The Baroque Opera Characteristics, Composers, History

The baroque opera and the practice of musical performing, both have similar numerous and unpredictable ways to succeed. During the 20th century, the most outstanding phenomena in this area has probably been the rediscovering of the called “baroque”, as well as the way to perform the works corresponding to this style, trying to connect again (as closely as possible) with the time of the practices from which they were created. The rediscovering of the old instruments and the way of performing the own participation adjust itself to the discovering of the vocal pieces and of the phase that they constitute, which is not a despicable part of this directory.

What’s the opera?

Opera is an art form in which singers and musicians perform a dramatic work uniting text (called a libretto) and musical score, typically in a dramaturgical scenery.  Opera integrates many of the elements of vocalized theatre, such as acting, background, and outfits and sometimes includes dance. The presentation is normally given in an opera house, escorted by an orchestra or smaller musical group.

History of the baroque opera

The Italian word opera signifies “work”, both in the sense of the labor done and the result created. The Italian word stems from the Latin opera, a singular noun meaning “work” and also the plural of the noun opus. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the Italian word was first used in the sense “composition in which poetry, dance, and baroque music are combined” in 1639; the first recorded English usage in this sense dates to 1648.

characteristics of baroque opera

Opera performance in a baroque theater

Dafne by Jacopo Peri was the first composition considered opera, as comprehended nowadays. It was carved around 1597, principally under the muse of an exclusive circle of well-educated Florentine humanists who assembled as the “Camerata de’ Bardi”. Pointedly, Dafne was an effort to resuscitate the classical Greek drama, part of the broader renewal of antique typical of the Renaissance. The members of the Camerata thought that the “chorus” parts of Greek dramas were formerly sung, and perhaps even the complete text of all parts; opera was therefore considered as a way of “reestablishing” this situationDafne goes unluckily missing.

A later work by Peri, Euridice, dating from 1600, is the first opera score to have endured to the present day. The distinction of being the first opera still to be commonly performed, however, goes to Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, composed for the court of Mantua in 1607.  The Mantua court of the Gonzagas, employers of Monteverdi, played a substantial role in the origin of opera engaging not only court singers of the concerto delle donne (till 1598), but also one of the first actual “opera singers”; Madama Europa.

Opera did not remain narrowed to court audiences for too long. In 1637, the idea of a “season” (Carnival) of openly go-to operas reinforced by ticket sales arisen in Venice. Monteverdi had relocated to the city from Mantua and composed his last operas, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria and L’incoronazione di Poppea, for the Venetian theatre in the 1640s. His greatest main follower, Francesco Cavalli, aided to extent opera all over Italy. In these initial Baroque operas, wide-ranging comedy was mixed with tragic features in a combination that shook some educated sensibilities, flashing the first of opera’s many reform movements, supported by the Arcadian Academy, which came to be linked with the poet Metastasio, whose libretti aided to develop the genre of opera seria, which became the principal form of Italian opera until the end of the 18th century. Once the Metastasian ideal had been resolutely proven, comedy in Baroque-era opera was reserved for what came to be called opera buffa.

Before such elements were forced out of opera seria, many libretti had featured a separately unfolding comic plot as sort of an “opera-within-an-opera.” One reason for this was a try to charm fellows of the rising business class, recently prosperous, but still not as well-educated as the aristocracy, to the public opera houses. These detached plots were almost nearly resuscitated in an individually emerging practice that partly derived from the commedia dell’arte, a long-flourishing improvisatory stage tradition of Italy. Just as intermedi had once been performed in-between the acts of stage plays, operas in the new comic genre of “intermezzi”, which developed largely in Naples in the 1710s and ’20s, were initially staged during the intermissions of opera seria. They became so popular, however, that they were soon being offered as separate productions.

Opera seria was raised in tone and very stylized in form, typically involving secco narrative sprinkled with extensive da capo arias. These afforded high chance for virtuosic singing and during the golden age of opera seria the singer really became the star. The role of the hero was usually written for the castrato voice; castrato such as Farinelli and Senesino, as well as female sopranos such asFaustina Bordoni, developed in abundant request all over Europe as opera seria governed the stage in every country except France. Italian opera set the Baroque standard. Italian libretti were the model, even when a German composer like George Frederic Handel found himself composing the likes of Rinaldo and Giulio Cesare for London audiences. Italian libretti continued leading in the classical period as well, for example in the operas of Mozart, who wrote in Vienna near the century’s close. Leading Italian-born composers of opera seria include Alessandro Scarlatti, Vivaldi and Porpora.

what is the origin of opera

Alessandro Scarlatti

Opera seria had its weaknesses and critics. The taste for aggrandizement on behalf of the excellently qualified singers, and the use of scene as a spare for dramatic cleanliness and union drew attacks. Francesco Algarotti’s Essay on the Opera (1755) proved to be a muse for Christoph Willibald Gluck’s reforms. He promoted that opera seria had to return to basics and that all the various elements—music (both instrumental and vocal), ballet, and staging—must be obedient to the overruling drama. In 1765 Melchior Grimm published “Poème lyrique”, an important article for the Encyclopédie on lyric and opera librettos.

