Moving forward from Baroque opera | Zeno, Metastasio, Gluck

The excesses of Baroque opera

Baroque opera was a complete excess. Its language, the mix of serious and comic scenes, supernatural events, frequent changes of scene by complicated machinery, grandiosity: every aspect of baroque opera is artificial.

Arie had increased enormously in number and also in length, becoming a boring and idle stop to the action which was carried on only within spoken parts, the recitativi.

A book with poems by Pietro Metastasio – Pietro Antonio Domenico Bonaventura Trapassi, Rome 1698 – Vienna 1782 – poet, librettist and one of the main reformer of Italian opera.

The reform by Zeno and Metastasio

Apostolo Zeno and then Metastasio felt a modernization was urgently needed, to bring opera back to its origins.

For that reason they introduced 2 main changes: they made recitatives faster and more natural and set a format for aria repetitions and embellishments, which now take the name of variazioni.

The endless range of aria con variazioni

Arias and their variazioni could be over different themes and character. They were minutely classified in a fixed but wide range depending on the feelings expressed: from disdain to anger, from sweetness to melancholy, from wrath to tenderness to fear and dispear and so forth.

The following was actually one of the most popular, the tempest.

Verses were the singers’ repertoire, whilst music was ever-changing

Singers’ repertoire was made primarily of verses, of which music was only a temporary, ever-changing “dress”. It often happened that a singer in a short period of time performed several scores of the same text. The harsh competition was therefore between performances and performers.

Italian, the universal language of opera

In 1700 Italian was still the universal language of opera, also outside Italy as the new music genre increased its success and spread throughout Europe.

Metastasio’s operas became very popular, particularly in Vienna. They combined the lavishness of court performances with the popular taste for extravaganza. Its educational purposes also suited very well the Habsburg, the most powerful and enlightened monarchy in Europe at the time.

The constantly changing social contest though was urging for more changes to be made to the European new favourite entertainment. It was a Bavarian composer, Christoph Willibald Gluck who would become the architect of the next crucial opera reform.

Christoph Willibald Gluck by Joseph Duplessis (1775)

Christoph Willibald Gluck

Gluck was forced to leave at a very young age his home, to follow his musical inclinations against his father’s will.  To earn a living he performed in churches and on the streets of London, Paris and Italy.

When Gluck moved to Vienna in 1735 he had the opportunity to meet with the Italian poet and librettist Ranieri De’ Calzabigi .

Orfeo and Euridice: a groundbreaking opera

With Calzabigi, Gluck worked on the groundbreaking opera Orfeo and Euridice (1762) which was the start of a reform of paramount importance in opera.

The composer reduced duplications and embellishments, giving arias a more lyric and dynamic character. He also organized the score in a more flexible and less repetitive way, so that music could be more effective in emphasizing words.

There was also a change in the subjects used: from mythological and classical stories there a swift towards romantic gloomy dramas.

The indissoluble link between music and words

Moreover, it was finally estabilished an indissoluble link between music and words, with music becoming the main element for the success of an opera.

As in the striking aria “What shall I do without Euridice?”. It is through to the incomparable beauty and expressiveness of the melody sung by Orpheus that  Love is presuaded to bring Euridice back to life.

About Sara Filippini

Opera music along with destination management and communication are my fields of expertise. Music and singing are my passion combined with travel and exploring the connection between places and their stories. Coming from Italy I am blessed with wealth of history and adventures to be explored from Sicily to the Alp's. The real dept of any story can be best felt from the place of its origin were the surroundings add to the sense of connection and true appreciation.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.