Opera seria

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Caricature of a performance by Handel's Flavio ; three of the most famous opera singers of the time: Senesino on the left, the diva Francesca Cuzzoni in the middle and on the right Gaetano Berenstadt

Opera seria ( plural opere serie ), contemporary designation: Dramma per musica , is a term created at the end of the 18th century (retrospectively) for the “serious” Italian opera , as opposed to opera buffa , “comic opera”. This distinction is synonymous with the contemporary terms "high" and "lower" style . Under the influence of the Roman Accademia dell'Arcadia and Pietro Metastasio's libretti, the “high style”, the opera seria, reached its peak.

After the form of the "opera" had developed from the monody and the Florentine intermedia mainly in Italy since the end of the 16th century - La Dafne by Jacopo Peri , which was written in 1598 in the circle of the Florentine Camerata , is generally considered the first opera in music history At the end of the 17th century the opera seria emerged, which then dominated the opera stages in the 18th century. As the most expensive of all types of theater, it emerged from the festive culture of the ruling class (the nobility), whose reign it sought to legitimize and exaggerate allegorically at the same time . Mythological and heroic material that could be identified with the ruler was often used in her libretti , such as: B. in La clemenza di Tito (1734) ( The Mildness of Titus ) by Pietro Metastasio .

The rival of the " Seria ", the opera buffa ("comical" opera), which developed from the " Intermezzi " which, as the name suggests, was originally given between the three acts of the Seria, became increasingly popular . They had no relation to the plot of the Seria , but with their folk and commedia dell'arte echoes served to loosen up or bridge important stage work.

Opera series, which always have a libretto in Italian as a basis, were not only widespread in Italy, but throughout Europe, apart from France. The tragédie lyrique , founded by the Italian-born Giovanni Battista Lulli ( Jean-Baptiste Lully ) (1632–1687), dominated the stages until the end of the 18th century, with the Buffonist dispute broke out around 1752 between supporters of the French and Italian operatic styles . The most famous composers of the opera seria are Alessandro Scarlatti , Johann Adolf Hasse , Antonio Vivaldi , Leonardo Vinci , Nicola Porpora , Georg Friedrich Handel , Leonardo Leo , Francesco Feo and in the second half of the century then Niccolò Jommelli , Tommaso Traetta , Christoph Willibald Gluck , Joseph Haydn , Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart . The opera seria was based on its textual basis, which was primarily shaped by the librettists Apostolo Zeno and Pietro Metastasio , whose templates were set to music by numerous composers over the decades. Other well-known poets in this direction were Silvio Stampiglia , Antonio Salvi and Paolo Antonio Rolli .


In the early opera since Euridice (1600) by Jacopo Peri (1561–1633), which is now regarded as the first of its genre, there has been a smooth transition between long narrative (recitative) and short melodious (arioso, song-like, dance-like) sections. In the course of the century this contrast was increasingly peeled off and found its climax in the opera seria, in which the action-bearing sections ( secco recitatives ) and the contemplative-commenting, sometimes philosophically instructive arias are clearly separated from each other. The recitative dispenses with the repetition of words and primarily consists of the dialogues or monologues that advance the action . It is thus a chant in which the words are in the foreground. A well-composed recitative takes into account the natural singing of the language in its musical text. H. The rhythm and pitches should match the style of (in this case) Italian. The performance of the recitative is accompanied by basso continuo : chord instruments (mostly the harpsichord and / or an instrument of the lute family ) and a violoncello. A da capo aria follows as the conclusion or insertion of a scene : the action comes to a standstill and a person acting is given space to comment on the current state of the drama and to express personal feelings according to the doctrine of affect . This can be a direct reference to an event or a comparison with a life situation that is familiar to many people in the form of a “parable”. Such an aria can often last up to 7 or 8 minutes, consists of two or three verses, the set pieces of which are repeated several times, and has the form ABA. The first section introduces a topic, usually as a direct reaction to the last section of the action in the previous recitative. The B part usually illuminates a different aspect of the topic addressed or is aimed at another person. It can therefore differ fundamentally from the A section in terms of expression and timing. In the repetition of the A part it is now a matter of expressing the previously expressed feelings of the acting person even more emphatically and decisively. The vocal part is required to have a maximum of affect-enhancing ornamentation . After the aria, which is usually accompanied by strings, strings and oboes and sometimes horns or flutes, the person usually leaves the stage ("departure aria") and the audience applauds. A typical opera seria consists of around 30 such numbers, not counting the recitatives.