Numerous composers of the period, counting Niccolò Jommelli and Tommaso Traetta, tried to put these ideals into exercise. The first to succeed though, was Gluck. Gluck struggled to accomplish a “beautiful simplicity”. This is obvious in his first reform opera, Orfeo ed Euridice, where his non-virtuosic vocal melodies are reinforced by simple harmonies and a richer orchestra attendance through.

Gluck’s reforms have had resonance throughout operatic history. Weber, Mozart and Wagner, in particular, were influenced by his ideals. Mozart is, in many ways Gluck’s successor, as he combined a terrific sense of drama, harmony, melody, and counterpoint to write a series of comedies, notablyCosì fan tutteThe Marriage of Figaro, and Don Giovanni which continue in the middle of the most-loved, popular and famous operas today. But Mozart’s influence to the opera seria was more varied; by his time it was dying away, and in spite of such fine works as Idomeneo and La clemenza di Tito, he would not prosper in bringing the baroque art form back to life again.

In rivalry with introduced Italian opera creations, a separate French tradition was originated by the Italian Jean-Baptiste Lully at the court of King Louis XIV. Despite his foreign origin, Lully recognized an Academy of Music and dominated French opera from 1672. Starting with Cadmus et Hermione, Lully and his librettist Quinault made tragédie en musique, a form in which dance music and choral writing were predominantly noticeable. Lully’s operas also show a worry for animated narrative which harmonized the contours of the French language. In the 18th century, Lully’s most important inheritor was Jean-Philippe Rameau, who composed five tragédies en musique as well as numerous works in other genres such as opéra-ballet, all notable for their rich orchestration and harmonic daring. Despite the popularity of Italian opera seria through much of Europe during the Baroque period, Italian opera never gained much of a position in France, where its own national operatic tradition was more popular in its place.

After Rameau’s death, the German Gluck was convinced to create six operas for the Parisian stage in the 1770s. They show the effect of Rameau, but shortened and with bigger focus on the drama. At the same time, by the middle of the 18th century another genre was achieving popularity in France: opéra comique. This was the equal of the German singspiel, where arias zigzagged with spoken dialogue. Notable examples in this style were produced by Monsigny, Philidor and, above all, Grétry. During the Revolutionary period, composers such as Méhul and Cherubini, who were followers of Gluck, brought a new rank to the genre, which had never been wholly “comic” in any case. Another wonder of this period was the ‘propaganda opera’ celebrating revolutionary successes, like Gossec’s Le triomphe de la République (1793).

By the 1820s, Gluckian impact in France had given way to a taste for Italian bel canto, specifically after the entrance of Rossini in Paris. Rossini’s Guillaume Tell helped found the original genre of Grand Opera, a form whose most famous promoter was another stranger, Giacomo Meyerbeer. Meyerbeer’s works, such as Les Huguenots accentuated his virtuous singing and amazing stage effects. Brighter opéra comique also enjoyed great success in the hands of Boïeldieu, Auber, Hérold and Adolphe Adam. In this environment, the operas of the French-born composer Hector Berlioz struggled to gain a hearing. Berlioz’s grand masterpiece Les Troyens, the conclusion of the Gluckian tradition, was not given a full performance for almost a hundred years.

In the second half of the 19th century, Jacques Offenbach shaped an operetta with amusing and pessimistic works such as Orphée aux enfers, as well as the opera Les Contes d’Hoffmann; Charles Gounod recorded a huge success with Faust; and Bizet composed Carmen, which, once audiences learned to accept its mixture of Romanticism and realism, became the most popular of all opéra comiques. Jules Massenet, Camille Saint-Saënsand Léo Delibes all collected works which are still part of the standard repertory, examples being Massenet’s Manon, Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila and Delibes’ Lakmé.  At the same time, the influence of Richard Wagner was felt as a trial to the French tradition. Many French critics furiously forbidden Wagner’s music dramas while many French composers closely copied them with variable success. Perhaps the most thought-provoking reply came from Claude Debussy. As in Wagner’s works, the orchestra plays a leading role in Debussy’s unique opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1902) and there are no real arias, only oratorio. But the drama is discreet, mysterious and completely unWagnerian.

Other notable 20th century names contain Ravel, Dukas, Roussel and Milhaud. Francis Poulenc is one of the very few post-war composers of any nationality whose operas (which include Dialogues des Carmélites) have gained a position in the international repertory. Olivier Messiaen’s long holy drama Saint François d’Assise (1983) has also appealed extensive attention.

