Preferred Citation: Littlejohn, David. The Ultimate Art: Essays Around and About Opera. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  1992.

Chapter Three— When Opera Was Still Serious

Chapter Three—
When Opera Was Still Serious

Opera seria is something today's average operagoer is more likely to read about than to hear or see. The exceptions—all of which have benefited from revivals in recent years—are the operas of Handel; Mozart's Idomeneo and La clemenza di Tito; and, insofar as the term can be legitimately extended into the nineteenth century, Rossini operas like Tancredi, Maometto II (later rewritten as The Siege of Corinth ), and Semiramide . In the past twenty years, British and American audiences have had the opportunity to see all of these works, including a broad sampling of Handel's operas and (in a few places, at least) Vivaldi's Orlando furioso . We may finally be developing a clearer sense than our parents and grandparents could have had of the peculiar nature and mixed attractions of this old-fashioned, once incredibly popular form.

For the better part of the eighteenth century, opera seria was opera, for all of the world (except France) that knew opera existed. Thousands of ad hoc recitative-and-aria constructions were hammered together for court and commercial theatres all over Europe, most of them named after and dealing with kings, queens, princes, or princesses of ancient or legendary realms, their dynastic rivalries, and their tangled loves.

All of these were performed in Italian, no matter what the local language. They were built around action-stopping, stand-and-deliver solo vocal showpieces of the sort we now call "da capo" arias—arias in which the first of two short stanzas, usually made up of four lines sung several times each and repeated, is then repeated again "from the top," or da capo, at the end of the song, in a frequently spectacular display of whatever grace notes, trills, scale runs, shakes, and unbelievably long-held breaths the singer can manage.

"The secret of this stupefying popularity tends to elude us," one modern music historian has written. Why, for the better part of a hundred years, did people in


London, Vienna, and Prague, let alone every city in Italy, apparently so crave this form of entertainment that they often went to see it two or three times a week? Why did they expect new opera seria every year (which is the reason so many of them had to be written), but then sit through the same ones night after night? And why, with relatively few exceptions (such as the operas just noted), have most of them disappeared?

It's easier to talk about opera seria than it is to define it. In Handel and the Opera Seria , Winton Dean uses the term to mean "all Italian opera other than opera buffa during Handel's lifetime [i.e., 1685–1759]." But you can get by with that only if you're writing about Handel. The poets and composers who wrote opera seria didn't even start calling it that until sometime around 1785. I'm using the term to mean all totally noncomic operas with Italian texts between the first by Alessandro Scarlatti and Handel (1705–1707) and the late-blooming "heroic" operas of Rossini (1813–1823).

One man's name so dominates every discussion of opera seria that one is tempted to use him as a guide, and build a definition around his life and work. Pietro Metastasio, né Trapassi, was a clever grocer's son born in Rome in 1698. From the age of eleven, he was adopted and carefully educated by a learned humanist who (correctly) saw in him the promise of a major poet. After writing for Italian theatres seven immensely successful melodramme , or dramme per musica —plays in verse intended to be set to music—Metastasio was appointed court poet to Emperor Charles VI at Vienna in 1730. Particularly admired by Charles's daughter, Empress Maria Theresa, Metastasio lived in Vienna in fame and comfort until his death in 1782. In Vienna, he wrote twenty more plays-for-opera, as well as poems, texts for cantatas, oratorios or azione teatrale , 2,500-plus letters, and essays on Aristotle and the Italian epic poets.

Alfred Loewenberg, in Annals of Opera , cites 107 surviving operas written to Metastasio's texts. But Loewenberg estimates that Metastasio's 27 plays (it is demeaning and imprecise to refer to them simply as librettos) were set to music "far more than a thousand times." Between 70 and 100 operas (authorities differ) made use of his best play, Artaserse , as a text; perhaps 80 more of Alessandro in India; at least 60 of his first original play, Didone abbandonata , of 1724; and at least 50 of L'Olimpiade (The Olympic Games ).

The odds are that you've never heard, perhaps never even heard of, any of these operas—although a decent Hungarian recording of Antonio Vivaldi's setting of L'Olimpiade (Venice, 1734) was made for the tricentennial of the composer's birth in 1978, when the opera was also performed in Turin. The one Metastasio title you may know is La clemenza di Tito , which was first set to music by Antonio Caldara for Vienna in 1734 and later by forty to sixty others—including Mozart, whose version was first performed in Prague in 1791, just three months before he died.


