Introduction | Early & Middle Baroque | Opera

Opera began as an elite art. The first operas were created and performed for small, select audiences at wealthy courts in such cultural centres as Florence, Mantua, Parma and Rome. However, in 1637 the first public theatre in Venice, the Teatro San Cassiano opened, and the ‘invitation only’ nature of opera changed. 

The Venetian opera houses were funded by the city’s patrician families, and paid for mostly by the sale of subscription boxes to the wealthy. Opera was expensive to produce, and although the opera houses were ‘public’, access to productions was usually limited to those with money to spare.

Italian Origins and Monteverdi

Opera – a tradition that brings together art, architecture, music and literature – was the most enduring result of the Baroque’s dramatic impulse. The operas of the seventeenth century are an index of the latest developments in all these arts. The plots of the operas were drawn mostly from mythology or history, but the telling of these tales reflected the current literary ideals.

L’Orfeo, favola in musica (‘Orpheus, a Legend in Music’, 1607), written by Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643) and first staged in Mantua, recounted the tragic tale of the legendary musician Orpheus, who never recovered from the death of his wife, Euridice: he spent the rest of his life mourning for her and singing of his loss. The popularity of this poignant theme was evident from the start. Within a year, another opera had been written on the same subject, and before the seventeenth century was out, a further 21 had been performed.

Monteverdi was an undisputed trendsetter, and in more than his choice of subject. L’Orfeo displayed a novel approach – more dramatic, more lyrical and much more expressive than its predecessors. The popular appeal of this first undisputed masterpiece of Baroque opera and the works that followed it was soon evident. Within a short time, Venice, where Monteverdi settled in 1613 as maestro di cappella at the Cathedral of St Mark’s, became the first centre of Italian opera. There, opera began to evolve, as audiences demanded more drama and more action on stage. An overture, at first consisting of a short fanfare of instruments, was introduced to start the performance. Opera plots became more violent and exciting, and stage effects more spectacular. The aria introduced by Monteverdi became more prominent. The seamless musical style known as bel canto – ‘beautiful singing’ – also developed in Venice. By that time, Rome had replaced Venice as the centre of Italian opera. Rome was succeeded later in the seventeenth century by Naples.

The Arrival of Opera in Germany and France

The popularity of opera quickly spread outside Italy. Italian opera was adopted wholesale in Germany and Austria, and dominated the scene for several years. German-language operas did not appear until after 1678, when the Oper am Gänsemarkt was established in Hamburg. Italian opera arrived in France in 1645 but had only limited success. In the event, the individualistic French preferred to develop their own genre....

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