Italian Opera in the Seventeenth Century

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Italian Opera in the Seventeenth Century

Origins and Development.

The musical dramas known as "operas" today trace their origins to the experiments concerned with recreating the drama of the ancients that occurred in Florence in the late sixteenth century as well as to older forms of intermedi and intermezzi—musical interludes that were performed as short works between the acts of comedies and dramas or within other larger musical entertainments. By the final years of the sixteenth century, these kinds of works were themselves becoming the center of theatrical performances, and they quickly became a new staple of lavish entertainment and spectacle. Florence was the site of the first "opera" performance in 1598, but similar musical dramas were being staged in Rome and Mantua within a few years. Several stages have been observed in the history of seventeenth-century Italian opera. In the earliest period between 1600 and 1635, opera remained the preserve of Italian court nobility, and it flourished in the cultivated humanists circles that were common in the great aristocratic households throughout the peninsula. A new phase began in 1637, however, with the founding of Venice's Teatro S. Cassiano, the first public opera house that catered to an urban clientele. At this time opera was referred to as dramma per musica, or "drama in music." By 1650, the new opera house styles of productions common at Venice had become increasingly common elsewhere in Italy, and the art form spread north to France and other cultural centers throughout Europe in the decades that immediately followed. During these years opera became increasingly laden with lavish spectacle, and regional centers of production began to display many tendencies adapted from their own local theatrical traditions. Finally, as the seventeenth century came to a close, a reforming impulse began to affect the genre. These reforms emanated from France and the Arcadian Academy of Rome and they advocated greater purity and simplicity in the genre, an elimination of comedy and spectacle, and a concentration on ancient myths and pastoral themes. Despite the intentions of French composers like Jean-Baptiste Lully or the Italian Arcadian reformers, opera remained a popular form of entertainment, and the taste for lavish productions never completely disappeared from the genre. This brief snapshot, though, does not suggest the wealth of creativity that existed in the genre in seventeenth-century Italy as a new and enduring art form appeared within the brief space of a generation or two. To understand the great range of operatic productions that existed in seventeenth-century Italy, we must consider some of the most important milestones in operatic production.

Monteverdi 's Operas.

In 1607, Claudio Monteverdi's Orfeo had set a new standard for operatic production. For his subject Monteverdi and his librettist Alessandro Striggio had chosen the ancient myth of Orpheus, the god who was able to shape the outcome of history through his musical powers. Monteverdi's earliest opera did not break completely from the tradition of staged intermedi that were still popular in his day. These musical interludes had long been staged between the acts of Italian dramas or they had been inserted into court spectacles intended for the entertainment of honored guests. But in his Orfeo Monteverdi made use of the new types of music that were to become increasingly important to composers of operas and instrumental music during the Baroque era. His work was composed of a mixture of recitative, arias, choruses, and instrumental music, and the drama was preceded by a prologue that made use of a toccata theme played by the orchestra's trumpets, an innovation that laid the foundation for the overtures that were later to become common at the beginning of operas. In contrast to the virtuosic skill that was necessary to perform many arias written later in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the arias of Monteverdi's Orfeo were relatively simple, conceived in much the same way that Giulio Caccini had advocated in his Le nuove musiche. In Orfeo Monteverdi's arias make modest demands upon the singer, and they present the poetic text in a relatively simple and straightforward way. The composer conceived of his arias as songs that set to music in a verse style each of the strophes or stanzas of the poetic text. Each stanza of the aria was preceded by a ritornello, a refrain or instrumental passage played by the orchestra. The composer quickly followed the success of this work with another production, Arianna, in 1608, a work that was even more widely admired at the time than Orfeo. Unfortunately, only small portions of Arianna's music have survived, and thus, Orfeo came over time to be the more influential composition. Published in its entirety in 1610, it was widely studied by Italian composers in the first decades of the seventeenth century and helped to shape many later productions. For his part, Monteverdi continued to write operas for another 35 years, most of them based on antique themes, legends, and ancient historical incidents. In 1642, though, he produced another definitive masterpiece, L'incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea). Written when the composer was 75 years old, the work brilliantly displayed the maturation of Monteverdi's style. It treated a famous incident in ancient history: the success of the aggressive Poppea in supplanting Nero's wife Octavia and her subsequent rise to become empress of Rome. Throughout the work Monteverdi relied on recitative to propel the action forward, but he also made use of musical imagery to draw his characters. The ancient Roman philosopher Seneca, Nero's tutor, is portrayed using musical lines that are calmer and serene, while Nero himself is portrayed as a nervous soprano. At the time his character was played by a castrato, an adult male singer that had been castrated before reaching sexual maturity. Monteverdi's use of the castrato was thus an early instance of a practice that was to become increasingly popular in the later Baroque operas of Italy. Throughout The Coronation of Poppea Monteverdi succeeded in rendering the brilliant libretto that the poet Gian Francesco Busenello had written for the work into a seamless dramatic spectacle. The Coronation of Poppea thus helped to establish a new standard for the integration of music and text, although few of the later Italian composers of the later seventeenth century were to approach its masterful blending of drama and music.

