CHAPTER 41 Music in the Age of Enlightenment: Opera
Enlightenment: a philosophical, scientific, and political movement that dominated eighteenth-century thought and ultimately brought about the transition to a more democratic society. Also called the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment was characterized by: • scientific pursuit of truth and discovery of natural laws. • the extension of natural laws to the political realm, including the notion that all persons are born free. • faith in human reason rather than divine providence. • the rise of Deism, a natural religion postulating that a Creator had made the world, put it in motion, but left it alone thereafter.
Les philosophes: a group of French freethinkers who espoused the principles of social justice, equality, religious tolerance, and freedom of speech. Among them were Denis Diderot, Voltaire, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Between 1751 and 1772, les philosophes compiled the twenty-eight volume Encyclopédie, the most comprehensive work of its kind to date. • Jean-Jacque Rousseau: a leading Enlightenment philosopher, he was also a composer and writer on music. As well as providing the entries on music in the Encyclopédie and compiling a Dictionnaire de musique, Rousseau composed several works, including the comic opera Le Devin du village.
Galant style: music of the eighteenth century that emphasized grace, lightness in texture, and symmetrical melodic structures. The galant ideal goes hand in hand with the Enlightenment values of naturalness, clarity, and simplicity.
The opera house in Dresden, built in 1719, became one of the most important operatic centers in eighteenth-century Europe, hiring some of the most successful singers and composers in the continent. Among them, opera composer Johann Hasse. • Faustina Bordoni: one of the great leading sopranos (prima donnas) of the eighteenth century and wife of composer Johann Hasse. • Pietro Metastasio: principal librettist of eighteenth-century opera seria. Although he often collaborated with Hasse, his libretti were set nearly four hundred times by other eighteenth-century composers, including Handel, Gluck, and Mozart.
When compared to its Baroque counterpart, Enlightenment opera seria featured a reduced number of characters and a simplified libretto. Among its characteristics: • a disguised allegorical praise of the ruler • a lieto fine, or happy ending • elaborate scenery, sometimes including animals on stage • Castrati sing the roles of young romantic leads, while tenors and basses sing those of authoritative male figures • the music consists exclusively of simple recitative and florid da capo arias which provided a display case for virtuoso sopranos and castrati.
Coloratura: a florid figuration assigned to the soprano voice. The singers of such passage work are called coloratura sopranos.
Comic opera: a simpler, more direct type of musical theater that made use of comic characters, dealt with everyday social issues, and emphasized values more in step with the middle class than opera seria. Rather than only in Italian, comic opera was sung in the local tongue. Arising in several countries in Europe, comic opera went by various names: • Ballad opera in England • Opera buffa in Italy • Opéra comique in France
The Beggar's Opera • Ballad: a traditional, usually strophic, English song that tells a story. • Ballad opera: a comic opera that makes use of re-texted ballads (or other popular songs) and spoken dialogue rather than recitative. John Gay's seminal The Beggar's Opera, produced in London in 1728, was the first important ballad opera.
Opera buffa: Italian comic opera, it featured a wide spectrum of social classes, from peasants to noblemen. Developed first as separate comic scenes between the acts of an opera seria, opera buffa usually included a comic bass and no castrati. Unlike in an English ballad opera, the dialogue is delivered in simple recitative. • Intermezzo: a musical diversion between acts of an opera or play. • Giovanni Battista Pergolesi: composer of the famous two-act intermezzo La serva padrona, the best known opera buffa of the first half of the eighteenth century.
La Guerre des Bouffons: a war of words sparked by the Parisian performance of Pergolesi's La serva padrona in 1752. Social critics on either side of the argument debated on what sort of opera was appropriate for the French stage: The traditional French court opera (tragédie lyrique) or the newer, lighter Italian opera buffa? • Opéra comique: similar to the Italian opera buffa, it features characters from everyday life. While the dialogue is sometimes spoken and other times sung in simple recitative, the lyrical portions consist of simple airs or popular melodies called vaudevilles.
Chistoph Willibald Gluck: a native of Bohemia (currently the Czech Republic), he worked in most major cities in Europe until 1752, when he settled in Vienna. There he directed the French opera and dance company at the court of Empress Maria Theresa. In 1762 Gluck and librettist Ranieri Calzabigi teamed up to create a new type of opera called "reform opera." The first such "reform opera" was Orfeo et Euridice, based on the ever popular myth of Orpheus.
Reform opera: Gluck's new type of opera that aimed at combining the best features of the Italian and the French operatic traditions. Among its characteristics: • Reduced importance of elaborated, coloratura singing • Elimination of da capo arias in favor of strophic forms • Extensive use of obbligato recitative (also called accompanied recitative) • Less distinction between recitatives and arias • Fewer characters and simplified plot • Increased importance of the chorus • Dance assumes a dramatic role • Increased importance of the orchestra