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.