Mozart also made use of Metastasio's text for Il re pastore , and of his alterations to Giovanni da Gamerra's Lucio Silla (composed when Mozart was sixteen). He set to music a serenata and an oratorio by Metastasio and, as single songs or vocal ensembles, more than twenty of his poems, most of them taken from his plays. Vivaldi wrote music for three of Metastasio's plays. Handel also wrote music for three, and new arrangements for the scores of four others. Gluck, who is supposed to have led a rebellion against Metastasio, set a total of fifteen. His plays have been "musicked" into operas by Haydn, Cherubini, Cimarosa, J. C. Bach (who used eight of them), Pergolesi, Nicola Piccinni, Baldassare Galuppi, and Thomas Alexander Arne.

These are the better known. Most of the Italian and German opera composers who spread Metastasio's characters, plots, and poetry all over Europe have passed into the quiet possession of music historians: Antonio Caldara, Leonardo Vinci, Leonardo Leo, Johann Adolf Hasse, Niccolò Jommelli, Tommaso Traetta.

As someone tends to do at least once a generation, Metastasio and his fellow "Arcadians"—notably Apostolo Zeno, the man who preceded him as court poet at Vienna—set out in the years around 1700 to reform opera of its more egregious and irrational abuses. What these reformers found distasteful in Italian opera of the generation before theirs was the great distance it had sunk from the literary-humanist, Neoclassical ideals of the Florentine gentlemen who had invented opera just a century before.

The reformers, originally a group of Rome-based literati, objected to the casual infusion of comic characters into tragic or heroic plots, which could swell casts to twenty or more. They objected to the excessive dependence on "miraculous" events—sea monsters rising out of the waves, gods descending in four-horse chariots, distant planets, transformation scenes, sets that rose and fell at the whim of sorcerers. They objected to five-hour-long spectacles containing forty to sixty arias. They denounced the wild and tangled plots of bastardized classic stories, which sometimes sound less like opera than like the extravagant and facetious rewritings of fairy tales still popular as Christmas "pantomimes" in England. (The "corrupt," crowd-pleasing style is still visible in the operas of Handel, who tended to ignore dramatic reforms.)

But what had the reformers to offer in place of Italian Baroque opera—what one critic of 1706 called this "monstrous union of a thousand improbabilities"?

You can learn what most opera seria plots are like by reading the collected works of Pietro Metastasio; I stopped, I confess, after fifteen plays. In each of these, five or six characters are royal, noble, or at least heroic. The sixth or seventh—there are never more than seven named parts—may be a confidant(e), who is there to permit his or her master or mistress to express intimate emotions, as Desdemona does to Emilia. Occasionally one has need of a messenger to report offstage horrors ("É morto?" "É morto!").


The lead singers—who usually numbered, in those days, two male (i.e., castrato) sopranos and two females—had to include at least four royal-type lovers. (High vocal ranges equal love.) These characters are either not in love with the people who love them, or are prevented from consummating their love by affairs of state, disguises, promises previously made, or the edicts of unfeeling royal fathers. This permits plots of sustained tension and complication, and numerous occasions for "broken-heart" arias—arias of sensual torment and self-pity that display soprano voices so well. The addition of a fifth or even a sixth unhappy secret admirer, or amanta occulta (who may also be the confidant or messenger), can add to the intrigue, and provide more opportunity for poignant vocal confessions of unrequited love.

Lower vocal ranges are reserved for royal fathers, secondary generals, and villains. Their job is to stir up the nonamatory portions of the plot (palace coups, wars with rival kingdoms, threats of tyrannicide—although a great many arias are about death, no major character should actually die in an opera seria, because we want them all on stage for the finale); and to do all they can to keep the proper lovers from pairing off before the ultima scena , when (as a rule) everything comes out all right.

In three of Metastasio's twenty-seven melodramme , good people do die before the end, although for noble and heroic reasons. Far more often, some sudden revelation ("Ecco tuo figlio!" "Ecco mio padre!") dissolves the barriers that have separated the two sets of lovers for three stressful, music-filled acts. The villain, smitten by the sublime goodness of everyone on stage, instantly reforms. The tyrant-king or emperor now finds himself obliged by his own laws to order the death of the malefactors—frequently including his best-beloved friend, even his own son. Instead, he has a last-moment inspiration of superlative goodness (hence, "The Clemency of Titus"—or of Hadrian, Caesar, Cyrus, Alexander, or Artaxerxes), forgives everybody, and is praised in a quick closing chorus.

