Styles & Forms | Late Baroque | Opera

In the late Baroque era, opera was the most widely cultivated musical form. It had its own social and economic subculture and engaged many of the finest composers.

By the early eighteenth century, most of the principal cities in Europe had imported opera from Italy and modified it to suit the local audiences’ taste. In France, opera remained closely linked with the traditions of courtly entertainment established by Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632–87), whose tragédie lyriques had developed into opéra-ballet.


Early eighteenth-century Italian opera was governed by conventions, but, within those rules, imaginative composers invented an enormous variety of musical moods and first-rate dramas. The most notable dominant convention was the da capo aria, which constructed opportunities for expensive singers to show off their skill, but could also effectively communicate the intensity of a dramatic moment. Da capo arias revealed the emotions of characters, but they rarely carried the plot forward. This was instead achieved through simple recitative, composed in a conversational manner and usually accompanied only by the harpsichord and cello. Recitative was closer to speech in its rhythms, and text tended to be more direct and less contemplative than arias. However, particularly important dramatic moments, such as a pivotal event for an individual character that has immense impact on their destiny, could be set to orchestral recitative for special effect. These were usually powerful recitatives accompanied by the entire string section of the orchestra. Several of the most celebrated examples were created for the castrato Senesino in Handel’s London operas.

Opera Seria, Opera Buffa and Intermezzo

There were three basic types of operatic entertainments: opera seria, opera buffa and the intermezzo. The most highly esteemed of these forms was opera seria, which tended to focus on admirable behaviour such as clemency, heroism and fidelity. Naturally, in order to establish those principles, opera seria also explored the opposing emotions of rage, treachery and illicit lust. Only a minority were uncompromisingly serious and tragic, and most concluded with a lieto fine (‘happy ending’). It is a fallacy that opera seria was without humanism or humour, but resolutions usually portrayed morally uplifting reconciliation or the restoration of the correct and natural order of things.

The comic style of opera buffa developed in Naples, and could ridicule its more aristocratic sibling with its focus on the foolish or ridiculous behaviour of common folk, often set in a vernacular Neapolitan dialect instead of the highbrow literary style of opera seria libretti. Similarly, the plots of intermezzi were more concerned about everyday life than promoting paragons of virtue, and featured a comic plot contained within a few short scenes that featured only two or three characters. However, these were usually designed as an intermediary entertainment between the acts of an opera seria.


France maintained an operatic tradition distinct from the rest of Europe. Italian operas tended to be structured into three long acts and rarely featured a chorus or dancers. In contrast, French operas frequently...

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