Roman revivals and intermezzi: 16th century AD
In the spirit of the Renaissance, Roman plays are performed on festive occasions at the courts of Italian princes. Perhaps they prove a little heavy going for some of the guests. It becomes the custom to have rather more lavish musical entertainments (intermezzi, or intermediate pieces) between the acts, with spectacular stage effects, beautiful costumes and much singing and dancing.
Isabella d’Este, in the audience for a performance of Plautus in Ferrara in 1502, much prefers the intermezzi in which satyrs chase wild beasts in time to a musical clock, Swiss soldiers engage in a dance of war, and a golden ball melts away to reveal four Virtues who sing a quartet.
The first intermezzi to be preserved in detail for posterity (because they are the first to be published as etchings) are performed to celebrate a wedding at the Medici court in Florence in 1589.
The scenes are now close to those which will become familiar to opera audiences over the next two centuries – they include a heaven made up of clouds (in which the characters can sit and sing), a delightful garden, a rocky cave guarded by a dragon, and a sea scene with mermaids, dolphins and a ship. This combination of music and spectacle is now so popular with courtly audiences that it leads to a new development in Florence in 1597.
Dafne: AD 1597
An unusual entertainment takes place at the palace of Jacopo Corsi in Florence, probably as part of the carnival festivities before Lent in 1597. The novelty is that the singers enact an entire drama, with music throughout, telling the story of Daphne who is changed into a laurel to escape the attentions of Apollo. The select audience is delighted. The author of the words, Ottavio Rinuccini, says that this first opera ‘gave pleasure beyond belief to the few who heard it’.
Most of the music of Dafne is lost but its composer, Jacopo Peri, describes eloquently the style of musical speech which he is pioneering – ‘a harmony surpassing that of ordinary speech, but falling so far below the melody of song as to take an intermediate form’.
Monteverdi: AD 1607-1642
The director of music at the court of Mantua, Claudio Monteverdi, presents a festivity before Lent in 1607. His entertainment adopts the latest musical style, that of opera, which is just ten years old this year. La Favola d’Orfeo, described as a ‘fable in music’, tells in a prologue and five acts the story of Orpheus’ love for Eurydice and his descent to the underworld to rescue her.
Orfeo is Monteverdi’s first attempt at opera. The part of Orpheus is sung by a castrato, starting an operatic tradition using castrati which will last for two centuries. A successful blend of recitative, songs and instrumental sequences makes Orfeo the earliest opera to hold a place, nearly four centuries later, in the repertory.
When the duke of Mantua dies, in 1612, Monteverdi accepts the post of Master of Music for the Venetian republic. His main task becomes the composition of sacred music for performance in St Mark’s, and it is these pieces which first spread his fame through Europe.
Fortunately for us the prosperous citizens of republican Venice see no reason why the new musical form of the day, opera, should be restricted to private performances for the aristocracy. In 1637 Venice opens the first public opera house, the Teatro San Cassiano. Monteverdi is now seventy, but his interest in the form is rekindled. Two operas survive from these last years, both of them masterpieces.
Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (The return of Ulysses to his country) is premiered in the Teatro San Cassiano in 1641. By then another public opera house on a grander scale, the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo, has opened in the city. Here Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea) is presented in 1642.
Monteverdi has a special ability to express emotion and drama in vocal music, even in an operatic convention which now seems formal. Contemporary accounts mention people weeping at his arias, and the Venetian public are the first to demonstrate the broad popular appeal of opera. At one point in the 17th century there are as many as seven opera houses in the city.
Dido and Aeneas: AD 1689
In 1689, probably in December, there is a surprising operatic premiere in London. A group of ‘young gentlewomen’, for whom the dancing master Josias Priest runs a boarding school in Chelsea, have been rehearsing a work commissioned by Priest from Henry Purcell.
This short work, of remarkable intensity, is Purcell’s only opera; and it is the only English opera written before the 20th century to have a secure place in the modern repertory. The young gentlewomen have professional support in the main parts (including the tenor role of Aeneas), but they display their skills to advantage in the opera’s seventeen dances, arranged for the occasion by Mr Priest.
It is Purcell’s misfortune that there is as yet no opera house in London. In spite of its strange origins Dido and Aeneas is a profound and powerfully felt work, most famously so in Dido’s great lament upon the departure of Aeneas. The opera’s success makes Purcell much in demand in the theatre (his main employment is as organist in Westminster Abbey and the Chapel Royal), but the role of a theatre composer at the time is mainly to add songs to existing plays and masques.
Even so, Purcell fulfils this task with such skill that King Arthur (1691, with a text by Dryden) and The Fairy Queen (1692, based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream) are still sometimes performed.
Handel: AD 1705-1759
Germany’s first public opera house, in Hamburg, has recently employed a young musician, Georg Frideric Handel. Now, in 1705 when he is just twenty, his first opera is on the stage. Almira is a success. In the following year Handel travels to the home of opera, Italy.
Here too he rapidly makes a name for himself, with sacred music in Rome (where the pope forbids the performance of opera) and with operas in Florence and Venice. His fame is now spreading through Europe. In 1710 he is appointed music director, or Kapellmeister, to the Elector of Hanover, the future George I of Great Britain. In 1711 he is given permission to visit London.
