 20th century continued the trends of the late 19th. Puccini was the last great Italian composer, who wrote among others Tosca (1900), Madam Butterfly (1904) and Turandot (1926). Other famous operas of the time were Pelleas and Melisande by Debussy (1902), Salome by Strauss (1905), and The Cunning Little Vixen by Janacek (1924).
Later, individual works rather than general trends appeared. Alban Berg’s operas (Wozzeck, 1925, Lulu, 1937) contrasted with Kurt Weill’s works, inspired from jazz and other popular music (The Threepenny Opera, 1928). Benjamin Britten composed ‘traditional’ operas like Peter Grimes (1945), but also chamber operas.
The 21st century: a score still to be written…
Today, the operatic offer is more varied than ever. Staging and settings have become key elements of new productions. The great pieces of the repertoire are repeatedly reinterpreted and still very successful. They are presented next to new contemporary operas and earlier rediscovered works. In this way, opera is in permanent evolution, for the enjoyment of the widest public.