Opera in the Early Eighteenth-Century World

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Opera in the Early Eighteenth-Century World


Perhaps the most notable feature of opera in the eighteenth century was its rapid spread throughout the European world. In the course of the seventeenth century, opera had been a performance phenomenon in Italy, in France, and in about twenty courts and cities throughout Central Europe. During the eighteenth century, opera houses were founded in some fifty additional cities and courts. Opera spread to the far corners of Europe, with new houses appearing in Spain, Portugal, Scandinavia, England, and Moscow. The expansion, though, was most pronounced in Central Europe, particularly in the Holy Roman Empire, a region of the continent that had long been divided into many small states. Here rulers of both large and small territories found in opera an appealing art form to compete for cultural glory. As the eighteenth century progressed, the operatic world in Central Europe adapted itself to the demands of the Enlightenment, the great international philosophical movement that championed human reason and the abandonment of the fanaticism and superstition of the European past. Works that glorified the principles of this philosophical movement came to be performed in many of the new houses. At the same time the operatic world of the eighteenth century was extremely varied, and many of the new houses were court theaters that were heavily subsidized by princes. In these venues works with traditional themes drawn from Antiquity, legend, and history were performed alongside lighter fare that offered a more purely entertaining value.

Italian Opera in Central Europe.

Although some of the theaters imitated the French styles of production pioneered by Lully, the opera houses in Central Europe, by and large, followed Italian examples. Italian impresarios brought their productions to the cities and courts of the region, and composers and librettists from the peninsula were lured to Vienna, Berlin, and Dresden with long-term contracts. In the century and a half following 1650, the German-speaking lands of the region provided a steady source of employment for Italian composers and musicians. During the seventeenth century Antonio Cesti (1623–1669), Antonio Draghi (c. 1635–1700), Marc'Antonio Ziani (1653–1715), and Antonio Bertali (1605–1669) were just a few of the Italians who found permanent employment at Vienna's court opera house. In the eighteenth century Antonio Caldara (1670–1736) and the now famous Antonio Salieri (1750–1825) were just a few of the many figures that carried on the Italian tradition in the German-speaking world at this time. Vienna was by no means unusual, and for most of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries operas written by native German speakers were a rarity. As the eighteenth century progressed, more German-born composers began writing operas, although many of these figures were trained to do so in Italy. While there were occasional attempts to compose operas in German, most artists chose librettos that were written in Italian. One exception to this rule, however, was Hamburg's Theater am Gänsemarkt, a theater founded by members of Hamburg's merchant and commercial classes in 1678 with the express purpose of nurturing operas in German. Many of the works performed there, nevertheless, made use of librettos that had been translated from Italian. Hamburg's Theater did have a major impact on the training of German composers to write opera, and it counted George Frideric Handel among the distinguished ranks of German artists who had written works for its stage.

Variety of Opera Houses.

Great variety characterized the conditions of European opera houses in the eighteenth century, and a range of houses, from the modest to the luxuriant and palatial, was a fact of the age. The major houses of Venice and Naples sat at the apex of this world, as well as the great court theaters of Vienna, Paris, Berlin, and Dresden. These court operas were generally unable to survive without generous financial support from their royal patrons. Beneath these great theaters were a number of smaller court theaters and commercial houses. This last category was a thoroughly commercial affair charged by its investors with making a profit. These commercial theaters consequently economized on many productions, staging operas with scenery and costumes that were considerably more modest than those produced in the great houses of Venice, Naples, and Vienna. Theaters like this often shared productions with other houses, and scenery, costumes, and singers were carted around to perform a work in many different locations. Generally, the eighteenth-century season was made up of far more "new" operas than it was of revivals of older works, since the idea of an operatic repertory had not yet developed at this time and audiences craved novelty. Only in France were the operas of Jean-Baptiste Lully systematically revived from generation to generation. It was far more normal throughout the rest of Europe for an opera to be written for a season, to be performed several times, and after being repeated a season or two later, to be largely forgotten. This fact of eighteenth-century production continues even now to lure modern performers and opera directors into musical archives in search of the discarded gems of the eighteenth century.