In England, opera’s precursor was the 17th century jig. This was an afterpiece which came at the end of a play. It was regularly unfounded and outrageous and consisted in the main of dialogue set to music settled from popular tunes. In this respect, jigs forestall the ballad operas of the 18th century. At the same time, the French play was achieving a firm hold at the English Court, with even more extravagant magnificence and vastly lifelike scenery than had been seen before. Inigo Jones became the archetypal designer of these productions, and this style was to control the English stage for three centuries. These masques contained songs and dances. In Ben Jonson’s Lovers Made Men (1617), “the whole masque was sung after the Italian manner, stilo recitativo”.

what is the main reason opera was so appealing to baroque audiences?

George Frederic Handel

The tactic of the English Commonwealth closed theatres and paused any growths that may have directed to the establishment of English opera. However, in 1656, the dramatist Sir William Davenant formed The Siege of Rhodes. Since his theatre was not approved to produce drama, he asked numerous of the leading composers (Lawes, Cooke, Locke, Coleman and Hudson) to set sections of it to music. This success was followed by The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru (1658) and The History of Sir Francis Drake (1659). These pieces were fortified by Oliver Cromwell because they were critical of Spain. With the English Restoration, external (especially French) musicians were received back. In 1673, Thomas Shadwell’s Psyche, decorated on the 1671 ‘comédie-ballet’ of the same name produced by Molière andJean-Baptiste Lully. William Davenant produced The Tempest in the same year, which was the first musical adaption of a Shakespeare play (composed by Locke and Johnson).   About 1683, John Blow composed Venus and Adonis, often thought of as the first true English-language opera.

How the Baroque opera was rediscovered


After the period of “baroque”, came the periods of “classics” and “romantic” that, with few exceptions, cared little for the music written before. The auditors of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries demanding new fact, and the idea of ​​”directory” applies only to the works of a very limited time, which barely goes beyond Gluck or the years 1760-1770.

At the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, some German and French musicians interested in the opera of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and offer reconstructions. In Paris, it is above all in the context of the Schola Cantorum that the influential composers of Vincent d’Indy, Camille Saint-Saëns and Paul Dukas will try to reconstruct L’Orfeo de Monteverdi or Dárdano Rameau. In Germany, at the beginning of the twentieth century, which brings back the day Handel’s operas. But most of the interpretation of this ancient musical codes was lost.

After the war, little by little to be rediscovered very lyrical works of Handel and Rameau, whose rare shows are put to the figure of curiosity. Thus, the Paris Opera exhume Les Indes Galantesde Rameau, its then director Maurice Lehmann who received the playful and festive character of this work requires many costumes and spectacular landscapes.

The new generations of post-war

It will take the energy and conviction of a new generation in the post-war to turn these specific tests real rediscovery, the constant desire to reconnect with the practice of the execution of the times, commit to greater authenticity.

At the end of the 50s, the German cellist Nikolaus Harnoncourt founded in Vienna an orchestra of period instruments, the Concentus Musicus, with which he participated in the rediscovery of Bach, especially. Accompanied by the harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt, both participate in the complete recording of the Cantatas de Leipzig Cantor. If Leonhardt remain all his life a man of religious forms, of chamber and concerts, Harnoncourt will return regularly to the opera. In the 70s, a cycle of Monteverdi was directed to the Zurich Opera that time.

opera characteristics

Opéra Baroque

In England, John Eliot Gardiner for his part, the chef explores the works of Henry Purcell and Handel, but also specializes in the French Baroque opera that is amateur. He also debuted in France in 1983 for directing the world premiere of Boréades’ last opera Rameau that was deprogrammed after the composer’s death and has never created since. He returned at the Festival de Aix-en-Provence to direct another masterpiece by Rameau: Hipólito and Aricia.

But the most important date in the rediscovery of the French baroque repertoire is still that of 1988, when the original Texan French chef William Christie performs performances by Atys de Lully in a staging by Jean-Marie Villégier. This series, which you will see several times until a “reconstruction” in 2012, marks the beginning of the rediscovery of Lully’s opera. This is clear proof that the “exhumation” of past work can be an exciting theatrical adventure.

This has been the history of baroque opera initiating with Dafne by Jacopo, in these glorious elders of success there is a new generation of musicians, whose leaders are Christophe Rousset, René Jacobs, Marc Minkowski, Fabio Biondi, Emmanuelle Haïm and others. They always go further in the exploration of the baroque repertoire, while diversifying the approaches, which shows that even in terms of “interpretations of time,” the interpretive gesture remains every time, the baroque opera has been and will continue to be a very beautiful musical performance that has many followers around the planet.