From Court to Theater.

By the time Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea was performed in Venice, opera had already begun to emerge from its early history as a humanistic court entertainment nurtured in Italian courts. The earliest operas had often been lavish and expensive spectacles performed before invited guests or at the marriage festivities of important nobles. In 1637, however, the patrician Tron family in Venice experimented with allowing a Roman troupe of operatic performers to mount a production in a theater they owned in the city. The performances were staged before a paying audience, and the success of this and other productions soon convinced other theater owners in Venice to convert their theaters into opera houses. By the early 1640s, Venice had four theaters that regularly performed operas during the six-week season surrounding Carnival. The number of opera houses in the city continued to grow, and by the end of the century musical drama had become a big business in Venice. To mount these productions, the families that owned the city's theaters often approached a new category of showman known as the impresario who was charged with gathering the singing talent and the stage-design know-how to pull off such complex productions. At other times the family theaters entered into commercial ventures with troupes that rented their facilities, staging a season of operas there. As Venice's commercial opera grew in importance, the complexity of orchestrations, costuming, and staging rose. In the early years of the 1640s, productions had often been relatively cheaply produced, and had had few of the expensive stage sets and theatrical machinery that had been common in the court operas of the previous decades. Claudio Monteverdi had written three operas for the Venetian houses during the years immediately preceding his death in 1643, and these works, together with those of his student Francesco Cavalli (1602–1676) helped to establish the conventions of later seventeenth-century Venetian productions. Between 1639 and 1669, Cavalli wrote more than forty operas for the city's theaters; the most successful of these works was his Giasone (Jason), which was first performed in 1649. The work was typical of many of the commercial operas of the period. It included many subplots, lavish staging, the frequent use of dance, and scenes of comic relief set amidst a story that was of a generally serious moral tone. Cavalli's chief competitor in writing for the Venetian operatic scene was Piero Antonio Cesti (1623–1669), who wrote more than 100 operas in his brief life, only a small portion of which have survived.

Transformations on the Venetian Stage.

As the competition heated up between the city's opera houses, lavish spectacle and the intermingling of comic and serious elements that Cavalli and Cesti displayed in their works became increasingly common. The quality of singing also became more important to audiences, and operas now filled up with arias that were written to showcase performers' talents. In contrast to the relatively straightforward songs that had been inserted into the art form in the early years, the aria now emerged as a central focal point of the genre. They grew longer and more complex, and eventually reflected the taste for the da capo style, (a form that used the musical scheme "ABA"). As these changes were occurring, critics of the Venetian stage attacked the reliance on improbable plot twists and the intermingling of comic and tragic impulses in these productions, elements that seem to have been widely popular. In the final quarter of the seventeenth century two events transformed the operatic stage in Venice. First, in 1674 one of the city's houses, the Teatro S. Moisè, slashed its ticket prices, forcing other theaters in the city to follow suit. This move dramatically expanded yet again the audience for opera in the city, while at the same time, placing most of the theaters on a tighter shoestring that limited the money available for spectacle and opulence. At about the same time, Venice's Grimani family opened a new theater, the Teatro Grimano a San Giovannia Grisostomo, that charged high ticket prices in exchange for operas with lavish production standards. Thus as the seventeenth century drew to a close, Venice's opera houses had become divided into two classes: those that served a broad popular audience and a small minority of houses that catered to the expensive tastes of the city's patricians and wealthy merchants.