The sequence and constant alternation of recitative and aria is preceded by an overture in the form of “slow-fast (mostly a fugato )-slow”, which, however, has no relation to the plot. Curiously, this form of the French overture had already prevailed in Italian opera against the actual Italian sinfonia (fast-slow-fast) at the beginning of the 18th century . The pattern of the sequence of the sentence pair seccore quotation-aria is sometimes only interrupted by an occasional duet by the main pair of lovers, or this effectively stands at the end of an act. In moments of particularly violent emotion, a recitativo accompagnato or recitativo stromentato is preferred instead of a “secco”, in which the singers are usually accompanied by the strings. The plot of an opera seria is usually divided into three acts. Its actors are kings, nobles, gods and heroes of ancient mythology (e.g. Handel: Deidamia , Hasse: Didone abbandonata ). The rules of strict, closed drama apply here. In a main and sometimes many subplot strands, conflicts are first developed, escalated through intrigue or deception, only to be resolved in the end. The person constellation is also standardized: in such an opera there are about six to seven people who can be seen standing in the first and second rows: the prima donna and the primo uomo (a castrato ) and usually a tenor for roles such as a father or a king in the first group, a seconda donna and a secondo uomo, and one or two other actors for smaller roles (bass, soprano). In character, the characters are not psychologically complex-feeling subjects, but representations of a type of person: They either represent virtue , meanness, or fluctuate between both poles and ultimately decide in favor of virtue. The guideline of their actions are always love, honor, duty or, on the other hand, power, fame, property. They are not (in the sense of the Enlightenment ) freely acting persons, but mostly subject to the will of the gods or to fate . It was only Handel who developed his protagonists through the illustrative power of his music into people who also develop in the course of the drama and whose arias illuminate the different sides of these personalities. The few choirs are not in the sense of the ancient drama, but they represent, as it were, a multiplied individual being and not a mass of sentient individuals.

The dramaturgy of the opera seria largely follows the ideas of the Rome-based Accademia dell'Arcadia . She tried to return to the classical principles of virtue ( Aristotle ) by taking highly moral poetry as a basis, which should instruct but also entertain. Unlike in classic drama, the librettists of the opera seria rejected the tragic ending out of a sense of decency: virtue should be rewarded, and so there is always a happy ending with a jubilant final chorus. Shortly before the end of the often very entangled plot, rich in secondary scenes, the protagonists are inflicted by the poet on a fit of generosity in which they forgive all adversaries within seconds or a deus ex machina intervenes to make the lieto fine possible . Here it is again Handel who partly breaks with this convention (after he had of course often used it) and z. B. allows a tragic event in his Tamerlano and sets a thoughtful final chorus.

Every leading singer at the time could expect his fair share of sad, angry, heroic or meditative arias. The contemporary poet and librettist Carlo Goldoni writes about this : “The three main characters of the plot should each sing five arias; two in the first act, two in the second and one in the third. The second actress and the second soprano can only have three, and the supporting roles have to be content with a single aria, or at most two. The author of the text must provide the composer with the various shades from which the chiaroscuro of the music arises, and he must take care that two solemn arias do not follow one another. He must distribute the bravura arias, the plot arias, the subordinate arias, the minuets and rondeaus with the same care. Above all, he must avoid assigning affectaries, bravura arias or rondeaus to the supporting roles. "


The development of the opera seria corresponded with the rise of the Italian castrati : often extremely talented singers, castrated before puberty in order to maintain their high boy's voice and made into vocal "top athletes" through decades of rigorous musical training. The large lungs of a grown man faced the small larynx with the vocal cords of a boy. This constellation made it possible to sing incredibly long phrases without interrupting them by breathing and a dizzying dynamic range. They were given the heroic male roles and were thus the counterpart of the prima donna . The rise of these stars of the 18th century opera stage with their enormous technical skills spurred many composers to write increasingly virtuosic vocal music. During the composing phase, the line-up of singers for the first performance was usually fixed, and so many arias and entire parts were written for the performers. As a result, it was then necessary to adapt the music to the changed circumstances (e.g. a different line-up of singers) when a production was resumed. On the other hand, it was quite common for a new singer to bring along a bravura aria written for him from an earlier piece and insert it into the new opera because he thought that would be the best way to present himself. The best-known castrati were certainly Farinelli (1705–1782), who made his debut in Rome in 1722 in an opera by Nicola Porpora , but never sang for his later London main rivals Handel and Senesino (1690–1759). There was a star cult around this, which is perhaps best comparable to that around the hero tenors in the great Italian operas of the 19th century, which continues to our days (e.g. Pavarotti , Carreras , Domingo , Villazón ). Both here and there there was and is frenetic applause, not only when they are brilliantly sung, but also when peak notes have been (are) reached. In a note in the London magazine The Theater of March 8, 1720, it mockingly says: “At the rehearsal last Friday ...” (on Handel's Radamisto ) “... Signor Nihilini Benedetti exceeded his previously known pitch by a semitone. The opera shares were at 83½ when it began, at 90 when it ended. ”Also from London, music lover Roger North reports:“ These gentlemen, who have come from far away and bought dearly, are returning home as wealthy men, buying elegant houses and gardens and live there in wonder at the wealth and generosity of the English. "