Metastasio does not, however, just write the same plot over twenty-seven times, as his detractors have claimed. In each of his best plays, he rethinks the conventions, comes up with a new and provocative set of circumstances, and works hard to make us care about his highminded, overemotional, melodrama-trapped characters.

Since the mid-nineteenth century, it has been de rigeur to sneer at the simplistic, plot-complicating recitatives of opera seria. But I found many of these sequences (some of which are set in elaborate verse forms, for composers to make the most of) to be impressively dramatic. In Alessandro nell'Indie , for example, Metastasio's second most popular text, a king and a queen of rival Indian kingdoms—both under heavy pressure from Alexander the Great—share scenes of tender, then bitter verses, love/hate exchanges that cry out for the melodies and orchestral commentaries of a master musical dramatist. Caesar's confrontation with Cato in Catone in Utica is great theatre by any standard, musical or not.


The most challenging set of rules for the poet of all opera seria dealt with the arias. Every lead singer had to have at least four of these, properly spaced throughout the opera; secondary singers got one to three. (There were few duets or ensembles; star singers of the time did not like sharing.) Each aria—though this was frequently not the case—was supposed to convey a different, set, single emotion (rage, jealousy, grief), which exploded out of the foregoing recitative. No two arias in a row were to express similar emotions. Each aria was to be followed at once by the exit of its singer, to avoid breaking up the recitative and to encourage maximum applause. Before the end of the century, frustrated composers were breaking many of these rules.

You can understand why. Try to write a serious, rational, didactic (and entertaining) Neoclassical happy-ending verse drama, containing between twenty and twenty-five passionate exit speeches (each of these speeches running to eight rhyming lines of seven to ten syllables each); make those lines dramatically meaningful; and somehow keep the action surrounding them continuous and gripping. "Quel labirinto!" as one character in L'Olimpiade remarks on the plot he finds himself in.

One further bend to the labyrinth: just after being condemned to death, rejected by your lover, or betrayed by your best friend—all good motives for a passionate exit-aria explosion—you must sing four lines (sometimes five or three; even two, in Handel) expressing your plight; sing them again, modulating to the dominant or the relative minor; and then sing them a third time, back to the tonic. Then sing a second stanza, in a related rhythm or key, perhaps taking back, qualifying, or reflecting on your original four lines. And then assert (da capo) your original outburst more passionately than ever, over and over and (singing your poor heart out) over again. In this way, eight short lines can be made to fill up five to ten minutes of vocalizing on stage—which is what people came to hear.

In one of Cleopatra's best-known arias in Handel's Giulio Cesare , what she is saying in her first two-line stanza is "Unless you show me pity, just heaven, I will die." What she sings is "Se pietà di me non senta, giusto ciel, io morirò, giusto ciel io morirò, io morirò giusto ciel, giusto ciel io morirò, se pietà di me non senta, giusto ciel il morirò, giusto ciel io morirò, giusto ciel io morirò, se pietà di me non senta, giusto ciel, giusto ciel io morirò, giusto ciel, giusto ciel io morirò, giusto ciel io morirò." After a short break for two other lines and ritornellos, she sings these same words again.[1]

Some aria texts are purposely broken up into stuttering, schizophrenic frag-

[1] Mozart—at least the teenaged Mozart—was not above such "relentless" repetitions, as a recent biographer has called them. "Cinna's B-flat aria in Lucio silla  . . ." writes Wolfgang Hildesheimer, "has 281 bars of music for eight dreary lines of text. . . . Tamiri [in Il rè pastore ] in her A-major aria 'Se tu di me fai dono' (No. 11), asks the same question, 'Perchè sn'io crudele?' fully eighteen times."


ments. Others take the form of a "simile" aria, or aria di paragone , in which a confused, tormented, or ecstatic actor compares his or her emotional state to that of a river, a raging sea, a mother tiger, a serpent, or a drifting, abandoned ship. Other verses for arias are written to encourage picturesque or coloristic musical effects by including words for nightingales, zephyrs, trumpets, or death. Clever analysts like Eric Weimer have studied closely the musical settings of these supposedly formula-bound arias, to demonstrate how well their mellifluous syllables and translatable images lend themselves to musical composition, and how well certain composers rose to the challenge. "Metastasio's measures," wrote Dr. Burney, the eighteenth-century music historian and critic, "in the songs with which he terminates the scenes of his dramas, are so sweet and varied, that they have often suggested to musical composers, by the mere perusal, melodies of every kind."