Italian Dominance.

Many of the singers, composers, and librettists who worked in Europe's opera houses first mastered their craft in the two great centers of Italian opera of the time: Venice and Naples. Venice's rise to leadership in the operatic world had begun already in the 1640s, and the city continued to shape operatic tastes well into the eighteenth century. By that time, though, Naples was not far behind as a discriminating center of new productions, and in the course of the eighteenth century it would, in most connoisseurs' minds, surpass Venice for its innovation. Operas written and performed in these Italian cities began to develop standard features. Not content with hearing a simple basso continuo supporting much of the recitatives, audiences began to expect to hear more from the orchestra during the course of an evening. The musical entertainment, in fact, became the center of attention, far more so than the plots of the stories themselves, which might on their own seem far fetched. In both cities people flocked to hear star soloists, and to hear them sing arias written especially to show off their star qualities. Traveling troupes often carried Italian opera, especially those from Venice and Naples, to the rest of Europe. These tours nourished the composition of Italian operas in places far beyond the peninsula in the course of the eighteenth century. At this time many European courts and urban opera houses began hiring Italian composers and librettists to remain in residence and write operas and librettos for them; thus, before long, an "Italian opera" might well be written anywhere in Europe. In planning a production, an impresario looked first, if he could, for his main singers. Then he would seek out a good libretto, perhaps one that had done well in another city—one that was well known elsewhere, and hence was in demand. Many musical scores belonged to the individual composer or impresario who first wrote or produced it and hence could not easily be copied so often a new one would be written on the spot by a local composer, using a pre-existing libretto. One of the most accomplished libretto writers of the eighteenth century was Pietro Metastasio (1698–1782), who worked for more than fifty years in Vienna at the Hapsburg court opera. He tried to construct believable plots that were instructive as well as entertaining, and that conformed to the best principles of good drama. As much in demand as his libretti were, it was nonetheless common practice to edit them as local producers saw fit, adding or dropping arias, cutting a recitative here or adding one there, as seemed appropriate to the local production. The search for new material meant that many composers frequently scrambled to satisfy the demands of the companies for which they worked. Tales abound of composers left to work through the night, beset with demands from singers and impresario alike, finishing the music at the very last minute. Handel, for example, wrote the entire opera Tamerlano in less than three weeks in 1724. According to legend, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart did not complete the overture for his masterpiece Don Giovanni until the night before its first performance. In this overheated world, often governed by commercial demands and a taste for new stories set in lush and sometimes exotic surroundings, many composers frequently reused material from one opera to the next. The greatest stars of the


introduction: In modern times composers have often labored over their operatic productions for years before allowing the public to see a glimpse of their works. This was not the case in the Baroque world, where operas were produced quickly to satisfy an almost insatiable appetite for the art form. The librettist Carlo Goldoni provides us this glimpse on how Antonio Vivaldi worked as he describes an incident in which the great Venetian composer had him re-write the entire text of an aria while he waited.

That year, for the Ascension opera, the composer was the priest Vivaldi. … This most famous violinist, this man famous for his sonatas, especially for those known as the Four Seasons, also composed operas; and although the really knowledgeable people say that he was weak on counterpoint and that he handled his basses badly, he made the parts sound well, and most of the time his operas were successful.

…Vivaldi was very concerned to find a poet who would arrange, or disarrange, the play to his taste, by adapting, more or less, several arias that his pupil had sung on other occasions; since I was the person to whom this task fell, I introduced myself to the composer on the orders of the cavaliere padrone [Grimani]. He received me quite coldly. He took me for a beginner and he was quite right; and not finding me very well up in the business of mutilating plays, one could see that he very much wanted to send me packing.