During these 1720s the opera seria had already found its final form. While Apostolo Zeno and Alessandro Scarlatti had paved the way for her, she now flourished with the emerging works by Metastasio and its composers. Metastasio's career began with the Serenata Gli orti esperidi ("The Gardens of the Hesperides "). Nicola Porpora , much later Haydn's teacher , set this to music and the piece was a great success. Metastasio now produced libretto after libretto and they were immediately set to music by the greatest composers in Italy and Austria: Didone abbandonata , Catone in Utica , Ezio , Alessandro nell'Indie , Semiramide riconosciuta , Siroe and Artaserse . After 1730, now at the Viennese court, he composed many librettos for the imperial theater until the mid-1740s: Adriano , Demetrio , Issipile , Demofoonte , L'olimpiade , La clemenza di Tito , Achille in Sciro , Temistocle , Il re pastore and what he himself considered to be his best libretto: Attilio Regolo . They are characterized by an elegant and artful language, which would make them valuable not only as a basis for setting but also as an independent spoken theater piece.

The leading composers of Metastasian opera at the time were Hasse, Antonio Caldara , Vinci, Porpora and Pergolesi . Vinci's settings of Didone abbandonata and Artaserse received much praise for their stromento recitatives, and he played a crucial role in creating the new, gallant style of melody. Hasse, on the other hand, relied on stronger accompaniment, and Pergolesi was known for his lyrical writing. The greatest challenge for everyone, however, was to achieve a diversity that broke the strict pattern of alternating secco quotative and aria. The changeable moods in Metastasio's libretti have helped, as have innovations made by the composers themselves, such as the introduction of the Accompagnato recitative or the shortening of the otherwise usual full da capo . Standards were established as to which key was most appropriate for which expression: D minor became the usual key for anger arias, D major stood for pomp and bravura, G minor for pastoral pieces and E flat major for pathetic effect.


After its peak in the 1750s, the metastasian model began to wane in popularity. Handel turned his back on the opera seria in the early 1940s, after having held on to it for a long time against strong resistance. His last operas, such as Xerxes or Deidamia , differed greatly from the model specimens of the genre due to clearer action sequences fixed on the essentials, frequent use of orchestral recitatives, arietas , ariosi and cavatines instead of the da capo aria and repeated use of the choir . However, he completed his personal opera reform in his other “Dramas in Music”, the English oratorios . Almost all of the achievements that the innovators of Italian opera will bring about in the following decades can be found here. These innovators also include composers like Niccolò Jommelli and Tommaso Traetta , who softened the sharply contrasted recitative / aria recipe through influences from French opera. Jommelli's works after 1740 increasingly favor the Accompagnato recitative and greater dynamic contrasts, as well as a stronger and more independent role for the orchestra, while at the same time limiting the virtuosity of the vocal parts. Traetta, in turn, introduced ballet into his opera and removed the implausible lieto fine in favor of a reintroduction of the tragic ending as in classical drama. Especially in his operas after 1760 he gave the choir a larger role.

The climax of these reforms are the operas by Christoph Willibald Gluck . Beginning with Orfeo ed Euridice , Gluck drastically curtailed the virtuosity of singing as an end in itself, abolished the secco recitative, whereby the demarcation between aria and recitative, as has always been the case in tragedy lyrique given, greatly reduced. So he brought together the Italian and French traditions. This continued with Alceste (1767) and Paride ed Elena (1770). Gluck attached great importance to varied instrumentation and significantly increased the role of the choir. The labyrinthine subplots that were riddled with earlier baroque operas have been eliminated. In 1768 Jommelli's Fetonte (libretto: Verazi) was premiered. Ensembles and choirs are predominant here: the usual number of final arias has been cut by half. In many places, however, these changes have not been taken up, so that the metastasian model was the usual until the 1790s.