Even though most of them have been lost, there are still far too many opera seria scores around for one to generalize safely about their music. Some of their basic features (the number and length of arias, the da capo form itself, the nature and degree of orchestral participation, the use of ensembles, the role of chorus and ballet) changed considerably as the eighteenth century drew to a close. Idomeneo (1781) has only twelve arias, but it has nine choral numbers, three marches, a ballet, and three ensembles. By La clemenza di Tito (1791), Mozart had cut the arias down to ten, half of them senza da capo , all with minimal word repeats or superfluous decorations. He added three duets, three trios, five choral numbers, and a march. Both operas include subtly scored and richly accompanied recitatives. In both, the orchestra plays a major dramatic role.

Before Mozart, few opera seria composers attempted to organize their chains of jewel-like arias and linking recitatives into musically unified wholes, or even to tie together series of numbers or scenes. Their operas were, as one critic puts it, the sum of their parts: nothing more and nothing less. What distinguishes them musically is what Donald Grout calls "that instinctive adaptation to the qualities and limitations of the voice which is the gift of nearly all Italian composers."

At the time they were written, no one regarded these particular combinations of words and music as holy works of art. The words inevitably came first—prima le parole, e poi la musica , to reverse the title of Salieri's buffa—and were regarded as more important and lasting than the scores, which might vary for every new production. Almost every opera composer of the century recycled old tunes (his own or others') into new operas. Handel's 1732 pasticcio arrangement of Leonardo Leo's Catone in Utica includes a few arias by the composer of record, but even more by Hasse, Porpora, Vivaldi, and Vinci, borrowed from a dozen different operas.

The texts would be altered as well, to suit the special conditions of any new performance. Even the great Metastasio agreed, under protest, to rewrite four of


his early hits to satisfy the demands of a celebrated castrato who insisted on fewer but longer arias. Our painstaking researches in quest of authentic or "definitive" scores would have made no sense to eighteenth-century opera composers, whose work was often seen as no more important than that of the set designer, and considerably less important than that of the singers. Their music was often regarded by its audiences as people today might regard the music at a circus or a film, which is one reason so relatively little of it has survived.

In fact, the expectations and behavior of audiences explain some of the stranger features of opera seria. In Italy during the eighteenth century, and probably in most other countries as well, going to the opera was regarded as a social, rather than an aesthetic, experience. (What's that? You say the same is true today?) Well-to-do patrons could rent boxes for a whole season, decorate them to their own taste, and turn them into small private living rooms where they could receive friends, chat, play cards, eat, and drink—all during the performance . "Chess is marvellously well adapted to filling in the monotony of the recitatives," observed a French visitor to Naples, "and the arias are equally good for interrupting a too assiduous concentration on chess." Because they knew the plots already, and weren't there for the story in any case, operagoers tended to talk through the recitatives (which grew shorter and shorter as the century progressed), and might turn toward the stage only to hear one of their favorite singers performing a big number. The whole experience was probably closer to an evening at Vauxhall Gardens, or a café concert in Paris (with occasional turns by a visiting celebrity singer) than to an evening at most opera houses today.

Under these circumstances, it was ultimately the celebrity singers, the primi uomini and prime donne , who called the shots. Paid ten times as much as the poet or composer, they were what people had come to sec and hear. These celebrities were expected to add their own vocal ornaments to the written score, pull out all stops for the da capo repeats, and improvise display pieces for the breaks, or cadenzas—which might include intricate note-for-note "duels" with a virtuoso flautist or trumpeter.