He [Vivaldi] knew the success my Belisario had had, he knew how successful my intermezzi had been; but the adaptation of a play was something that he regarded as difficult, and which required a special talent, according to him. I then remembered those rules that had driven me mad in Milan when my Amalasunta was read, and I too wanted to leave; but my situation and the fear of making a bad impression on His Excellency Grimani, as well as the hope of being given the direction of the magnificent theatre of S. Giovanni Grisostomo [sic], induced me to feign and almost to ask [him] to try me out. He looked at me with a compassionate smile and took up a little book:

"Here," he said, "is the play that has to be adapted, Apostolo Zeno's Griselda. The work is very fine. The part for the prima donna could not be better. But certain changes are necessary … If Your Lordship knew the rules … Useless. You cannot know them. Here, for example, after this tender scene, there is a cantabile aria. But since Signora Anna does not … does not … like this sort of aria (in other words she was incapable of singing it), one needs here an action aria … that reveals passion, but not pathos, and is not cantabile."

"I understand," I replied. "I will endeavour to satisfy you. Give me the libretto."

"But I need it for myself," replied Vivaldi. "When will you return it?"

"Immediately," I replied. "Give me a sheet of paper and a pen."

"What! Your Lordship imagines that an opera aria is like an intermezzo aria!"

source: Carlo Goldoni, Commedie, Vol. 13, (1761), in Alan Kendall, Vivaldi. (London: Chappell, 1978): 77–79.

opera world were itinerant, moving about the continent from place to place to make the most of the financial possibilities their skills offered. Singers were also expected to embellish the lines of a composer's arias in order to show off their technique and musical personality. Thus an older aria, or its melodies, might have a very different effect when reused in a new production and sung by a different singer.

Rising Technical Demands.

During the eighteenth century schools that specialized in training operatic singers appeared in Venice, Naples, and other Italian cities. Specialized training over many years was becoming increasingly necessary to support the technical demands that composers now made on singers; singers seem happily to have risen to these challenges in order to win adulation from their audiences. In Italy, a major preoccupation of technical training often involved the teaching of the methods that later became known as bel canto, or "beautiful singing." In the years since the eighteenth century considerable dispute has raged among singers and music historians about the precise techniques that Italian singing teachers used in the eighteenth century. The evidence suggests that they spent a great deal of time perfecting a singer's legato—the ability to sing a passage in a perfectly smooth manner. Attention was also directed at the initial stages of instruction to the singer's ability to produce the messa di voce—a sustained tone that began softly and then built to a crescendo before diminishing once again. This exercise built incredible strength and self-control. In subsequent stages greater attention was concentrated on the upper registers, and the voice was expected to be kept light and agile so that it could perform brilliantly in coloratura passages—in the many florid embellishments of trills, roulades, cadences, and other vocal embellishments by which singers showed off their abilities on the opera stage. This training and its techniques were well suited to the opera houses of the period, which were generally small and intimate. Even the largest European houses, for instance, rarely accommodated more than about 800–900 patrons. Projecting the singing voice in these small spaces was not as much of a problem to eighteenth-century singers as it would become later. By the mid-nineteenth century, as opera houses were quickly doubling or tripling in size and orchestras were swelling to include an hitherto undreamed of number of instruments, new kinds of techniques became popular to ensure that a singer's voice carried throughout the hall.

Brilliant Careers.

