VIIF: Ballet and Opera

Opera in Rome in the mid-Seventeenth Century

The generous Roman patrons who fostered the cantata left also an important mark on the history of opera. The musical theater's principal supporters after its beginnings in Florence were the Barberini. With the fortunes of this one powerful family waxed and waned those of opera in Rome. Maffeo Barberini (1568-1644) enjoyed as Pope Urban VIII one of the longest reigns--21 years, having been elected in 1623. His nephews, Don Taddeo, Lleutenant-General of the Church, later Prefect of Rome, and Cardinals Antonio and Francesco, were all patrons of music. The two cardinals built the Teatro delle Quattro Fontane, which seated more than 3,000 persons and whose stage gave scope to the brilliant machinery and magical scenic effects of the architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

The theater opened in 1632 with the opera Sant' Alessio (Saint Alexis; first performed in 1631 ), composed by Stefano Landi on a libretto by Giulio Rospigliosi (1600-1669), a protegé of the Pope (and himself elected Pope Clement IX in 1667). Another of Rospigliosi's opera librettos, Erminia sul Giordano (Erminia at the Jordan), based on Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered ,was produced with music by Michelangelo Rossi under the sponsorship of Taddeo Barberini in 1633. Among Rospigliosi's later librettos are the first two comic operas: Chi soffre speri (Let Him Who Suffers Hope), 1639 (first version 1637), and Dal male il bene (From Evil comes Good), 1653. Other composers of opera patronized by the Barberini are Marco Marazzoli, Loreto Vittori (c.1590-1670), and Luigi Rossi . The latter's Palazzo incantato d'Atlante (The Enchanted Palace of Atlantis), another of Rospigliosi's librettos, closed the first period of the Barberini theater in 1642. At this time the Papacy's disastrous war with the Duke of Parma and the enmity of Pope Urban's successor, Innocent X, caused the family to seek refuge in France. During this exile the Barberini and their musical entourage exerted a strong influence on the musical theater in Paris, particularly through the production of Luigi Rossi's Orfeo in 1647.

Through the Roman experience the Florentine pastoral matured-into the full-blown spectacle that is opera.

Opera in Venice

An oligarchy, Venice lacked the ruling families that sponsored grand court entertainments. Instead, patrician families that had acquired their wealth through trade were the principal patrons. Musical productions tended to be, more than elsewhere, cooperative enterprises. Religious confraternities called scuole, forexample, sponsored concerted music on certain church holidays or to celebrate patron saints. The opera-theaters, built and sometimes partly subsidized by individual families, were maintained through the leasing of boxes to other families and the sale of admissions. Although the audiences were as aristocratic as they were elsewhere, the repertory did not reflect the taste of a prince, nor was opera any longer an occasional entertainment put on for a wedding, an important visitor, or other state reception by a host for his guests. A manager of a traveling or resident company contracted to supply performances during a season, and it was his responsibility to satisfy the public. This system worked so well that by 1700 there were 16 such theaters, and 388 operas had been produced. For the first time composers, librettists, designers, and stage managers were assured opportunities to repeat a work many times and to try out ever new approaches.

The first opera theater opened in 1637. Named San Cassiano after the parish in which it was situated, it had previously been used for spoken plays and rebuilt that year by the Tron family. The inaugural opera was Andromeda, produced by the poet, composer, and theorbo-player Benedetto Ferrari and the singer and composer Francesco Manelli (1595-1667). Manelli and his wife both sang in it. The troupe had set out from Rome and played in Padua the year before. It consisted of six singers and an orchestra of two harpsichords, two trumpets, and twelve other instruments. Much labor was lavished on the scenic effects. The first scene was a seascape in which Dawn, dressed in silver, appeared in a cloud. Later Juno came out in a golden chariot drawn by peacocks, and Mercury leaped from the sky in an invisible machine. Then suddenly the scene changed to a wooded pasture with snowy mountains in the background, and shortly after back to the maritime scene. Here Neptune entered in a silver seashell drawn by four sea-horses. The first act ended with a madrigal for several voices concerted with instruments, and by way of an intermezzo there followed a dance by three cupids. The other acts -disclosed similar marvels. Nothing survives of the music, but in other respects this production set the pace for the succeeding ones.