Throughout the century, angry poets, composers, and critics complained about the cavalier ways in which singers treated would-be serious operas. During the orchestral ritornellos between stanzas of their arias, singers might walk about, chat, adjust their costumes, or take snuff. They might bow to or joke with their friends in the audience. They sometimes interjected favorite arias of their own, totally irrelevant to the plot. It was the star singers, not the composer-conductor, who set the pace of an aria. It was for them that new music had to be written each season, for them that composers had to come up with music carefully adapted to their individual vocal ranges, skills, and idiosyncrasies. It was the singers who insisted on shorter and shorter recitatives, longer and longer da capo sections, and


the extravagant multiplication of repeats, in order to have maximum opportunity to display their vocal prowess.

This short summary of what opera seria was, on the page and on the stage, may begin to suggest some of the reasons its silvery bubble burst. Not surprisingly, the aesthetically detached, primarily social, canary-fancier or café-concert relationship of upper-class audiences to opera seria gradually diminished: a vogue, briefly a craze, spectators tired of its growing extravagance, the old-fashioned sameness of it all, and turned to other amusements. Even the better late-Metastasian composers, like-Jommelli and Traetta, began to protest against the everlasting obligation to set the same old texts again and again—texts that seemed less and less suitable for the kind of music they wanted to write.

Although they were back by Rossini's time, castrati were banned after Napoleon invaded Italy in 1796. But it was generally agreed by those in a position to compare that none of their successors had measured up to the incredibly gifted male sopranos of 1720–1760, like Senesino and Farinelli. Without virtuosi castrati (who made the works seem freakish to the nineteenth century in any case), most opera seria was long regarded as unperformable.

Other changes, external and internal, helped bring about the demise of opera seria, or at least its transformation into something else. Italian opera buffa kept increasing in quality and popularity throughout the century, cresting with works by Paisiello, Haydn, Cimarosa, and, of course, Mozart and Rossini. Spared the need for classical, moralizing plots and sheer vocal display, comic operas grew to be more recognizably "human" and audience-involving than opera seria. This led to a serious split in the Italian theatregoing public. (A whole subgenre of comic opera was devoted to parodying opera seria—a tendency still audible in Così fan tutte .)

The rise of the symphony and the oratorio, and a growing preference for works in their own language, began to alienate German and English audiences from the long-dominant "Italian opera" mode. Paris, and French taste generally (which involved, among other things, greater use of chorus and ballet, and less dependence on vocal virtuosity), gradually took over the cultural center stage. After the French Revolution, the court theatres and aristocratic patronage that had supported opera seria began to wane. And the radically new works of Gluck and Mozart let people know that something better was possible.

After almost a century of neglect, the revival of opera seria began in Germany with seven performances of Handel operas at the Gövttingen Festival in the 1920s, and with the efforts of the Halle Festival, another Handel shrine. Winton Dean traces the British rediscovery of Handel's operas to an "almost accidental" production in 1955, which led to the creation of the Handel Opera Society in London. Both Halle


and the Handel Opera Society are now apparently committed to mounting all of Handel's thirty-nine surviving operas, and to "operatizing" as many of his oratorios as they can.

For the two hundred years before 1955, Dean noted, there had been only three English stage revivals of Handel's operas. Thirty years later, during the Handel bicentennial year of 1985, one could (with a little traveling) have seen at least sixty-seven fully staged professional productions of twenty-two Handel operas—including nine different versions of Giulio Cesare —as well as operatic stagings of twelve of his odes and oratorios. Companies around the world now perform Handel's operas every year, which has done more than anything else to accustom modern audiences to the conventions of opera seria. Although no threat yet to Aida, Bohème , or Carmen , Handel's Giulio Cesare and Orlando are inching up to the status of "repertory staples."

The summer festivals at Salzburg in Austria and Glyndebourne in England helped open the floodgates, before and during the bicentennial celebrations of Mozart's birth in 1956, to a worldwide deluge of his operas that has not yet diminished. His two best serious operas, Idomeneo (which tends to be called either "the best opera seria ever written," or a work so innovative it falls outside the genre altogether) and La clemenza di Tito , only returned to the regular repertory lists after revivals at these two festivals in 1949–1952. Since then, each of these operas has been recorded several times. Each is now produced by several companies or festivals a year—since 1970, in more or less accurate versions. (The United States tends to catch on to these rediscoveries a decade or so late.) The teenaged Mozart's lesser opere serie also get an occasional hearing nowadays, but then so does almost anything he wrote.

