Monteverdi to Rossini - Italian Opera
Donald Macleod conducts a whistle-stop tour through two centuries and more of Italian opera, from Monteverdi to Rossini.
We open with opera in its infancy, as Donald explores the origins of the form in the courtly entertainments of late-16th-century Florence, and we hear from the earliest true opera to have survived intact. Then Monteverdi comes on the scene and the infant's growth accelerates rapidly - we hear from the first operatic masterpiece, then from one of the first operas to offer a realistic portrayal of human relations and motivations. It's about Poppea, a courtesan who sleeps her way to the very top. Finally, a look at the two composers who more than any others dominated the genre in the immediate aftermath of Monteverdi - Francesco Cavalli and Antonio Cesti. They're hardly famous names today, but between them they produced the most popular operas of the entire 17th century.
The exploration continues with the 1720s, and the work of three giants of their day, whom history has treated rather differently: Alessandro Scarlatti; Antonio Vivaldi; and George Frideric Handel. Today Alessandro Scarlatti's reputation is outshone by that of his son Domenico, but he was one of the major musical figures of his time, with over 100 operas to his credit - of which very few are ever performed today.
Unlike Scarlatti, Vivaldi's operatic 'rehabilitation' is well under way, but despite his considerable output - he's known to have composed at least 50 operas, 16 of which have survived - he's still far better known for his instrumental music. Time has been kinder to Handel's operas, many of which are regularly staged today. Handel was German by birth, but he spent a good chunk of his early professional life in Italy, writing opera in the Italian language and the Italian tradition, and he carried on doing so after he settled in London in 1712. It's a sign of the enormous international success of Italian opera that its leading exponent in the late Baroque, only a century or so after its invention, wasn't actually an Italian.
Next, Donald turns to the 18th-century tradition of opera seria - serious opera - with music by some very familiar names and some relatively obscure ones. Giovanni Battista Pergolesi is probably best known today for his comic intermezzo Il serva padrona, and for providing some of the source material for Stravinsky's ballet Pulcinella. But, we hear from him here in his serious mode, in an opera written three years before his untimely death at the age of 26.
Baldassare Galuppi and Niccolò Jommelli were two of the foremost operatic composers of the mid-18th century, now almost entirely overlooked; Jommelli in particular is a master of thrillingly expressive music, and well overdue for a revival. Christoph Willibald Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice was one of the most influential operas of its time, still widely performed today. Finally, extracts from an early opera by Mozart and a late one by Haydn. Mozart's, the work of a dazzlingly precocious 14-year-old, was shelved for two centuries despite the great success of its opening run. Haydn's never even got the opening run, planned for London in 1791 - it fell foul of local political rivalries and had to wait nearly 160 years for its first performance.
Then to the batty world of opera buffa, with lecherous masters and saucy maids gambolling about suggestively in ludicrous plots. Very few people today have heard of Gaetano Latilla, but in his own time he was considered one of the most important composers of Italian opera. His La finta cameriera - 'The Fake Maid' - was one of the few full-length comic operas successfully exported from Naples in the 1730s. Baldassare Galuppi also did comedy; his La diavolessa - 'The She-Devil' - is a delightful work with a completely implausible plot. The curtain comes down with Mozart, who brought the buffa line to an unsurpassable peak of perfection with his three comic operas to librettos by Lorenzo da Ponte.
We reach Signor Crescendo himself, Gioacchino Rossini. Rossini is known above all for his dazzling comic masterpiece The Barber of Seville, but like many of his musical forbears he also cultivated his 'serious' side. It's a side that many listeners may be only dimly aware of, and it's never been particularly good box office. After a shaky start, The Barber became a perennial favourite with audiences. By contrast, the searing tragedy of Ermione just didn't catch on; the opera ran for a handful of nights before the composer withdrew it, after which it went into suspended animation until it was finally revived over a century and a half later. When they met in 1822, Beethoven advised Rossini to stick to comic opera. Ermione proves how wrong he was. We also hear from the two leading composers of Italian opera in the generation before Rossini, Ferdinando Paër and Simon Mayr - as with several of this week's composers, little-known now but major players in their own day.