Opera Spreads.

As Venetian opera emerged as an important force on the Italian cultural landscape, its customs and production methods spread first throughout Italy and then beyond the peninsula to Northern Europe. A key element in the diffusion of Venetian opera to other regions was the touring companies that impresarios gathered to perform operas in various cities throughout Italy. Of these early producers Benedetto Ferrari (c. 1603–1681) was instrumental in setting a standard that later impresarios followed. Ferrari himself was a librettist, composer, and musician, who had mounted the first opera productions with a touring troupe at Venice in 1637. During the 1640s he toured with a company that made major stops in Bologna, Modena, Genoa, and Milan, and a decade later he staged the first operatic productions before the imperial court in the Holy Roman Empire. By this time touring companies had already established a foothold for opera in Naples, then a territory that was a Spanish possession, and by 1651, the popularity of the genre there had given birth to an opera house similar to those of Venice in the city. By the end of the seventeenth century Naples was Italy's second capital of opera production. In France, the first productions of the new Italian operas occurred in the years between 1644 and 1652, and the familiarity of the audience with the new Italian innovations soon gave birth to attempts to produce a native art form that was independent of southern examples. Elsewhere the new art form penetrated European regions unevenly. Spain and England remained relatively untouched by the new Italian genre during the seventeenth century, while in Germany, Italian opera inspired a genre that imitated Italian forms for almost a century. As opera established a permanent commercial presence in Venice, throughout Italy, and somewhat later throughout Europe in the years of the mid-seventeenth century, the artistic possibilities of the genre expanded opera's range of dramatic expressiveness and artistic techniques.

Arcadian Reforms.

Still, not everyone approved of the lavish taste for spectacle and the confused mixture of plots and subplots that sometimes found their way onto the new opera stages of Europe. During the last quarter of the seventeenth century, critics at Venice and from throughout Europe began to attack as absurd the crowd-pleasing productions that had grown increasingly common in previous decades. The foundation of the Teatro Grimano a San Giovanni Grisostomo at Venice in 1677 was one development that pointed to the increasing impatience of elites with the popular confections they believed were all too common in the city's opera house. The theater's express purpose had been to elevate production standards in the city and to appeal to a more educated clientele. In France, initial experimentation with the production of dramma per musica soon gave way to criticism and spawned an attempt to create an operatic style more in keeping with the traditions of the country's drama. These criticisms did not go unnoticed throughout Italy, and in 1690 the foundation of the Arcadian Academy at Rome aimed to reform the country's poetry and drama. In its efforts, the Arcadian Academy imitated the Académie Française that had been founded by Louis XIII's prime minister, Cardinal Richelieu, in 1634. Richelieu's organization had served to establish stylistic canons for the reform of French drama along classical lines. Similarly, the Arcadian reformers advocated a return to classical restraint in opera and drama and they encouraged librettists to make use of pastoral themes and heroic tales from Antiquity. While not all writers of text for the opera championed the movement's aims, the Academy had a broad influence on the operatic world in Italy in the several decades following 1690. A number of librettists, including Apostolo Zeno and Pietro Metastasio, began to produce texts for operas along the lines advocated by the Arcadian reformers. The effect of these reforms eventually shaped the opera seria, or serious opera, of the eighteenth century. Alessandro Scarlatti (1660–1725) and Giovanni Bononcini (1670–1747) were among the most important composers of the early eighteenth century to set this new style of classical poetry to music. Thus while the reforms of the Arcadian Academy had not succeeded in transforming opera into a more restrained and coherent art form by the end of the seventeenth century, the forces were gathering strength for an important reform of opera in the eighteenth century.


Lorenzo Bianconi and Giorgio Pestelli, Opera Production and Its Resources. Trans. Lydia G. Cochrane (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

Roger Parker, The Oxford History of Opera (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

Stanley Sadie, ed., History of Opera (Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 1989).

—, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Opera (London: Macmillan, 1992).