Gluck, whose most commonly performed works do fall outside the opera seria tradition, has been a persistent, if minor, repertory regular in France and Germany and, to a lesser degree, in other countries as well. Rossini's "historical romantic" operas, such as William Tell , have never quite fallen out of the repertory, but his early-nineteenth-century "heroic" operas (Semiramide, Tancredi , etc.) only began to reappear in the mid-1960s, when people like Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne—prime movers in the Handel opera revival as well—decided to risk singing them.

Until such singers appeared, one commentator after another had declared that opera seria was hopelessly beyond resurrection. Fifty years ago, it was simply taken for granted, by critics like E. J. Dent, that twentieth-century audiences would not tolerate "soprano heroes" of either sex. Even if they would, wrote another critic as late as 1955, "we haven't the singers able to satisfy the demands of ability, span, and expressiveness, not to mention the improvised embellishments."

So far, the opera seria revival hasn't moved very far beyond Handel, Mozart, Gluck, and Rossini. Other eighteenth-century composers—Piccinni, Galuppi,


Pergolesi, Cimarosa, and Paisiello—are well represented on the production lists, but almost exclusively by their comic operas. Since 1950, the opere serie of Vivaldi (ten productions of eight operas, according to Opera magazine) and of Haydn (seventeen productions of four operas) have attracted the most revivalist attention. Four of Alessandro Scarlatti's opere serie have been produced a total of nine times. In all three of these cases, I suspect that the popularity of the composer's non-dramatic work had something to do with the choice.

Jommelli's Fetonte was given at Stuttgart in 1986 and at La Scala in 1988, his La schiava liberata at Amsterdam, Naples, and Berkeley. Traetta's Antigone was given at Florence, Mannheim, Valle d'Istria, and Spoleto; his Ifigenia in Tauride , at Valle d'Istria. J. C. Bach's Amadis de Gaule (perhaps more a French opera than an Italian) has had three revivals; his Temistocle , two; his Lucio Silla , one. Two of Hasse's operas have had staged revivals since 1975; a third was done in concert, a fourth on the BBC. Salieri's grandiose, Gluckian Les Danaïdes had a bicentenary revival in Perugia in 1984. Carl Hcinrich Graun's Montezuma was brought back by the Berlin State Opera in 1982 and 1989, and performed at Menotti's Spoleto/Charleston Festivals in 1986–1987. Add two Giovanni Bononcinis, one each by Leo, Gasparini, Piccinni, and Sacchini, and a couple of early serious works by Cherubini and Pergolesi. Published scores of such works are becoming increasingly available, but the record of modern performance is still very thin.

When reviewing these rare revivals, critics often feel compelled to comment on how tedious and uninspired most opera seria seems to be, how far short of Handel, Gluck, and Mozart these lesser men fall: "A 20th Century audience cannot be expected to take an early opera seria [like Scarlatti's Mitridate ] quite seriously." "Taken as a whole, they [the arias of Hasse's Attilio regolo ] only revealed the incomparably finer and more subtle evocation of drama, the instrumental and vocal variety of Handel." "The value of the evening [J. C. Bach's Temistocle ] lay in the opportunity to glimpse an operatic epoch almost forgotten due to the later splendour of Mozart."

The conventions of any art form grow out of or in response to the ruling ideas and social conditions of its time and place. Depending on our distance from. that time and place, these conventions may seem to us puzzling, alien, freakish, even disgusting. Piled one on another, they can create a wall between us and the work we find impossible, or at least not worth the effort, to scale.

The chief conventions that still block access for many people to eighteenth-century opera seria are (1) the use of female-quality voices (whether women's or countertenors', castrati being no longer with us) for mature and manly heroes like Caesar and Titus, Achilles and Alexander; (2) the action-halting effect of so many long set-piece arias, which tend to kill the pace and continuity of a drama, and turn operas into concerts; (3) the vapidity of many of the aria texts, which become all


the more threadbare as the same words are repeated eight, ten, or twelve times, and as their vowels are stretched out for dramatically meaningless melismas; and (4) the foreign-language recitatives, which are often of minimal musical or dramatic interest.

The plots, I think, for all of their highmindedness and complexity, are rarely a problem. Any operagoer who can tolerate the plots of most works in the current repertory—Turandot , let us say, Parsifal , or Die Frau ohne Schatten —should have no trouble with Metastasio's. Some of Handel's plots, I concede, can be more than usually silly, even for opera. But most opera fans, today as in 1730, are willing to put up with silly plots in exchange for good music, well sung and well played, combined with impressive and appropriate staging.