Anton Raaff , German tenor, who sang the title role in Mozart's Idomeneo , here in a heroic role.

Gluck's reforms have sidelined most of the composers of the opera seria of the past few decades: the careers of Hasse, Jommelli, Galuppi and Traetta were over. With the pull of the reforms, a new generation of composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart , Joseph Haydn , Antonio Salieri (a student of Gluck), Antonio Sacchini , Giuseppe Sarti and Domenico Cimarosa emerged. The da capo aria lost its popularity: it was increasingly being replaced by the rondo. The orchestras became bigger and richer in instrumental timbres, the ensembles more and more prominent. While Metastasios libretti still largely dominated the repertoire in the 1780s, a new group of Venetian librettists pushed the opera seria in a new direction. The work of Gaetano Sertor and the group around him eventually broke with the absolute dominance of the singers and gave the opera seria a new impetus towards the spectacular and dramatic elements that led to the romantic opera of the 19th century. The tragic ending, death on stage, and regicide became the rule rather than the exception. In the last decade of the century, the opera seria, as it had traditionally been defined, was essentially dead and the political upheavals that the French Revolution brought about swept it from the stage of operatic history.

Social context

With a few exceptions, the opera seria was the opera of the rulers: the monarchy and the nobility. Exceptions were the bourgeois theaters in London , Hamburg , Leipzig and Venice , whose productions were not commissioned by the royal houses, but were written for a broad audience from different social classes. Here the “opera business” reacted to the taste of the audience and not that of the aristocracy . For the most part, however, the opera seria was a court genre. And this served, in addition to the "Gemüths-Erötzung", the adulation of the ruler: You can see him on the stage in a different time and place z. B. to come victorious from a campaign or to meet his subordinates sometimes with severity, sometimes with grace. Opera seria subjects are strongly influenced by this criterion: Il re pastore shows the glory of Alexander the great , while La clemenza di Tito is aimed at the Roman emperor Titus . The potentates in the audience watch their old-time counterparts and (want) to see that their benevolent autocracy is enough to make their own glory.

Many aspects of the staging contributed to this effect: Both the auditorium and the stage were illuminated during the performance, so the mirrored architecture of what was happening on the stage and in the boxes of the court opera was obvious to everyone. Sometimes the connections between the opera and the royal audience were even closer: Gluck's Serenata Il Parnaso confuso was performed for the first time in Vienna with a cast made up of members of the royal family. With the French Revolution, however, the political upheavals also came to Italy, where republics were established and old autocracies fell. Thus the Arcadian ideal of the opera seria became increasingly irrelevant. Rulers on the stage were no longer free from violent deaths and under the new social ideals the hierarchy of singers that had prevailed in opera up to that point also disappeared. The opera seria was so closely allied with the powerful of late feudalism that their fall was their downfall.

See also

  • Albert Gier : The Libretto - Theory and History . Insel Taschenbuch: Musikwissenschaft, Frankfurt am Main and Leipzig 2000, ISBN 3-458-34366-0 .
  • Opera seria and Opera buffa in the article Opera
  • Andrea Chegai: L'esilio di Metastasi. Forme e riforme dello spettacolo d'opera from Sette e Ottocento. Storia dello spettacolo Saggi 2, Florence 1998.

Web links

Commons : Opera seria  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ A b The New Grove, Opera, §II, 2: Metastasian Serious Opera. ISBN 1-56159-174-2 , Section 1: Dramaturgy , pp. 555f.
  2. ^ Carlo Goldoni: Mémoires . Paris 1787, pp. 185f.
  3. For this section see: Leslie Orrey, Rodney Miles: Opera - A Concise History. World of Art, Thames & Hudson, ISBN 0-500-20217-6 .
  4. Christopher Hogwood: Handel. Insel Verlag, 2000, ISBN 978-3-458-34355-4 , p. 140.
  5. John Wilson (Ed.): Roger North on music. Being a selection from his essays written during the years c. 1695-1728. Novello, London 1959.
  6. For this section see: The New Grove, Opera, §II, 2: Metastasian Serious Opera, Section 2: 1720–1740 , p. 556.
  7. For this section see: The New Grove, Opera, §II, 2: Metastasian Serious Opera, Section 3: 1740–1770 , pp. 556f.
  8. For this section see: The New Grove, Opera, §II, 2: Metastasian Serious Opera, Section 4: 1770–1800 , pp. 557f.
  9. For this section see: Leslie Orrey, Chapter 5, pp. 67, 84 and The New Grove, Opera, §II, 2: Metastasian Serious Opera, Section 4.