Monteverdi contributed four operas to the Venetian theaters: Adone (1639), Le Nozze d'Enea con Lavinia (1641), Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (The Return of Ulysses to his Country, 1641), and L'Incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea, 1642). Only the music of the last two has survived. Poppea is Monteverdi's masterpiece for the stage. It is outstanding among the early Venetian works that survive for the excellence of its libretto by Francesco Busenello as well as the music.

After Orfeo Monteverdi had written Arianna (1608), numerous ballets and dramatic scenes, and at least one other opera. The style of writing in Poppea comes out of this experience and the concertato madrigals. But it was not unaffected by trends in dramatic music. The chorus has all-but disappeared; and arias and arioso passages, madrigal-like duets, and comic ariettes share a large proportion of the vocal music with the recitative. In other ways Monteverdi asserted his independence, particularly in avoiding the closed structures of the Roman cantata composers. In his choice of librettos he showed that he was not interested in purely decorative spectacles but insisted upon dramas of passion.

A synthesis of Roman and Venetian opera: Cesti

From his very first opera, Orontea, Cesti drew together with remarkable skill the new musical resources of his age for the enhancement of a new kind of music drama. Though he was undoubtedly acquainted with the work for the Venetian theaters of his immediate predecessors, he reveals even more his kinship with the composers of Roman opera and cantata, in whose orbit he was trained.

Orontea was first performed with great success at the Teatro Santissimi Apostoli in Venice during its first carnival season of 1649. It was repeated during the next forty years with minor adaptations to current and local taste in Lucca, Rome, Naples, Innsbruck, Florence, Genoa, Turin, Milan, Macerata, Bologna, Chantilly, and other places. Its exceptional durability for this age proves the timeliness and validity of Cesti's solution to the problem of uniting poetry, music, and drama. It is the solution that in its essence dominated the next half-century. Briefly stated, it is to set narrations, dialogue, and the truly dramatic exchanges among the characters in recitative style, while generalized expressions of emotion or point of view and comic positions are set as arias. This obviously required close collaboration between Cesti and the librettist, Giacinto Andrea Cicognini, for this formalization is evident in the text as well as the music.

Orontea is a completely realistic opera. The action is plausible and devoid of supernatural interventions, which were not altogether dispensed with even in Poppea. Although it deals with historical personages, and Orontea is a serious, dignified heroine, the play is a comedy.

Opera in France and Italy from Lully to Scarlatti

French opera was shaped by the magnetic forces of attraction and repulsion exerted by Italian music. As drama, Italian opera could hardly measure up to the vital theater of Corneille and Racine. Its excesses of passion and fantastic flights of imagery and virtuosity offended a French public exhorted to reason, moderation, and decorum by Boileau and the classic critics. Pierre Perrin summed up the inadequacy of Italian opera as a model for French composers in a preface to the text of his musical pastoral, performed in Issy in 1659 and hence known as the Pastorale d'Issy, with music by Robert Cambert (1628 - c.1677). Italian operas, Perrin said, are too long and the recitatives monotonous; the poetry is too arty, archaic in its language, and forced in Its metaphors, one cannot hear the words being sung, so there is no appeal to the mind; the male sopranos and altos--the castrati--horrify women and make men snicker. But perhaps the most important reason the French would not imitate Italian opera Perrin did not mention. The dance was central to the French musical stage, and, though the ballet was originally imported from Italy, its share in Italian productions was by now minimal.

On the other hand there were aspects of Italian opera that French audiences could not resist. The beautiful spectacles conjured up by architects and machinists like Giacomo Torelli da Fano satisfied the hunger of Parisians for things extravagant and marvelous. How to express the passions, even if they had to be gently tamed, was a lesson that could be learned from Italian music.