Handel’s first opera in London (Rinaldo 1711) is a triumph (though Mocked by some), and he has a warm reception at the English court. He settles in Britain, producing a long succession of Italian operas for the London theatres and many pieces for royal occasions. These public commissions include the anthems for the coronation of George II in 1727 (among them Zadok the Priest, which has been sung at every coronation since); and, on a lighter level, the Water Music is played for George I in about 1717 and the Music for the Royal Fireworks for George II in 1749.
By this time Handel has become a British subject (in 1726) and has pioneered a very British form of music – the English oratorio.
Gluck and the reform of opera: AD 1762-1778
By the mid-18th century the conventions of Italian opera have settled into a pattern of stultifying unreality, with elaborately artificial plots regularly grinding to a halt to allow the famous castrato singers of the day to show their paces – or indeed to show them twice, for no aria ends until it has been repeated da capo (from the top). An Italian poet, Pietro Metastasio, has cornered the market for librettos in this style (known as opera seria). Every hack composer turns first to him. Some of Metastasio’s texts are given forty or more different operatic settings.
Metastasio lives from 1730 in Vienna, where there is a great demand for Italian opera in the court theatre. But it is in Vienna, in 1762, that an opera revolution occurs.
The director of music at the court theatre is a German composer, Christoph Willibald Gluck. In partnership with Ranieri de’ Calzabigi, a librettist critical of Metastio’s conventions, Gluck devises a form of opera in which words and music work together to convey in the most direct form a musical drama.
The first fruit of their reform is Orfeo ed Eurydice, performed in Vienna in 1762. The piece is described in the programme as an azione teatrale per musica (theatrical action through music). Gluck later writes that opera should aim for ‘simplicity, truth and naturalness’ and should ‘serve poetry by expressing the drama of the plot, without unnecessary interruption or superfluous ornament’.
Orfeo admirably fulfils these ideals. The story is simply and dramatically told, with arias which express the character’s emotion rather than merely show off the singer’s technique. The contributions of both chorus and ballet are fully integrated with the plot.
Gluck develops this new direction with another Italian opera for Vienna (Alceste 1767) and with operas written in French for Paris (Iphigénie en Aulide 1774, Armide 1777, Iphigénie en Tauride 1778). In these two decades Gluck has vividly reminded opera-goers of the potential of the medium as music drama, a lesson never again forgotten. Mozart is twenty-two when Iphigénie en Tauride is premiered. Three years later he writes Idomeneo.
Mozart and opera: AD 1781-1791
Mozart’s first major opera, Idomeneo, is the result of his efforts to win employment from the court in Munich. In 1780 he is commissioned to write an opera seria – the conventional and solemn form of Italian opera, following strict rules perfected in the librettos of Metastasio. Idomeneo is premiered in Munich in January 1781.
In this work Mozart’s genius adds an unprecedented charge of emotion and drama to the conventions of opera seria. The opera is well received in Munich. But then it is forgotten for the rest of Mozart’s lifetime, remaining unappreciated until the 20th century. So the real beginning of Mozart’s busy operatic career follows his move later in 1781 to Vienna, where he wins a commission from Joseph II.
Joseph II’s wish for a cheerful opera in German is admirably met by Mozart in Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio), which has its premiere in Vienna in July 1782. It rapidly becomes popular in Prague and in cities throughout Germany.
Mozart’s next venture is very much more ambitious. In the mid-1780s Joseph II gives up his insistence on the German language for opera. Mozart now collaborates with an Italian librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, in adapting the most controversial play of the decade – Beaumarchais’ Marriage of Figaro, subversive in its comedy at the expense of the aristocracy and sensationally successful when performed in Paris in 1784.
Joseph II has forbidden any performance of this Beaumarchais play in Vienna, but Da Ponte persuades him to allow the proposed opera to proceed. There is a slightly mixed reaction from the first audience in May 1786, perhaps due to lack of rehearsal, but a production later in the same year in Prague proves a runaway success.
When Mozart goes to Prague in January 1787, he is delighted to find everyone humming the tunes of Le Nozze di Figaro. The Czechs have no doubt that this is a masterpiece. It is indeed something new in opera, combining comedy and passion in a heightened intensity, through the genius of Mozart’s music, while yet remaining in close touch with recognizable everyday reality.
Following this success, the Prague company commissions another opera from Mozart and Da Ponte. They respond with Don Giovanni, which opens to huge acclaim in October 1787 but is less successful in Vienna in the following year.
A third opera is commissioned in Vienna in 1789 from this eminently successful pair of composer and librettist. The result is Così fan tutte (So Do All Women), the most cynical and unromantic of stories which unfolds upon a stream of supremely beautiful and romantic music. The first run of performances, early in 1790, has to be interrupted because of the death of Joseph II.
Joseph II would no doubt have approved of the very German opera, Mozart’s last work for the stage, which opens in Vienna in 1791. Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) is a tale of strange rituals and rough comedy, commissioned by a commercial impresario, Emanuel Shikaneder, for his popular theatre, akin to a music hall. This anarchic and unconventional entertainment is as far as it is possible to be, within the field of opera, from Idomeneo just ten years earlier. Yet in both, as in the intervening masterpieces with Da Ponte, Mozart is supremely inventive. No other great composer of opera has so varied an output.
The Magic Flute makes Shikaneder rich but not Mozart. It opens less than three months before his death.