Both men and women were expected to master the cornerstones of Italian singing methods, and the commentators of the period frequently reserved their most exuberant praise for male sopranos, that is, the castrati that were fixtures of the Italian opera world of the time. Of these figures, no one ever surpassed, by virtue of technique or achievements, the great Neapolitan male soprano Carlo Broschi (1705–1782), who was widely known as Farinelli. Accounts of Farinelli's art suggest the great technical prowess that Italian eighteenth-century methods ensured. The German composer Johann Joachim Quantz (1697–1773), who had personally heard him, left one of the best accounts of his technique. Quantz stressed that Farinelli's voice was perfectly modulated, able to execute the most technically difficult passages, and highly agile throughout the entire range of his voice. In the early stages of his career, Quantz observed, the singer's range extended already from the A below middle-C to the D above high-C. Later, Farinelli acquired even lower tones, but was able to continue to reach the high notes with complete surety. Because of his enormous range, composers typically provided him with different kinds of arias in the operas in which he starred. One was almost always written in the range of a contralto, while several others showed off his abilities in the higher registers of a coloratura soprano. Farinelli, and other castrati singers like him, became Europeanwide sensations. In the years following his Neapolitan debut, the singer toured Italy extensively before conquering the continent and then eventually making his London debut in 1734 in the company of George Frideric Handel's chief rival, Nicola Porpora (1686–1786), Farinelli's former teacher. Although Handel had negotiated with the artist, he had, much to his chagrin, been unsuccessful in securing Farinelli's services, and in the three-year period in which Farinelli sang for Porpora, the singer helped to establish the company of Handel's rival as a major competitor on the London scene. In 1737, the English capital's love affair with the male soprano came to an abrupt end. Farinelli broke his contract and fled to Spain, where he accepted a position as a singer in the royal household. Having heard of his amazing vocal qualities, the Spanish queen sought the singer's services as a way of treating the severe depression of her husband, King Philip V. As a condition of his contract at the Spanish court, Farinelli had to sing a number of arias to the king each night before he went to bed, a duty the castrato executed faithfully for the nine years before Philip's death in 1746. For these and other services to the crown, Farinelli was knighted, and when he retired from Spain to his hometown of Bologna in 1759, he continued to live a comfortable existence for the rest of his life. In these years he received visits and letters from Europe's greatest composers and political figures, including Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Christoph Willibald von Gluck, and the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph.


introduction: Like many other eighteenth-century Englishmen, Samuel Sharp took the Grand Tour, a long circuit through Europe's major cultural capitals that usually culminated in Italy. His tour occurred in 1765 and 1766, and when he returned to England he published the letters he had sent home along the way. This excerpt from one of them describes the various opera houses at Naples and their performances.

Naples, Nov. 1765


A stranger, upon his arrival in so large and celebrated a city as Naples, generally makes the publick spectacles his first pursuit. These consist of the King's Theatre, where the serious Opera is performed, and of two smaller theatres, called Teatro Nuovo, and the Teatro dei Fiorentini, where they exhibit burlettas [i.e. comic operas] only. There is also a little dirty kind of a play-house, where they perform a comedy every night, though the Drama has so little encouragement at Naples, that their comedies are seldom frequented by any of the gentry.

The King's Theatre, upon the first view, is, perhaps, almost as remarkable an object as any a man sees in his travels: I not only speak from my own feeling, but the declaration of every foreigner here. The amazing extent of the stage, with the prodigious circumference of the boxes, and height of the ceiling, produce a marvellous effect on the mind, for a few moments; but the instant the Opera opens, a spectator laments this striking sight. He immediately perceives this structure does not gratify the ear, how much soever it may the eye. The voices are drowned in this immensity of space, and even the orchestra itself, though a numerous band, lies under a disadvantage: It is true, some of the first singers may be heard, yet, upon the whole, it must be admitted, that the house is better contrived to see, than to hear an Opera.

There are some who contend, that the singers might be very well heard if the audience was more silent; but it is so much the fashion at Naples, and, indeed, through all Italy, to consider the Opera as a place of rendezvous and visiting that they do not seem in the least to attend to the musick, but laugh and talk through the whole performance, without any restraint; and, it may be imagined, that an assembly of so many hundreds conversing together so loudly, must entirely cover the voices of the singers.

Notwithstanding the amazing noisiness of the audience, during the whole performance of the Opera, the moment the dances begin, there is a universal silence, which continues so long as the dances continue. Witty people, therefore, never fail to tell me, the Neapolitans go to see, not to hear, an Opera. A stranger, who has a little compassion in his breast, feels for the poor singers, who are treated with so much indifference and contempt: He almost wonders that they can submit to so gross an affront; and I find, by their own confession, that however accustomed they be to it, the mortification is always dreadful, and they are eager to declare how happy they are when they sing in a country where more attention is paid to their talents.

