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Talk Like An Opera Geek: The Age Of 'Serious Opera'

Baritone William Shimell sings the title role in Handel's opera Hercules in Aix-en-Provence in 2004. (AFP/Getty Images)

Talk Like An Opera Geek attempts to decode the intriguing and intimidating lexicon of the opera house.

As opera left its toddler years behind, it grew more restrictive and extravagant at the same time. Around 1700, a new style called opera seria began to dominate. It was, as the name implies, "serious opera," and was driven by two main forces: formulaic librettos and flamboyant singers.

The men who wrote opera seria texts — librettists such as Pietro Metastasio and Apostolo Zeno — were concerned with order, dignity and tragedy. They purged almost all of the comic elements opera had naturally absorbed and wrote stories that were serious in tone and clear in structure. Typically, conflicts between lovers or authority figures (or both) would be resolved not by some mythological god swooping in at the last minute, but by a benevolent, morally upstanding ruler.

Metastasio had a near monopoly on these tales. His 60-some libretti engendered almost 1000 operas, written by countless composers over several generations.

In opera seria, the number of characters is limited. No more hordes of people clog the stage when six or seven characters (three lead and three or four supporting) will do. Each receives an appropriate number of arias crafted in the strict da capo formula — an A section is followed by an emotionally contrasting B section, then A is repeated but with luxurious ornamentation, giving singers a chance to shine.

And shine they did. This was the age of the rock star castrati, the superpowered male singers who were castrated before puberty to preserve their high voices. The combination of such high tones produced from the chests of full-grown men made for virtuoso singing that has not, we're told, been matched since. (To hear the so-called "last castrato," though weakened by advanced age when the recoding was made, click here.)

The composers of opera seria — including Handel, Vivaldi, Alessandro Scarlatti, Nicolo Porpora, Johann Hasse, Giovanni Pergolesi and later Salieri — wrote flashy, complicated and grandstanding arias especially for the castrati, but also for the other voice types. The glittering arias followed one after the other like pearls on a string. It was a practice that would prove to be opera seria's undoing, when a composer named Christoph Willibald Gluck decided it was all just too much. But that operatic reform is the subject of another discussion.

Below are some brief examples of 18th century opera and opera seria.

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Alessandro Scarlatti: "Griselda" (1721)

Alessandro Scarlatti, who helped push the new style of opera seria into place, is ripe for rediscovery. He wrote 114 operas, yet none are performed today. The libretto of Griselda, his final opera, which debuted in Rome in 1721, was by Zeno (many other composers set this text) and concerns a king's rocky relationship with his wife Griselda, a shepherdess. Soprano Dorothea Röschmann sings the title role, which in Scarlatti's day would have been sung by a castrato. This excerpt features the "return" of the da capo aria with its beautiful ornaments. Note a similarity to Mozart arias like "Porgi Amor," which would come some 65 years later.

Antonio Vivaldi: "L'Olimpiade" (1734)

Vivaldi wrote some 45 operas but only 21 have survived. Fortunately, quite a few have been recorded in recent years. Although working within the strict opera seria format, Vivaldi's operas contain some of his most indulgent and exciting music. L'Olimpiade, from 1734, has a Metastasio libretto, and this aria, "We are ships abandoned," was written for castrato Marianino Nicolini. The metaphor of a turbulent sea is matched by Vivaldi's ferociously difficult coloratura writing, delivered with appropriate vigor by Cecilia Bartoli.

George Frideric Handel: "Ariodante" (1735)

Handel's 45 or so operas were all but forgotten until around 1920, and even then few were performed. It would take the period instruments movement a couple of decades later to trigger a major Handel opera revival. In his own way, Handel pushed the opera seria envelope, writing recitatives and arias of deep emotional intensity and dramatic urgency, even allowing characters to interrupt each other's arias. Handel wrote for the best castrati, but his music for them was not all rapid-fire pyrotechnics. In this aria (written for castrato Giovanni Carestini and sung here by Joyce DiDonato), a lovelorn Ariodante contemplates suicide to some of Handel's most ravishing music.

Jean-Philippe Rameau: "Hippolyte et Aricie" (1733)

While opera seria was sweeping Italy and elsewhere, the French had their own form of operatic structure called tragédie lyrique. The blueprint was developed by Jean-Baptiste Lully during the Louis XIV era and dictated subjects of mythology set in a prologue followed by five acts including ballet and instrumental music. Jean-Philippe Rameau inherited the form but extended its emotional depth with more dramatic recitatives, bolder harmonies and surprising dissonances. It was all too much at the premiere of Hippoltye et Aricie in 1733. A scandal erupted and soon audiences were divided between fans of Rameau's radical new style and those preferring to return to the old Lully school. Here, with great expression, tenor Mark Padmore, as Hippolyte, sings "Ah! Must I, in a single day, lose all that I love?"

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