Romantic Operas

October 22, 2012

“Opera” in the narrow sense of definition, means drama, in which actors sing throughout. By the Classical-Romantic aesthetic view, opera is a form of self-expressive musical art, and this view as influenced by the European Enlightenment in 1780s remained throughout 19th and 20th Centuries.

Italian operas were famous throughout Europe except France from the late 18th or early 19th century. The narrative nature is guided by “reason”. There are two main types of Italian operas : opera seria and opera buffa. In opera seria, the aria and recitative alternate to provide emotional narration and drama respectively. The aria is usually in da capo form (ABA), and it is usually metrical and rhymed, with the most common iambic tetrameter. The recitative is, on the other hand, metrical but unrhymed. A standard structure viewed in 1780s of the opera seria would be : six characters with at least two pairs of lovers, seven confidants required, and each of the principal has two arias and each exits immediately after singing each of the arias to allow applause from te audience. The typical subjects of opera seria are the hopeless love, violent death and murder.

Opera buffa gained more popularity so that opera seria lost its ground in late 18th century. In opera buffa, a basso buffo is a clown figure and often sings in dialects, especially in Napolitan region. The subject is about everyday people like lawyers, farmers and merchants.

Italian comic operas in late 18th century were very popular, but they were also performed in minor theaters and for less elevated audience that the most successful composers did not care about writing this genre.

An important figure in the development of Italian Romantic opera is Johannan Simonr Mayr, an Italianized-Bavarian composer. His “Saffo” is an opera seria with the typical Metastasian organization of scenes, a heroic castrato role and variety of aria forms. The Medea on Connto” is full of local color, complex recitative, variety of aria forms, extended ensemble finales and virtuosic orchestral writing.

Rossini’s “Le Barbier de Seville” remains nowadays as one of the most popular Italian opera buffas. The extended ensemble finale format was written under the influence of Mayr. There are sharply drawn characters and situations, wit and parody musical drama, and colorful orchestral writing. He is famous in using multitempi arias in which tempi of dramatic actions. His first attempt in Paris is the French adaptation of Italian work which becomes “Le siege de Corinthe” with great influence of the French opera.

Paris operatic tradition fashioned itself to the whole European world. The younger generations of Italian composers after Rossini are Donizetti and Bellini.

Donizetti was much influenced by French operatic tradition and looked towards Paris very much. There was the love for Hugo and French Romanticism inside him. The “Lucrezia Borgia” is a story by Hugo and the “The Lucia di Lammarmoor” is a Romantic novel by Sir Walter Scott. His operas have the typical Italian operatic subjects and combine the characteristics of French and Italian operas. The chorus becomes more important and the orchestra provides the musical background to enhance the flow of drama.

Bellini’s “Norma” (1831) is an opera with tremendous drama and emotion. It contains romantic lyricism (typical Italian vocal melody), warm and lust orchestra sound, exciting moments and flow of musical drama, and great use of chorus (for dramatic narration). The “Casta Diva” is an aria with the typical structure of the time: it has two parts, the first being cavatina (slow and lyrical), and the second caballetta (vigorous and rhythmic). The orchestra provides the prelude and emotional background for the soprano who takes up the same melody after the flute plays it. The beginning phrase has two halves that are symmetrical.

In the 19 century of Germany, operatic tradition has not yet established but under great influence of French and Italian operas. “Singspiel” was common at the time with spoken dialogue to provide dramatic action.

In North Germany, there was much influence of English ballad opera while in South Germany, Italian opera buffa was very popular. In Vienna, Singspiele prevailed Mozart’s “Eunfunrung aus dem Serail” and “Die Zauberflöte”, with all these exotic subjects and Turkish music. “Günther” was the first German opera in full score. Spohr’s “Jessonda” was famous with local color, Romanticism and Germanic-style music. Yet it is also full of exoticism with chorus of Brahmins, characters of Indian soldiers and temple dancers.

Schubert in fact wrote nine German operas but with little success. “Die Zauberharfe” is about the legendary musical instrument that audience loved. His operas use bad librettos and the close and discreet structure of German musical form provides little flow to the dramatic motion.

Hofmann was very influential In the development of German Romantic opera. His prototype as artist and musician established as the ideal of German Romanticism. His operas were not successful. The “Undine” is about the medieval legend of the Underwater World Undine, but the music remains mediocre of the time. His tales were used as libretto in “Tannhäuser” and “Die Meistersinger” by Wagner, and his story about Don Juan influenced Mozart’s opera.

Weber is often described as the originator of German Romantic opera. His ideal was to combine French decoration, Italian drama and lyricism, and German harmony and instrumentation together in the operas. His “Die Freischutz” is about the old German myth from a ghost-story book. The “Wolf’s Glen” scene from Act II has combination of arioso song, recitatives and dramatic actions among other elements. The spoken dialogue remains to promote dramatic flow. The orchestra became more and more important in the provision of background and action.

In the late 19th Century, both Italy and Germany were under the political and cultural turmoil. People wanted national unification and independence from other countries’ control and influence. The “Cabonari” and the “Junges Deutschland” were to promote these ideas and demanded musical and artistic freedom.

Verdi also promoted the same ideas in his opera. His use of folk music and unison chorus revealed the nationalistic idea and the unison voice of people. “La Traviata” (1853) uses libretto story by Dumas, the French Romantic novelist. The “finale” is a combination of dramatic ensemble and aria. The orchestra provides musical background and emotional situation of the characters.

Wagner was influenced by French Grand Opera. His ideal was to combine French and German opera characteristics together. His “Der Fliegende Höllander” is based on Dutch legend retold by Heine. It is diatonic with little dissonance and combination of French and German musical formation and ideas. It is also the typical Wagnerian subject: the redemption through love. His “Rienze” is under French-opera influence and “Die Feen” is a German Romantic opera. His later works are his realization of “Gesamkunstwerk”, combination of music and drama in a perfect ideal of the composer.

Teresa Wong

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