Evolution of opera

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Evolution of opera

Pete Stam

The immediate influences of the opera were such early dramatic forms as the late 16th century madrigals, madrigal cycles (madrigal comedies and the intermedio. The very first opera Daphne (which has now been lost) was written in 1597 by Peri. Around 1600, Peri wrote Euridice and Monteverdi wrote L’ Orphea as the first operas still around today. The early operas can be described as a collection of recitatives separated by occasional orchestral interludes and the aim was to revive Greek drama.

The first move towards opera was the recitative. The need for a style of solo singing that could be used for dramatic purposes, created the recitative style. This was thought to be the correct way to set words as it would enhance the sound of natural speech. Peri, Caccini and Cavallieri were the pioneers of the new style of solo singing. Dissonant vocal lines over a static bass were used.

Opera took root in Rome the 1620s. In the music of Roman operas the solo singing was separated into two types, recitative and aria. While the recitative was more speech like, the arias were melodious, though some were on ‘ground basses’. The recitative, dissonance and new musical effects created a more expressive, melodious vocal line often with regular phrases and triple meter (bel canto). Music started to become more important than the words. Some melodic sections with recognizable melodic form (aria) evolved from the recitative. In the early Baroque operas, the recitative and aria were not separated to the extent that the late Baroque composers did.

The opera tradition gradually moved to venice. Monteverdi's last two operas and his student Cavalli's operas were written for Venice. The first commercial opera house was opened in Venice in 1637 (Teatro S. Cassiano) which would be run by Cavalli after 1639. Before that opera was only for the enjoyment of the musical elite. In these last two operas of Monteverdi, there was another innovation which would become in common in later operas: closing the opera with a love duet. Meanwhile, opera was spreading from Italy to other parts of Europe. By 1700, Vienna, Paris, Hamburg and London were also operatic centers.

The strophic variation, the representative aria form of the early Baroque opera, was at first retained in the middle Baroque opera, but became a fully audible form since the bass line was as distinctly organized as the melody so that the strophic repeats could be perceived by ear. Each repeat of the melody became an ornamental variation since the singer was supposed to improvise ornaments. Virtuoso element in vocal singing became important. The brief da capo aria soon superseded the strophic variation and was established as a vocal form. In this form, the first part, unified by a clearly stated key and sequential motives, is juxtaposed with another key area, the middle part, after which the first part is repeated, usually with ornamental variations. At least equally important was the bipartite aria which consisted of only A and B or their variations. In contrast with the late Baroque opera and its rigid alternation of recitative and aria, the middle Baroque opera retained great formal flexibility. During the progress of opera from its primitive forms, the words started to lose their important and the music was dominating over words again.

French opera was established by Lully (1632-1687) when he was the court composer to Louis XIV. He wrote tragedie-lyriques using Greek mythological subjects in which the vocal lines do not obscure the text, but rather support it. He cast them in five acts to remain as a French operatic tradition. Recitatives and arias merge into one another. The arias may be in binary form or through-composed but they are never on the scale of the later Italian da capo aria. Ballets played a major part in French opera. His recitatives are not harmonically rich. Lully's bass lines are more static than those of Italian composers. The chromatically descending bass lines and the extensive use of last-inversion dominant seventh chords typical of contemporary Italian recitative style are foreign to Lully's style.

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Lully also established a form of opera prelude (French overture) consisting of a slow introduction in dotted rhythm followed by a fast fugal-allegro section (also used by composers outside France like Purcell 'Dido & Aeneas' and Handel 'Messiah' and 'Xerxes'). His greatest successor was J.P. Rameau who used more sophisticated orchestral effects in balletic operas.

Although H. Schutz (1585-1672) had studied in Venice with G. Gabrieli and later with Monteverdi, and even staged his opera Daphne at Torgau in 1627 for a royal wedding, the structure of German society and the religious outlook in the country provided poor soil for ...

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