Jean-Baptiste Lully

No one was in a better position to steer between the positive and negative poles of the French attitude toward Italian opera than Jean-Baptiste Lully . A native of Florence who went to France as a musician-page at 14, he participated in the performance in Paris of two operas of Cavalli, Serse (1660) and Ercole Amante (1662). He furnished music for the dances added to cater to the French taste. As composer of instrumental music for King Louis XIV from 1653 and a member of the 24 violons du Roy before he led his own petits violons, Lully assimilated the rich French heritage of orchestral music. Moreover he appeared as a dancer as early as the Ballet des Bienvenus in 1655. Between this date and 1661 he composed music for numerous ballets de cour, including not only overtures and dances but also airs and récits to the poetry of Benserade. From 1664 to 1671 he collaborated with Molière and Corneille in a series of ballet-comedies and one ballet-tragedy. For these he wrote in both the French and Italian styles. Thus Lully united in his experience the best of both the French and Italian musical, dance, and literary traditions.

The operas of Lully enjoyed a longevity unparalleled for his age. They continued to be staged and printed for a hundred years. The Lullian opera became such a national institution that a composer who defied its conventions imperiled his reputation. Lully's immediate successors, such as André Campra and André-Cardinal Destouches (1672-1749), departed little from his formula. Campra acceded to the renewed taste for the ballet spectacle by reviving the type of work, usually called opera-ballet, represented by Lully's Le Triomphe de l'Amour (1681). Campra's first opera-ballet L'Europe galante (1697) consists of a prologue and four loosely connected ballets or entrées. More significant is his Les Fetes vénitiennes (1710). Though similarly organized, it gives evidence of fresh receptivity to Italian music after the death of Lully, whose dictatorial control of the Academy of Music had excluded it. Les Fêtes vénitiennes contains three cantatas in a modified Italian style. These include motto arias with da capo, designated ariettes, a term that remained attached to these French adaptations of the Italian aria.

Jean-Philippe Rameau

By the 1730's the French style of opera was in danger of being submerged permanently. Suddenly the Hippolyte et Aricie (1733) of Jean-Philippe Rameau brought the tradition back to life. So vigorous and enduring was Rameau's recreation of it that Hippolyte was performed 123 times by 1767. Far from being overwhelmed by Italian opera seria or buffa, his French opera stirred up a wave that was eventually to sweep into its fold two principal composers of Italian-style opera, Gluck and Piccinni .

Opera in Italy: Alessandro Scarlatti

Hardening of the categories, that disease of operatic ripeness, overtook Italian opera in the second half of the seventeenth century. The fluid mixture of recitative, arioso, ritornels, and arias out of which Cesti and Cavalli built their scenes gradually gives way to formalized schemes. Recitative and aria acquire separate functions and discrete boundaries, while the arioso grows up to be a kind of aria.

These changes parallel the career of Alessandro Scarlatti . His early operas, intended for private palaces in Rome, are of small dimensions. Comic episodes relieve the serious action or the reverse. From 1684 to 1702, while Scarlatti was Director of the Royal Chapel of the Viceroy of Naples, he wrote about two operas a year for the royal palace or the royal theater of San Bartolomeo. These are large-scale works with complicated intrigue plots, using elaborate scenic designs and effects. The primary characters are usually involved in love relationships, while on a secondary plane are various companions, adventurers, and statesmen. On the fringes are the grotesque antics of two comic characters, who often close an act with a lively duet.

It is during this period that expansive arias assume the main burden of the musical and emotional content. This concentration of the lyric content was made possible by a happy meeting of esthetic aims and technical resources. On the esthetic side was the recognition that the chief purpose of music in the artistic complex that is opera theater is the expression of the affections. Scarlatti confessed to his patron Prince Ferdinand de Medici that the style of Il Gran Tamerlano (1706, music lost) was compounded of three simple elements: "naturalness and beauty, together with the expression of the passion with which the characters speak." And this last, he said, "is the very most principal consideration and circumstance for moving and leading the mind of the listener to the diversity of sentiments that the various incidents of the plot of the drama unfold." Since an affection was understood as a state of mind that could occupy a character's thoughts and sentiments over a period of time until he was moved by dialogue or action to another state, the problem for the composer was to sustain a single mood in a way convincing as music and as affection.

