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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Brass Tacks: Baroque Opera and Opera Seria

Opera before the revolution.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A typical over-the top baroque extravaganza. This is a scene from Handel's Xerxes.

"Baroque opera" is a catch-all term used for "early" operas, written before 1754. Opera seria is a name for an Italian opera style that dominated music in Italy and elsewhere for 150 years and has enjoyed a revival on the modern operatic stage. The French equivalent is tragédie en musique, a form that has been around since 1673.

First, some history.

The first opera was Dafne, written by Jacopo Peri in 1597 for the Venetian Carnival season. The score is now lost. The earliest examples available to us are operas by Claudio Monteverdi, whose L'Orfeo, L'Incoronazione di Poppea and Il ritorno di Ulisse in Patria are all performed today.

The preferred subject matter for this new art form was mythological or historical in nature. When real life events were portrayed (a trend started by Monteverdi with Poppea) they were set far enough back in antiquity that no-one would possibly be offended.

Here's an example from L'Incoronazione di Poppea by Claudio Monteverdi, written in 1642.

Performance by Rachel Yakar with the Ensemble Zurich cond. Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

France, particularly Paris became a hotbed of operatic creativity in 17th century Europe. The father of  tragédie en musique was Jean-Baptiste Lully, whose operas were regularly played at the court of King Louis XIV. In French operas, ballet became an important element, as each act was required to end with some sort of spectacle.

Here's a scene from Lully's most famous opera, Atys:
The Dance of the Zephyrs from Atys. Performance by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants.

Baroque operas were usually set in antiquity, but witty librettists were wise to update the stories so that they made sense to contemporary listeners. Exotic subjects like the plan of the Persian emperor Xerxes to build a bridge to invade Greece were somehow transformed into exotic love stories, with contemporary melodies that still survive in today's popular culture.

Watch the Overture from Handel's Xerxes and the first aria, Ombra mai fiu which gained a second life as the tune "Handel's Largo.
Performance by the English National Opera with Ann Murray as Xerxes.

Musically, these works are highly stylized, with a strict division between recitative (sung "speech") that would drive the plot forward, and arias, which would be used to show a character's emotional reaction to their current circumstance. Recitative is usually accompanied not by the orchestra but by a continuo, a combination of harpsichord, cello and theorbo (an enormous lute) that accents and comments on the characters' words.

In addition to new operas, composers and impresarios would draw audience members with pasticcio, "new" operas thrown together using pieces from other works. Recently, the Metropolitan Opera tried to duplicate that feat with The Enchanted Island.

Vivaldi's Montezuma is a good example of pasticcio. Here's the opening:

Performance by La Grande Ecurie et La Chambre du Roy

The arias themselves are even more stylized. Singers were expected to observe da capo form. They'd sing the entire aria through once, to show the composer's intent. Then, they repeat the whole melody (da capo loosely translated means "from the top") adding vocal embellishments and fioratura in a display of their own talents. Some singers would add standard cadenzas and vocal flourishes, but others would create their own.

The fall of the baroque school of opera came with the "reform" operas of  Christoph Willibald Gluck and the start of the so-called "classical" period. Plots still came from history and mythology, but Gluck and the composers who followed him (Haydn and Mozart) tightened and streamlined the music, making the whole work drive forward in a coherent and exciting manner. The last important opera seria was by Mozart: La clemenza di Tito, which premiered in 1791.

Opera seria fell out of fashion in the 19th century with the rise of the classical style and bel canto. However, interest in these works revived in the 20th and 21st. Today, operas by Handel, Rameau, Lully and Vivaldi are regularly performed alongside Gluck's Iphegénie en Tauride and Mozart's Idomeneo and Tito. Large companies like the Metropolitan Opera take pains to include at least one baroque offering per season alongside works by Verdi and Wagner.

Singers specialize in taking the roles once sung by castrati: sometimes mezzo-sopranos in travesti or countertenors who can soar fearlessly above the stave. Artists like David Daniels, Renée Fleming and Susan Graham have supplanted their repertories with regular excursions into the baroque.

Let's end with Renée Fleming singing Mi caro bene from Handel's Rodelinda at the Metropolitan Opera in November of 2011.

Footage © 2011 The Metropolitan Opera.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.