Talk Like An Opera Geek: Popping Opera's Bloated Bubble
Talk Like An Opera Geek attempts to decode the intriguing and intimidating lexicon of the opera house.
As we noted last week, opera in the age of Handel and Vivaldi was an odd concoction of sober stories and wildly flamboyant arias, immaculately crafted to show off virtuoso singers. It was called opera seria, and its heavy rotation of plots became so well-known that audiences could talk, eat and drink their way through performances, stopping only to catch a few fireworks from the latest star castrato. Opera was bloating, and someone needed to burst its bubble.
Christophe Willibald Gluck, stationed in the musical capital of Vienna, was the man for the job. He had written a few pretty bombastic works himself but after a while, he'd had enough. In 1769, Gluck published his opera Alceste and in the preface he laid out his case for what opera should and should not be.
I have striven to restrict music to its true office of serving poetry by means of expression and by following the situations of the story, without interrupting the action or stifling it with a useless superfluity of ornaments ... I have sought to abolish all the abuses against which good sense and reason have long cried out in vain ... I have avoided making displays of difficulty at the expense of clearness ... I did not wish to arrest an actor in the greatest heat of dialogue in order to wait for a tiresome ritornello, nor to hold him up in the middle of a word on a vowel favorable to his voice, nor to make display of the agility of his fine voice in some long-drawn passage.
Leveling his criticism directly at his peers, Gluck called composers complaisant and accused them of "disfiguring" Italian opera, dragging the beautiful art form down to something "ridiculous and wearisome."
It's tempting to say that in one swift blow, Gluck killed off the reigning opera seria. But others complained of the abuses before him, even satirizing the strictures of opera seria in stage works. Still, Gluck emerged as the most articulate and successful of the reformers. Armed with his manifesto (and some of the best assets of the earlier French tragédie lyrique style), Gluck advocated a more organic approach. Story lines were clear and drama and music unfolded together naturally. His innovations also extended to the staging. With these principals as a foundation, Gluck felt he could present more honest and potent portrayals of human emotion.
But his reforms were not welcomed by everyone — some thought they rendered operas too simple and too severe. Yet their influence spread, opening doors to new possibilities of vocal and instrumental expression. By the end of the century, no one was thinking much about opera seria. Especially composers like Mozart and Beethoven.
Below are a few examples from the age of Gluck's "reform operas" and beyond, as music shifted out of the Baroque into the Classical era and toward even more innovations as the 19th century marched on.
Niccolo Jommelli: "Il Vologeso" (1766)
Niccolo Jommelli was a Neapolitan who became a court composer in Stuttgart in 1754. He cut his teeth on the old opera seria, but began chipping away at the formalities, eventually pushing his music toward the style of Gluck's reforms. Jommelli wrote more than 80 operas. For Il Vologeso, a 1766 Stuttgart production, he took an old opera seria text and completely revamped it (with librettist Mattia Verazi) to suit his more streamlined and dramatic style. He dispensed with the old formula of ending acts with show-stopping arias, instead closing Act 1 with this quartet, in which pairs of star-crossed lovers lament their fate.
André-Ernest Gretry: "L'Amant jaloux" (1778)
While Italian opera dominated in hot spots like Vienna in the mid-18th century, the French were doing their own thing. Some of their earlier customs even fueled Gluck's reforms. The opéra comique style (which doesn't denote "comic opera") has its roots in the Italian commedia dell'arte, French sideshows and the mid-17th century comédie-ballets of Jean-Baptiste Lully. It was a form with its own traditions (spoken dialogue) and regulations that evolved over the decades, leading up to its master composer André-Ernest Gretry. In L'Amant jaloux, Gretry's 1778 comedy of mistaken identites, he includes a standard opéra comique feature, the serenade. In this case Florival (sung by tenor Roberto Alagna) sings to his true love, who's disguised as another.
Christoph Willibald Gluck: "Alceste" (1769/1776)
Gluck's detractors may have thought his stripped down approach was boring (not enough spectacle), but there's no denying a heightened sense of emotional drama. And his Alceste (of which there are two versions) is filled with it — from powerful choruses to rich orchestration to moving scenes for the title character (sung here by Jessye Norman), who decides to sacrifice her life so that her husband may live. The aria moves from a state of calm introspection to fiery determination.
Mozart: "Le Nozze di Figaro" (1786)
Mozart's views of drama and music differed from Gluck's. For Gluck, music served the drama. Mozart, in a letter to his father, wrote that "poetry must be the obedient daughter of the music. When music reigns supreme, all else is forgotten." Beginning with Idomeneo in 1781, Mozart enriched almost every aspect of opera. Nowhere do text and music combine so sublimely as in the three comedies Mozart wrote to librettos by Lorenzo da Ponte — Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte. The characters have a new depth of complexity and humanity. And the stories have social, political and even sexual themes that resonate today. Here, the Countess in Figaro (sung by Lucia Popp) realizes her marriage is crumbling before her eyes.
Beethoven: "Fidelio" (1814)
Beethoven wrote just one opera, Fidelio, but he made darn sure he got it right, tweaking it over a nine-year period. Like opéra comique, Fidelio incorporates spoken dialogue, and it belongs to the post-French Revolution genre (also an opéra comique tradition) known as "rescue opera." Here Beethoven is concerned with conquering injustice, as a resourceful wife disguises herself as a man to infiltrate the prison where her husband is detained. Early in the opera Beethoven writes a gentle, beautiful quartet ("Mir is so wunderbar"), in which each character successively expresses hopes and doubts.