It is to this problem that the technical resources accumulated during the century offered a solution. The sonatas and concertos of the 1670's and 80's advanced the art of organizing chordal and key relationships around a single center and of developing expansive periods out of the motivic germs of a single subject. Vocal composers, by drawing upon this experience, could exceed the modest limits of the earlier arias without recourse to ostinati, strophic variations, or rondo forms. The modulatory and thematic contrast afforded by episodes in fugal movements and by soli in concertos could be achieved in the aria through a middle section in a foreign key. Concerto-like contrast could be gained also by the alternation of instrumental ritornelli and voice, and during vocal sections through the interplay between the voice and orchestra.

Dramatic Music in England

Most of the conditions that delayed the rooting of opera in France worked against it also in England. A strong theatrical tradition relegated music to a decorative and occasional function. The court and private masque, which was the English counterpart of the ballet de cour, emphasized spectacle and dance at the expense of dramatic vocal music. There was no Mazarin to promote Italian operas, and the first of them did not begin to trickle in until the eighteenth century. Beside these artistic factors stands the fact that during the civil war and Commonwealth (1649-1660) theater practically ceased to exist for about twenty years.

Ben Jonson had made a promising beginning in the Jacobean era with masques magnificently staged by Inigo Jones, set to music partly in recitative style by Nicholas Lanier and later by William and Henry Lawes . The Poet Laureate Sir William Davenant obtained in 1639 a theater patent from Charles I with the intention of establishing a program of extravaganzas using music, drama, and dancing, but the civil upheaval prompted the Lords and Commons to issue an order on September 2, 1642 to close the theaters. Davenant finally succeeded in 1656 in staging ten performances of a "Representation by the Art of Prospective in Scenes, and the Story Sung in Recitative Music" called The Siege of Rhodes. The music, by some of the most eminent English composers of the day, is lost. However, a private masque organized three years earlier by Duke Channell in honor of the Portuguese ambassador gives a good sampling of the styles of music then practiced on the stage. This was Cupid and Death by the poet James Shirley and composers Christopher Gibbons and Matthew Locke .

The music consists of entry pieces, dance pieces, pleasant songs that are mainly independent of the action, and recitative passages. Locke's recitative is modeled on an Italian manner long out of fashion in Italy, very unstable tonally and full of arioso outbursts. It is self-contained, not being preparative to arias. The rhythmic freedom, the many cross-relations, and free dissonances found here pass into the recitative of John Blow and Henry Purcell .

Henry Purcell

The main deterrent to progress toward a native opera was the absence of a composer of sufficient talent and versatility to cope with its myriad problems. When such a man--Henry Purcell--arrived upon the scene, the moment of opportunity had passed. A peculiarly English compromise which did not dilute the strength of its dramatic poetry and preserved the visual and musical feast of the masque had preempted the stage-the heroic play with music. Although such plays were sometimes advertised as "operas" or "dramatic operas," the musical element was confined to scenes not unlike the divertissements of the French ballet comedies and operas. The first such play for which Purcell wrote music is John Dryden's King Arthur (1691). An inventory of its scenes with music makes plain how accessory to drama were the composer's functions: a sacrifice scene (I, ii), a battle scene (I, ii), spirit scenes (II, iii), a pastoral scene (II), a frost scene (III), forest scenes and triumphs in honor of Britain (V). It must be acknowledged, on the other hand, that the main excuse for such a play was the music.

Two years earlier Purcell had shown in Dido and Aeneas (1689) that his powers as a composer were equal to situations of high emotional intensity. Though a miniature opera written for performance by a girls' school, it has a grand sweep, tragic nobility, and swiftness of action that promised a new kind of music drama. It is true to the English stage tradition while drawing freely upon French and Italian musical practices. An unmistakable French flavor pervades the instrumental music, particularly the Triumphing Dance, the Sailors' Dance, the Overture, the Prelude for the Witches, and the Echo Dance of the Furies. Even the arrangement of scenes and the prominence of supernatural happenings seem to be indebted to the French opera. But actually these are masque-like episodes of a sort long cherished by the English too.

