Introduction | Late Baroque | Opera
The traditions and styles of opera from Venice and Naples dominated operatic life in Rome, although for a short time public opera performances were forbidden in the papal city.
The influence of Italian opera stretched much further, and companies were established outside Italy – most notably the Dresden opera house at the court of the Elector of Saxony, and in London by the Royal Academy of Music. It was only in France that a distinct national school of opera flourished without being substantially indebted towards Italian singers, librettists and musical style.
The Idolization of Singers
Opera audiences in London were primarily aristocratic or the well-educated upper-middle class, but in Italy and France opera was relatively more accessible to the wider public, especially the less serious forms of opera in Naples and Paris. Opera performances were undeniably a social event where prominent members of society could meet publicly or, indeed, illicitly, and it is easy to underestimate the fascination audiences had with discussing the merits and foibles of the most famous singers.
In addition to the usual gossip and adulation that surrounded the prima donna, audiences were equally passionate about the leading man, the primo uomo. He was almost always a castrato – a singer who had shown musical potential while a boy that was enough to justify his parents authorizing his castration in order to preserve his voice and enable him to train as a professional singer. Castration for this purpose was technically forbidden, but the financial rewards and popularity for a successful castrato were large enough to tempt many parents to find ways to ensure that their son needed the operation for alleged medical reasons. We do not know exactly what the castrati sounded like in their early eighteenth-century prime, but they were reputed to be tall and possessed a powerful stage presence that complemented their casting in godlike or majestic roles, which promoted ideas of heroism and dignity.
However, the concept of the castrated hero was not universally admired: it was never widely accepted in London despite George Frideric Handel’s (1685–1759) successful operas starring Senesino (c. 1680–c. 1759) and Giovanni Carestini (c. 1704–c. 1760), and it was ridiculed and scorned in France, where they instead preferred youthful lovers and heroes to be sung by high-tenors (haute-contre). By the end of Handel’s career, he rarely used castrati in his English oratorios, and had instead trained native English singers such as the tenor John Beard. The voice fell out of fashion, although the castrato Crescentini was reputed to have been Napoleon’s favourite singer, and both Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–91) and Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868) composed castrato roles.
The Opera House Orchestra
Most early eighteenth-century opera houses were small, and could not accommodate anything larger than a chamber orchestra. Thus, opera-house orchestras during the period were smaller than their nineteenth-century successors. The modern orchestra pit did not then exist, and the orchestra were usually seated on the floor...
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