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Serious and Comic Opera in Eighteenth-Century Italy

By the end of the seventeenth century, in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, the musical drama known as opera was fairly well-established; it was, however, undergoing many changes and alterations which were later to affect its standing in several important ways. These changes, by around 1720, had produced two visibly different forms of opera in Italy: one was the serious, tragedy-like type known as opera seria, while the other, a lighter, often more earthy and comic style, was called opera buffa. These two forms arose out of common ancestors, but, as is fairly evident to modern scholars, each was exposed to several different influences that shaped them into the forms we know today.

The opera seria, which first arose in the cities of Naples and Venice, had taken on a clear, practically inflexible form by around 1720. In its very essence, as both the libretti and the musical composition demonstrate, the opera seria was a product of the philosophical movement that arose in the late 1600's, the famous Enlightenment, that seized all of Europe and affected so many different aspects of life. The philosophers of the Enlightenment, when they turned their ideas to opera, maintained that this musical-dramatic form should reflect the new ideals of clarity and unity, which were based primarily off of ancient Greek philosophical treatises. Thus, write Grout and Palisca, Italian opera seria "aimed to be clear, simple, rational, faithful to nature, of universal appeal, and capable of giving pleasure to its audiences without causing them undue mental fatigue." [1]

One of the early forms of impetus for these changes in opera came from the scholars at the Arcadian Academy in Rome, led primarily by Gian Vincenza Gravina. These reformers wanted above all to subject the Italian opera to the guidelines of Greek tragedy; in other words, they aimed to purge the older Baroque operas of their extravagant characterization and complex plots, as well as to take away the comic elements and to regulate the opera's composition, both musically and structurally. In so doing, these reforms led in essence to "the restriction of the music's role in dramatic developments," claims Sadie, [2] and left the part of explaining occurrences and events in the story to the rather dry and unaccompanied recitatives.

The greatest influence on the opera seria's development and formulation came, not surprisingly, from two opera librettists, Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782) and Apostolo Zeno (1688-1750). Metastasio's libretti were immensely popular among composers of the period; as one source quotes, his twenty-seven dramas were given over one thousand different settings in the eighteenth century, some of them being set as many as seventy times each. [3] Metastasian dramas generally involved a conflict between human emotions or "affections," and were almost always based, not on ancient myth, as had earlier been common, but on an historical figure or occurrence form the ancient world, usually from a Greek or Latin author. The characters in his dramas, as indeed in most opera seria, were fairly well fixed: there were almost always two pairs of lovers, whose roles were played by the prima donna, the primo uomo, the seconda donna, and the secondo uomo, as well as various other subordinate characters, usually including a "magnanimous tyrant" or a father, sung by a tenor. Both the primo uomo and the secondo uomo were played by castrati singers, as was quite typical throughout the eighteenth century in Italy and most of the rest of Europe. The typical plot of Metastasio's dramas ended with an heroic deed or a renunciation of love by one of the principal characters, most commonly by the prima donna or primo uomo. Zeno's libretti were in essence quite similar to the Metastasian type; he too favored historical subject matter and relied on the set cast of characters. He also, according to Grout, "sought to purge the opera of erratically motivated plots, supernatural inventions, machines, irrelevant comic episodes, and the bombastic declamation which had reigned in the seventeenth century." [4]

The structure of the opera seria had become standardized by 1720 as well, especially after composers had begun to set the Metastasian libretti. The action almost invariably occurred in three acts, which in turn were composed of alternating arias and recitatives. There were also, on occasion, duets and other ensemble pieces, but on the whole these were very rare. The recitatives were designed to carry on the dramatic action of the opera, and were the main vehicle for dialogue between the actors; they were generally written in a form known as versi sciolti, and were made up of "freely intermixed, unrhymed seven- and eleven-syllable lines." [5] The rare choruses would serve mainly as occasional interjections into the action of the drama, as well as often being placed at the end of the entire opera to provide a festive conclusion to the piece. The arias, which reigned supreme in the opera seria of this period, were the vehicles of emotional expression for the actors, in which they sang to great extent about a given situation or occurrence and its effect on them. Metastasio, in his dramas, standardized the placement of a solo aria at the end of most scenes, after which the singer would then make his dramatic exit. These arias were to all extents and purposes, of a fixed form: they were strophic, almost invariably in the da capo form, and, as Sadie says, were the most important feature of all opera seria: "the da capo aria was inseparable from opera seria, constituting its very touchstone." [6] Thus a typical scene in a Metastasian opera consisted of the dramatic action being expressed through several recitatives, with arias between each to provide the expression of the characters' sentiments to the audience.

