Opera History Tour Guide, Part I
The lineup for this first week of our tour through opera history begins with Handel, the master of Baroque opera, and concludes 150 years later with Wagner’s monumental style of music drama, with stops in between to appreciate Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, and more. Below is a tour guide tracking the stylistic evolutions that can be observed along the way. By Jay Goodwin
Monday, November 2
Though George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) is one of the earliest composers whose works are frequently staged at today’s largest opera houses, he inherited an operatic tradition already some 100 years old by the time he wrote his first work in the genre. Earlier composers such as Jacopo Peri, Claudio Monteverdi, Francesco Cavalli, Jean-Baptiste Lully, and Henry Purcell had already developed this new merger of music and theater from its incipient form in late-Renaissance Florence to something we would recognize today as opera. Handel, a giant of the Baroque era, built on this foundation and raised the stakes: His operas, despite largely following the “opera seria” conventions of the time—with plots based on stories from history or myth, and showy, virtuosic arias for the soloists separated by more speechlike sections, called recitative, that move the action forward—outstripped those of his contemporaries in their consistent musical brilliance, especially in the way the music reveals and deepens the characters’ emotions.
Dating from 1725, Rodelinda was written after Handel had moved to London and begun writing operas (in Italian) for the newly founded Royal Academy of Music. One of his finest works, it is filled with electrifying, dramatically compelling, deeply affecting music, especially for the soprano singing the title role of the seventh-century Queen of Lombardy and the tenor portraying the usurper Grimoaldo.
Tuesday, November 3
Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice
Christoph Willibald von Gluck (1714–1787) had a long and varied musical career, but he is best remembered for a trio of Italian operas he wrote between 1762 and 1770, which were self-consciously intended to revolutionize the genre. He and his librettist Ranieri de’ Calzabigi objected to the operatic conventions that had dominated for some 100 years. In what came to be known as their “reform operas,” Gluck and Calzabigi stripped away the conspicuous virtuosity, labyrinthine plotlines, strict distinction between aria and recitative, and extensive repetition and florid manipulation of the text, all of which they felt bogged down the action and detached the listener from the characters’ emotions. Instead, they aimed for a new musical and emotional directness intended to draw the audience more deeply into the drama. For their first foray into this new, back-to-basics approach, Gluck and Calzabigi appropriately chose to retell the immortal Orpheus myth, something of an origin story for the power of music itself, and the inspiration for what many consider the first “proper” opera, Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1607).
Wednesday, November 4
Idomeneo is a relatively early work from the great Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791), and the one that, more than any other, made the young composer’s name and started him on the path to immortality. It is also illustrative of a moment of operatic transition: Composed in 1780 and 1781, Idomeneo is in some ways a throwback, a sort of neo–opera seria that dusts off then-passé conventions from that antiquated form. But it is also heavily influenced by Gluck’s reforms, incorporating the more organic, orchestrally accompanied approach to recitative, heavily involving the chorus and including several intricate ensemble numbers for groupings of the principals, and never letting the drama slacken.
But perhaps most of all, Idomeneo reflects Mozart’s unsurpassed ability to blend diverse styles and filter everything through his own unique voice. This sophisticated and intentional musical synthesis, and his willingness to use whatever would produce the greatest effect according to his unerring theatrical instincts, would come to characterize all of Mozart’s later works of operatic genius, whether the subject be contemporary class and sexual politics, as in his great trio of collaborations with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte (Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte) or the unexpected yet transcendent mixture of earthy comedy and arcane mysticism of Die Zauberflöte. All of those works also owe a significant portion of their impact to Mozart’s preternatural ability to make his characters not only sympathetic, but relatable. This, too, began with Idomeneo, whose personalities, though inhabiting an 18th-century Austrian composer’s notion of ancient Greece and singing in Italian, are driven by thoughts and emotions that feel relevant and familiar to us all.
Thursday, November 5
Only Verdi and Wagner held such an iron grip on the minds of operagoers and fellow opera composers during their lifetimes as did Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868). He achieved this influence through a wildly productive early career, composing an inconceivable 29 operas between 1810 and 1829, which took Europe by storm and made Rossini the most popular and wealthy composer of his time. Then, on top of the world at age 37, he abruptly retired, never writing another opera.
The style Rossini popularized, and which became as a result the dominant style of Italian opera in the first half of the 19th century, is what we now know as “bel canto,” a category that also includes Rossini’s successors Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini. Literally “beautiful singing,” the style is difficult to precisely describe but generally refers to a focus on the intrinsic quality and capability of the voice, expressed through both intensely lyrical singing and dazzling eruptions of rapid, high-flying coloratura brilliance. But it is not just virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake: In bel canto opera, even more than in other styles, the drama is contained within the music. The singers’ herculean vocal feats are a direct embodiment of their character’s feelings and actions.
Though Rossini is today most beloved for his effervescent yet sophisticated comedies, he was equally talented and actually more prolific in writing tragedies and works that combine serious and comic elements. Semiramide, a grand drama of ancient Babylon that premiered in Venice in 1823, is one of his most ambitious serious operas and a jewel in his bel canto crown.
