Styles & Forms | Classical Era | Opera

There was a certain mathematical precision about opera seria, which was very much in keeping with the ethos of the Enlightenment, in which the most startling advances were made in the sciences. ‘Mathematical’ also applied to the Metastasian libretto, which firmly reinforced seria’s somewhat inflexible and predictable principles.

Almost invariably, the story of an opera seria was told in three acts. Each act was structured around alternating arias and recitatives, with occasional, though rare, duets and ensembles. Where ensembles occurred they were often placed at the end of the opera. There were generally six main characters, and the plot had to contain an element of tragedy or heroism.

The Metastasian Libretto

The first aim of the Metastasian libretto in opera seria was to provide elegant verse along lines that followed the doctrine of affections, such as hope, hate, love, despair. The other was to showcase the gifts of solo singers, especially castrati, who were by now developing into star performers with a fanatical following. It was for them that the da capo aria was developed to display the splendours of the individual voice and also to provide a means by which a character could confide his innermost feelings to the audience. The da capo form of the aria eventually became indispensable to the opera seria and virtually synonymous with it. Metastasian texts were so arranged that an aria normally ended most of the scenes.

In the musical division of labour built into opera seria, arias and recitatives took the stage turn by turn, and it fell to the recitatives to deal with the workings of the plot and serve as the chief point of contact between the various characters. These recitatives were most often in secco form – that is, with continuo rather than orchestral accompaniment, although the full orchestra could step in to reinforce particularly dramatic moments. The dialogue of the recitative in opera seria was generally written to the strict pattern known as versi sciolti, or blank verse, comprising a mixture of seven- and 11-syllable lines, without rhyme.

The Virtues of Opera Seria

Although opera seria eschewed the excessive decoration and complexities that Baroque opera had acquired over the years, the source used for its plots – ancient classical myth and legend – remained the same. The difference was, however, that in opera seria, the plots were made to serve Enlightenment purposes. Characters were more credibly human, the music was less cluttered and better able to express emotion, and audiences had a greater chance to identify and sympathize with the sufferings being depicted onstage.

Seria v. Buffa

Even so, by its very nature – stereotyped, restrictive, and with scant or no outlet for the odd amusing moment – opera seria could not appeal to audiences in the same warm way as its opposite, the opera buffa. Opera buffa did several things that opera seria did not do. The genre promoted the bass voice, where seria gave the best parts...

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