The musical composition of the Italian opera seria was also evidence of its basis in Enlightenment philosophy. The orchestra was, on the whole, little more than a mere accompaniment for the arias, although the opera usually began with an overture that was purely instrumental. This, however, was not based on the typical French ouverture, but instead the Italian sinfonia, which was in ternary form, with the normal fast-slow-fast pattern. The opera seria sinfonia was quite typical of the early pre-classical period, says Grout, because of its light texture and standardized harmonic formulas. [7] The ordinary recitative that was used in opera seria was the recitativo secco, or, as it was called at the time, the recitativo semplice, which consisted of the typical recitative-style vocal line set to a continuo accompaniment of harpsichord and a stringed bass instrument. In the most important dramatic situations, for instance the climaxes or turning points of the drama, the recitatives could be set in the obbligato or accompagnato style, which features the full orchestra as the accompaniment, often with vocal figures interrupted by strong chordal bursts from the strings. These types of recitatives were usually sung by the primary characters in monologues, who expressed their strong emotion while an event was taking place, and they could feature abrupt, even startling changes of mood and modulations. Later in the century, these accompanied recitatives were to become more prominent, especially in the works of Niccolò Jomelli and his contemporaries. [8]

The da capo aria, the main and most characteristic element of the opera seria, usually followed the typical five-part da capo form, although composers were free to experiment with this form when needed, and often did so; later, for instance, it became common to use a dal segno form, in which the repeated section was only the first part of the aria, not the entire piece. [9] This of course was necessitated by the fact that, as the century progressed, the arias became longer and more complex in lyrics, making a repeat of the entire piece somewhat unwieldy for all concerned. The orchestral accompaniment to the da capo aria never obscured the preeminence of the melodic line; often, in fact, the first violins would play the melody in unison with the vocal line, allowing the singer to embellish and ornament his part as he so desired. And this, in fact, was another hallmark of the stereotypical opera seria: the improvised ornamentation by the singer of the aria, which most often occurred in the repeated da capo section, was the pride and joy of each singer, especially the culmination in the grand cadenza, which, although much criticized by the classicists, was nonetheless an integral part of vocal performance in the Italian opera.

A frequent problem for composers of opera seria was that, due to the rather structured forms of almost all ingredients of the music, it was difficult to achieve much contrast, in either action or music. In essence, then, the opera seria, in the hands of most composers, was little more than a mere stringing together of many different arias and recitatives. For the more daring, and in many ways more skilled composers, however, there were ways to avoid this strict rigidity. The ritornello of the da capo aria, for instance, could be dropped, as was noted before, or could be changed just enough to give variation. Also, although often criticized, each singer's ornamental improvisation and final cadenza did provide another means of contrast, as did, somewhat later in the century, the emergence of more variation in the orchestral parts and in dynamic contrasts, as well as the increasing use of ensembles and other pieces; eventually even dance numbers and ballets came to be included in opera seria. Even the meter and keys, which for the most part were standardized, could be varied ever so slightly, and gained more freedom as time went on. After around 1770, the arias had also achieved some flexibility, due to the possibility of using forms other than the da capo, even, under French influence, the use of the rondo aria. These newer arias, as stated, had become much longer, but had retained their simple melodic lines, as well as "a certain blandness of rhythm and harmony." [10] On the whole, in the period after 1770, the increasing diffusion and freedom in opera seria can be seen, and this phenomenon eventually led to its abandonment as a pure and strict dramatic form.

The other prominent form of opera in Italy in the eighteenth century was the Italian comic opera, or opera buffa. This form of musical drama also had its ancestors in the seventeenth century opera, but it diverged from the opera seria in several interesting ways. It was in essence similar to other national forms of comic opera at the time, which, as Grout says:

 ... all showed signs of their humble origin in the choice of light or farcical subjects and the preference for scenes, personages, and dialogue taken from familiar popular comedies or from the everyday life of the common people (if fantasy was present, it was treated comically); all were performed by comparatively unskilled singers, often by inferior actors for whom music was, to say the least, only an avocation; ... all occasionally parodied the serious opera; and all cultivated a simple, easily grasped musical style in which national popular idioms played a prominent part. [11]

The immediate precursor to the opera buffa, which arose in the late seventeenth century in Italy, was the musical drama known as the intermezzo. This was a short piece, usually only one act long, which was produced between the acts of a longer, more serious opera. Later, toward the turn of the century, these pieces grew to be of a larger size and greater importance, and they were eventually performed as opera in their own right, no longer intermixed with the serious opera. The later intermezzi typically had two or three short acts, each consisting of one or two arias for each main role, and usually ending in a duet.