The Neapolitan quality rarely dine or sup with one another, and many of them hardly ever visit, but at the Opera; on this account they seldom absent themselves, though the Opera be played three nights successively, and it be the same Opera, without any change, during ten or twelve weeks. It is customary for Gentlemen to run about from box to box, betwixt the acts, and even in the midst of the performance; but the Ladies, after they are seated, never quit their box the whole evening. It is the fashion to make appointments for such and such nights. A Lady receives visitors in her box one night, and they remain with her the whole Opera; another night she returns the visit in the same manner. In the intervals of the acts, principally betwixt the first and second, the proprietor of the box regales her company with iced fruits and sweet meats.

Besides the indulgence of a loud conversation, they sometimes form themselves into card parties; but, I believe, this custom does not prevail so much at present as it did formerly, for I have never seen more than two or three boxes so occupied in the same night.

source: Samuel Sharp, Letters from Italy. 3rd ed. (London, 1767): 77–79, 82–84, 92–93, in Music in the Western World: A History in Documents. Eds. Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin (New York: Schirmer, 1984): 231–234.

Fierce Competition.

In a world in which technical brilliance was prized over the opera's ability to dramatize, changes were sure to occur in the character of the opera. By the eighteenth century operas were filling up with arias, and singers were known to fight in rehearsals about who among them had the best ones. The best singers were able to demand that composers and librettists re-write works to improve their parts. As these singers traveled around Europe, they often brought with them "suitcase arias," works that they had performed in other productions and which had often been written personally for them by a composer to show off their special talents. The most powerful singers were able to bargain to have these arias inserted into a production in a new city, a practice that conflicted greatly with a composer's vision of how his work should unfold since arias that often had little to do with the dramatic needs of one production came to be interpolated into a work with very different intentions. In the late eighteenth century Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart satirized these operatic conventions and poked fun at the back-biting, competition, and intrigue that existed in the backstage world of the opera, a world that he knew only too well. At one hilarious point in his one-act opera, Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario) two of the theater's female singers engage in an hysterical dispute over which of them is the theater's "prima donna" or "first singer." Mozart's brilliant satire summed up his impatience with opera's star system and its egos, but the historical evidence of the time suggests that the situation that he mocked was only too real. At the same time, the world of fierce competition that undeniably existed in the theaters of eighteenth-century Europe provided one source of entertainment for the committed opera fan. Following the personalities of the operatic stage was, then, even as it is now, a preoccupation of those who loved the art form.

Aria Da Capo and Opera Seria.

By the mid-eighteenth century the aria had increasingly become a vehicle for singers anxious to demonstrate their skills. In many cases, particularly in the serious operas that experts began in the later eighteenth century to term opera seria, these arias were written in the da capo format, that is, with an organizational scheme of "ABA." At the opening of the aria, in other words, a performer sang a theme (the A section). This theme was usually repeated before the singer presented a second theme (the B section) and then returned to repeat the first section, usually twice, before a final cadence or series of cadenzas drew the work to a conclusion. The phrase "da capo," meaning "from the head" or "from the top," referred to the recapitulation or repeating of the theme that occurred at the aria's conclusion. There were other types of organizational schemes used in the arias of the day. Some arias, notably the cavata or its shorter variation, the cavatina, were written in the form "AB," rather than "ABA," meaning that they lacked a final recapitulation. But the rise of the da capo form to popularity and obligatory use in opera seria or "serious opera" had become one of the conventions of the genre by the mid-eighteenth century. The opera seria was, in fact, a form that had experienced a long gestation. Its origins lay in the realities of the operatic world of Venice and other Italian cities at the end of the seventeenth century. Displeased with the crowd-pleasing spectacles that had become common in Venice's houses, the patrician Grimani family had founded the Teatro S. Giovanni Grisostomo in 1677 to cater to an elite clientele that craved works with high standards of production and literary and dramatic values. Within a few years, the writings of the members of the Arcadian Academy at Rome insisted that Italian opera needed to be rescued from the spectacle and comic burlesque into which much of the genre had fallen. Like Jean-Baptiste Lully and other French composers of the day, these Italian figures were concerned that opera be preserved as a tragic dramatic genre that would treat themes drawn from ancient myths, tales about heroes, and pastoral subjects. Many of the ideas of the Arcadian reforms were put into practice at the Grimanis' Teatro S. Giovanni Grisostomo before they spread elsewhere in the operatic world. By 1720, the opera seria was firmly ensconced as a genre in many Italian opera houses. Soon it spread throughout Europe, where by virtue of its elevated themes, it became particularly popular in the great court theaters. Here stories about ancient heroes or gods could be either subtly or overtly modulated to praise the enlightened but despotic princes of the age. In the libretti for these dramas, cultivated poets like Pietro Metastasio frequently concentrated on the internal emotional turmoil of the central characters. Arias written in the da capo format provided one readily adaptable way to dramatize the torment that a work's hero or heroine experienced, with the middle B section providing a dramatic contrast to the enveloping A theme. Still, producing an opera seria, a form that was composed of numerous arias, required considerable skill on the part of a composer. It was common in the course of an evening of opera seria for performers to move through 25 arias on the path to the work's resolution or tragic ending. And so composers developed many variations on the form and relied upon it in tandem with other types of arias. At the same time the da capo form of aria was also favored by singers, many of whom dramatically embellished the A theme's recapitulation, and who relied on these works' concluding cadenzas to display their vocal firepower.