Friday, November 6
Verdi’s La Forza del Destino
As the 19th century approached its midpoint, the great bel-canto triumvirate of Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini had all died or retired, and Italian opera was in need of a fresh approach and a new champion to carry the banner. Enter Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901). He rocketed to stardom in 1842 with Nabucco, a biblical drama that captivated audiences with both its musical power and its obvious political undertones, which aligned with Italians’ ongoing struggle for independence and reunification after many years of foreign occupation. From there, the masterpieces came fast and frequent, and Verdi’s forceful new style redefined opera with its frank emotionalism, rapid dramatic pace, and combination of bel-canto elements with a more muscular and direct approach to vocalism. The scale and expressiveness of the orchestral and choral writing, too, is increased. Never hesitating to whip up a true storm of sound when the situation called for it, Verdi made opera a more thrillingly visceral experience.
What’s more, Verdi was a true man of the theater, as well as intensely intellectual and prodigiously well-read. He based a number of his operas on works by literary legends: Shakespeare, Hugo, Byron, Schiller, Voltaire. And even when he wasn’t working with such lofty source material, he brought the dramatic lessons he learned from those unimpeachable tutors—as well as his own unique ability to translate drama into music—to bear on the story at hand. As a result, his operas crackle with theatrical energy and tension.
La Forza del Destino premiered in 1862, by which point Verdi had become a god amongst men in Italian opera and a national cultural and political icon. A darkly compelling and heartrending tale of a tortured noblewoman who suffers a series of personal losses—a topic with which the composer had tragic personal experience and captured in his music with uncommon poignancy—it is a perfect example of Verdi’s awe-inspiring abilities.
Saturday, November 7
Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette
Looking back from our 21st-century vantage point, the opera scene of the 1800s would seem to have been dominated by the Italians and, in the later part of the century, the Italians and Germans. But in many ways, Paris was actually the opera capital of the world in those days, with a taste for theatrical grandeur and the resources to realize the most extravagant productions anywhere. Naturally, this meant that the famous Parisian houses—the Opéra, the Opéra-Comique, and the Théâtre Lyrique—attracted the finest singers and composers from across the continent. The pinnacle of these operatic endeavors in 19th-century Paris was what became known as French grand opera: lengthy operas in five acts, with eye-popping (and ruinously expensive) stagings, usually based on momentous historic events, and making liberal use of chorus and ballet. Any composer hoping to have a hit at the glamorous, deep-pocketed Opéra was expected to meet these expectations.
Not all French opera of the time was grand opera, however. There was also a rich tradition of French comic opera, often with spoken dialogue, as well as opera that fell somewhere in between these poles and absorbed elements of both, as well as influences from foreign styles. Interestingly, it is these in-between works that are best represented in today’s standard repertoire, especially the operas of Georges Bizet, Jules Massenet, and Charles Gounod (1818–1893). Gounod is principally remembered for two operas: Faust, which was by far his most popular work in the decades after his death (and was the work chosen to open the Metropolitan Opera in 1883), and his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which has in recent years been enjoying a resurgence. No wonder, as its timeless story and Gounod’s sensual, deeply-felt music make for an intoxicating combination and one of opera’s most sumptuous works.
Sunday, November 8
Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
It is impossible to overstate the impact that Richard Wagner (1813–1883) had on the history and development of opera and of music generally. Once his works had taken hold of the collective consciousness, a composer setting out to write an opera could imitate Wagner, could pick up where he left off and attempt to take the next step, or could try to incorporate some of his ideas while setting off in a different direction—but could not ignore him. There was no putting the genie back in the bottle.
Wagner’s innovations were many. He pioneered a system of “leitmotifs,” identifiable musical themes that represent characters, places, objects, emotions, or ideas, which recur and are modified or combined to wordlessly, even subliminally, communicate the action and the characters’ feelings or intentions to the listener—a practice that immediately became commonplace and continues in the movie scores of the present day. He took an extremely free, chromatic approach to harmony that stretched the conventional diatonic system right to its breaking point, soon leading subsequent composers to make that complete break. He entirely abandoned the alternating structure of aria and recitative, and any other pattern of musical numbers, in favor of “unendliche Melodie,” or “endless melody,” a seamless flow of music that transforms as necessary from one moment to the next. And he massively increased the importance of the orchestra and its direct contribution to the drama. All of this was part of his attempt to create not just an opera, but a “Gesamtkunstwerk,” or “complete work of art,” a higher unification of music, theater, poetry, and painting.
Furthermore, Wagner’s operas, which he preferred to call “music dramas,” expanded the acceptable boundaries of scale and duration, with single performances stretching to six hours with intermissions and his epic four-opera Ring cycle comprising some 15 hours of music. (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, the opera featured in this week’s schedule and Wagner’s only mature comedy, is in fact the longest single opera in the standard repertoire.) These unprecedented works also required a new breed of singer, with the vocal heft to soar above Wagner’s huge, roaring orchestra and the endurance to sing his marathon roles. The challenges for singers, orchestral musicians, opera houses, and audiences, then, are significant. But all continue to make the necessary investment of time, effort, and money for the simple reason that a superlative performance of one of these monumental works is a singular, irreplaceable experience.
Jay Goodwin is the Met’s Editorial Director.