One of the most famous intermezzi is Pergolesi's La serva padrona, from 1733. This piece was typical of the later intermezzi in many ways, and showed aspects that were to become standard in the opera buffa within a span of only ten years. La serva padrona has only two singing roles: a soprano and a bass. (Note that the leading male actor was a bass, not, as was already typical in opera seria, a castrato.) There was also one mute character, as well as an orchestra, comprised solely of strings and a harpsichord. Typical of Pergolesi's and other contemporary intermezzi, there were mostly allegro arias, usually in a major key, though there could also be some slower, cantabile arias in minor. Most recitatives were secco, although, when serious opera was to be parodied, the accompagnato style could be used freely. Also included were some canzonettas and other dance pieces, usually based off of familiar folk-song melodies, as well as a number of "patter songs" and some duets. [12]

Almost all late intermezzi were comic pieces, and as such their music was mostly of a simple yet pleasant character. Most of the music was entirely subject to the text, while the singing was highly flexible and sensitive, and could freely express emotion through the melody, which would follow the rhythms of speech. There was a great deal of textual repetition and heavily rhymed recitatives, but this never became so much as to cause artificiality; in fact, in striking contrast to the opera seria, the intermezzo was a very realistic art form. The music was for the most part major, usually rather fast, and featured, commonly, a repetition of short motifs throughout the work, as well as a melodic line that was quite disjunct: to fit the text, it could accommodate large jumps, skips, and pauses, as well as sudden dramatic aspects; even such seemingly spontaneous effects as laughter, sneezing, and weeping could be written in to the music. [13]

Around the year 1740, the line between intermezzi and other forms of comic opera in Italy became very blurred, and it is at this point that the term opera buffa could be applied, mostly to pieces that were not opera seria. The opera buffa was, to all intents and purposes, merely an expanded intermezzo, with many of the same qualities and formulations still in place. The opera buffa, like the intermezzo, always featured a leading role in the bass voice, which was practically unheard of in opera seria; on the other hand, castrati were almost never seen in opera buffa. The final duets at the end of the acts in the intermezzo had been greatly expanded by 1740, and had become full-scale ensembles, especially in the works of Baldassare Galuppi and Domenico Cimarosa. These finales, which had been simple binary or ternary form pieces, became complex, multi-sectioned, longer works, following formulas that were in general quite flexible. The arias remained simple, and even greater freedom was given to them by around 1750, when the da capo aria was for the most part abandoned in opera buffa. [14]

By the second half of the eighteenth century, the pieces known as opera buffa had taken on a slightly different character from mere comic opera. No longer were they simply buffoonish parodies; instead, they were often sentimental, semi-serious works, with a comic element, to be sure, but now featuring, in addition to the comic roles, two other figures, known as parti serie: these two were more refined personages who often did not participate in the clownish antics of the other comic characters. As Grout states, "the comic opera libretto in the second half of the eighteenth century was distinctly varied and, on the whole, much more interesting than that of the opera seria." [15] The music, too, at this later period, showed a definite increase in continuity, as well as more independence for the orchestral and instrumental parts.

This later form of opera buffa was to become extremely important in terms of its influence on the Italian opera scene, and most specifically its influence on opera seria. The opera seria of the later 1700's and early 1800's underwent many alterations: most notably, the da capo aria lost its preeminence, while more spectacle, grandiose choral and orchestral effects were added to the score, and the boundary between aria and recitative became much less definite. The influence that opera buffa had on these developments cannot be denied; as Sadie states, European intellectuals, who had previously regarded opera buffa as "an inferior art form, began to reappraise their attitude, and a number of them came to admire it for its vivacity, expressiveness, and naturalness, in the sense that it dealt with real human emotions as opposed to the lofty, artificially contrived ones found in opera seria." [16] In general, the Italian and European publics moved away from the strict opera seria, and once again, the comic and serious paths converged, back into a form from whence they had both come; now, however, both had changed to fit the new standards of the public, who wanted not only comedy, and not only tragedy, but a mixture of both forms. Thus, as is to be expected, "by the 1780's very few opera houses still patronized opera seria exclusively." [17]


(1)  Grout, Donald Jay, and Claude V. Palisca, A History of Western Music, Fourth Edition (New York: W.W Norton & Company, 1988), p. 566. [return to text]
(2)  Sadie, Stanley, ed., History of Opera (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990), p. 71. [return to text]
(3)  Grout, Donald Jay, and Hermine Weigel Williams, A Short History of Opera, Third Edition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), p. 213. [return to text]
(4)  Grout / Williams, p. 213. [return to text]
(5)  Sadie, p. 72. [return to text]
(6)  Sadie, p. 72. [return to text]
(7)  Grout / Williams, p. 211. [return to text]
(8)  Sadie, p. 75. [return to text]
(9)  Sadie, p. 76. [return to text]
(10)  Sadie, p. 76. [return to text]
(11)  Grout / Williams, p. 282. [return to text]
(12)  Grout / Williams, p. 285. [return to text]
(13)  Sadie, p. 80. [return to text]
(14)  Sadie, p. 85. [return to text]
(15)  Grout / Williams, p. 287. [return to text]
(16)  Sadie, p. 81. [return to text]
(17)  Sadie, p. 81. [return to text]

Written and © Nancy Thuleen in 1991 for Music 52 at Pomona College.

If needed, cite using something like the following:
Thuleen, Nancy. "Serious and Comic Opera in Eighteenth-Century Italy." Website Article. 6 December 1991. <http://www.nthuleen.com/papers/M52opera.html>.