Opera Buffa.

The most serious operas had serious subjects, mainly stories from myth and history. Yet by the eighteenth century, the opera-going public was broad enough that many audiences preferred light entertainment to enlightening and uplifting tales. Thus while librettists such as Metastasio succeeded in making "opera seria" a genuinely grand and serious matter, others helped fill a niche for lighter fare. If serious opera had its literary champion in the great poet Metastasio, the Italian comic dramatist Carlo Goldoni (1707–1793) proved to be a shaping force in the history of lighter operas throughout Europe. Goldoni wrote both for the spoken stage and the opera house, producing eighty libretti for light operas that were widely set to music in the eighteenth century. Feeling that Italian comedy had fallen into decline through the stock improvisations of contemporary commedia dell'arte performers, Goldoni labored to rescue the genre. But if opera seria largely served as a commentary on the internal world of personal emotions, the libretti that Goldoni crafted for comic operas commented on problems that were inherently social in nature. His plots were classic comedies of manners that included generous helpings of cases of mistaken identity, mismatched lovers, and rival suitors, all with an edge of moral purpose in that they parodied the social conventions of the age. If Goldoni made a major impact on the genre of opera buffa's lyricism, it was Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710–1736) who helped to shape much of this eighteenth-century genre's musical conventions. This short-lived composer wrote two works that have long been accepted as among the first comic operas, Lo frate 'nnamorato (The Brother in Love), first produced at Naples in 1732; and La Serva padrona (The Maid as Mistress), staged one year later in the same city. Both works became tremendously successful, although the second enjoyed a particularly long life and was widely imitated throughout Europe. In truth, La Serva padrona was not an opera at all, but a light entertainment or intermezzo that had been commissioned to be staged during the intermission of one of the composer's opera seria. In the years following Pergolesi's death, both the libretto and music for La Serva padrona were performed in more than sixty opera houses throughout Europe. In Paris in the years after 1752, the work's staging by a troupe of Italian buffo performers—that is, comic singers or "buffoons"—excited controversy, producing ranks of admirers and detractors that commented upon its light farce in newspapers and short tracts. Thereafter, its French champions began to use the work's musical and poetic conventions to fashion shorter kinds of opéras comique (comic operas). Elsewhere in Europe, Pergolesi's light confection inspired the works that became known as opera buffa. The form proved to be beloved and particularly long-lived, as nineteenth-century composers like Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848) and Giochino Rossini (1792–1868) continued to satisfy audience's cravings for this light fare well into the nineteenth century.


David R. B. Kimbell, Italian Opera (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

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

Ellen Rosand, Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice: The Creation of a Genre (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1991).

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