Introduction | Classical Era | Opera

The humanist principles of the Enlightenment removed opera from the extravagant world of baroque and landed it in entirely new territory. After 1720, Baroque became a target for changes initiated by the scholar Gian Vincenzo Gravina of the Arcadian Academy in Rome.

Baroque operas based on classical myths had developed exaggerated and ultimately ludicrous forms. Under the Enlightenment principles that influenced Gravina and the Arcadians, these fripperies – the convoluted plots, the outlandish characterization – were all pared away. In their place, operas assumed the spare, ascetic features of ancient Greek theatre and the stark human drama of its tragedies. The result was opera seria – serious opera.

Metastasio and Opera Seria

The protagonists of opera seria were not composers, but two Italian librettistsApostolo Zeno (1668–1750) and Pietro Metastasio (1698–1782). Metastasio was Italy’s most famous poet and, among composers, soon became its most popular librettist. This was how opera libretti acquired a new adjective – Metastasian. Opera seria with the Metastasian libretto, which became the main operatic genre of the early eighteenth century, was certainly a great stride away from the intricacies of baroque. This, though, was not good enough for the German composer Christoph Willibald von Gluck (1714–87), who spied too much clutter even in this new, slenderized form of opera.

Gluck and the Reform of Opera

Gluck thought opera seria was too formal, its plots overly restrictive and its structure excessively regulated. In his prologue to Alceste (1767), which he may have written with the help of his librettist, Raniero de’ Calzabigi (1714–95), Gluck poured particular scorn on the prominence of arias and the chances they gave singers to show off: ‘I do not wish to arrest an actor in the greatest heat of dialogue in order to wait for a tiresome ritornello [repeat], nor make display of the agility of his fine voice in some long-drawn passage, nor wait until the orchestra gives him time to recover his breath for a cadenza. I did not think it my duty to pass quickly over the second section of an aria of which the words are perhaps the most impassioned and important, in order to repeat regularly four times over those of the first part … for the convenience of the singer who wishes to show that he can capriciously vary a passage in a number of guises.’

Like his Orfeo ed Euridice (‘Orpheus and Eurydice’, 1762), Alceste exemplified the ‘beautiful simplicity’ Gluck believed opera should have. It also planted the seeds of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the ‘total work of art’ later championed by Richard Wagner (1813–83) that merged all elements in opera – singing, acting, orchestration, drama, poetry, lighting and stage design. Gluck’s reforms never went that far, but they did exert strong influence, for instance on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s (1756–91) Idomeneo (1781) or L’anima del filosofo (‘The Soul of Philosophy’, 1791) by Joseph Haydn (1732–1809). In the event, opera seria was overtaken less by Gluck’s reforms and...

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