The points of contact with Italian opera are more significant. Prominent among the arias are those on ground-basses: "Ah, Ah, Belinda," "Oft she visits," and the final lament "When I am laid in earth." These suggest that the Italian influence came to Purcell through cantatas and operas of the middle of the century, the heyday of the ground-bass in Italy.

The choruses of Dido are mainly in a native English style Purcell learned in the syllabic setting of sacred texts. Some of them, though, such as "Fear no danger to ensue, remind one of Lully; and the contemplative choruses "Great minds against themselves conspire" and "With drooping wings ye Cupids come" belong to the Italian madrigal tradition. The models were probably Blow's lamenting choruses in Venus and Adonis (1683). Blow's obvious antecedents, in turn, are the lamenting choruses of the Florentine and Roman operas.

Purcell was obviously attracted to the musical qualities and expressive force of the Italian aria styles. Unfortunately he lacked a proper context to make the most of them. The weak texts Purcell had to set, only too painfully audible because of his careful declamation, dispel most of the illusion of feeling his music achieves. The English stage demanded too little of music. It asked that it paint a little atmosphere, disport the spectator with a few songs, accompany dances, and occasionally set a sad or tender mood or a gay and trifling one. But the task of arousing deep emotions or unfolding a dramatic situation was the prerogative of the poet. Under the circumstances the English Restoration stage got better music than it deserved in the work of Purcell. A born opera composer in search of an opera-house, he might have found one had he not died so young.

Georg Frideric Handel

When Handel produced his first London opera-- Rinaldo, in 1711--the English public was already acquainted with Italian-style operatic music not only from Purcell but from various imitations and importations. An Italian libretto translated into English, Arsinoe, Queen of Cyprus, was produced in 1705 at the Drury Lane theater with music mainly by Thomas Clayton, who had studied in Italy, and by two others: Nicola Haym, an Italian-born German; and Charles Dieupart, a French musician. Clayton later collaborated in Rosamond in 1707 with Joseph Addison, who, after this failed, turned to writing acid essays against Italian opera. There were also adaptations of Italian operas, Antonio Maria Bononcini 's Camilla in English in 1706, Alessandro Scarlatti 's Pirro e Demetrio (Naples, 1694), partly in English, partly in Italian in 1708. The first completely Italian opera was Giovanni Bononcini 's Almabide in 1710, though it too was garnished with some English intermezzi.

To London Handel was an Italian composer, but actually he had begun his theatrical career in Hamburg. His first opera produced there in 1705 was a mixture of German recitatives and airs with Italian arias. Bilingual opera was normal to this melting-pot of musical styles. Johann Sigismund Kusser (1660-1727), one of the first director-composers of Hamburg's public lyric theater, had spent eight years in Paris and brought in many French practices. French-style overtures and choral and ballet scenes thus found their way into Almira and other Handel operas. The main exponent of the Italian style in the Hamburg repertory was Agostino Steffani (1654-1728), the court music director at Hanover, whom Handel replaced in 1710 for a short time. What Handel knew of Italian opera at this time he must have learned from Steffani's example. The Italian style in Almira naturally dominates the arias in Italian, but it invades most of the German airs too. One of the best examples of this is the furious aria with da capo, "Der Himmel wird strafen dein falsches Gemüth" (The Heavens will punish your false heart, II, xii). However, the orchestra is the richer and busier German ensemble. A distinctly German church-cantata uniformity and stiffness characterizes the recitatives. Some of the German airs in Almira have the form and flavor of the seventeenth-century German Lied, simple in melody and hewing closely to the poetic form. These German traits bear the stamp of the theater's director Reinhard Keiser , whose operas Handel regarded highly.

Four years in Italy (1706-1710) converted Handel almost completely to the melodious Italian manner, although his predilection for counterpoint, choral writing, and elaborate instrumentation never left him. Handel wrote about forty operas for London by 1741.

The Composers (and some others)

Supplemental Materials

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