The walls of convention that surround opera seria can be surmounted with the right kind of support from the people who produce it. Correct orchestration, performance style, and vocal ranges, I think, are the right way to start—within the limits of what is possible, and the freedoms the eighteenth century granted itself. There's no point in trying to sell eighteenth-century opera by trying to make it sound nineteenth century. When the acting, singing, and staging are coherent, strong, and full of conviction—whatever the chosen imagery or theatrical style—I find I can quite easily accept a Janet Baker or a Marilyn Home impersonating a Roman emperor or a medieval general. A few countertenors (Jeffrey Gall leaps to mind) have managed to overcome my resistance to that unearthly vocal range. The Italian language, I believe, is essential. The music is written to slip onto already lyrical vowel sounds like a fine glove onto flawless fingers, and can be made to fit no other language so suavely. There are often—almost always in Handel—spectacular possibilities for costume and spectacle. Even Metastasio, for all of his clucking about seventeenth-century Venetian excesses, wasn't above writing in queens who hurl themselves into burning cities, which are in turn swallowed up by oceans out of which rise divine kingdoms, ricca e luminosa; or Alexander's army encampment in India, "with elephants, towers, covered wagons, and war machines," within which a bloody battle takes place and a major bridge collapses.

Much of the recitative of opera seria can be acted, or at least musically declaimed, with something resembling the passion and conviction of a good Comédie-Française production of Racine. Lines that are certifiably brain dead can always be cut. But one must be very sure they're dead, and not carrying forward some essential current of action or music.

As for the five- to ten-minute tralalalalalala arias—I don't know what to say. I have serious problems with emotionally empty, musically dull, and dramatically meaningless da capo arias, which the opera seria tradition (including Handel) includes more of than one might wish. When florid singing is devoid of drama, I find myself counting the repeats, not rising on wings of song. In neither ballet nor


HANDEL Rinaldo , Marilyn Horne, Metropolitan Opera, 1984.
Photograph by Winnie Klotz.


opera am I a fan of "circus turn" acrobatics, the kind of spectator who can admire and applaud mere physical feats—super-rapid scales, trills, and shakes; a dozen bars sung without a breath; the single astonishing high note.

But accuracy, precision, notes hit dead center from distant leaps, tonal nuance and shading, and expression through the voice—these are something else, especially if the voice is beautiful to begin with and under total and artful control. A few da capo arias do work dramatically: when a character, like Orlando in his furioso phase, has clearly gone out of his mind, or when the words of the A-B-A sections have been musically converted into a credible sequence of evolving and contradictory emotions. But there is no way, logically, or even dramatico-irrationally, to "act" lines such as "I have a hundred phantoms [zombies, serpents: larve ] inside me, I have a thousand furies in my breast" (from L'Olimpiade ) eleven times over.

The 1981 San Francisco Opera production of Rossini's Semiramide , with Montserrat Caballé and Marilyn Horne, and the San Francisco Opera Center's production of Handel's Giustino in 1989 adopted what seemed to me very sensible approaches. The first round of an aria, about to explode into vocalise (the A-A'-B sections for Handel, the cavatina for Rossini), was sung "normally" on stage by a singer either soliloquizing alone or dramatically facing his or her lover/antagonist/confidant(e). For the second round, the singer then stepped to the front of the stage—on little peninsulas built out over the orchestra in Semiramide , before a painted curtain in Giustino —and sang the embellished A-A' repeats or cabalettas to us . We applauded; the curtain rose, or the actor moved back downstage; and the action continued. Directorial ideas like these seem to deal honestly with the knotty problem of "how to act repeats," and to acknowledge that Italian opere serie will always be half music-drama, half concert-in-costume.

The fundamental weakness of opera seria was the near-total separation of the dramatist (with his own literary pretensions, his nonmusical ideals) from the composer. Only when the two work together as one, or at least as a working partnership—with the composer clearly in charge—do we appear to have any chance of achieving operas of genuine and lasting dramatic force. Mozart and Gluck understood this perfectly. So did Monteverdi. So has every important composer since 1800.

How, then, are modern audiences to enjoy all of the serious Italian operas written between Monteverdi and Mozart? One way may be to pretend that we're in our own private box in Venice or Vienna, surrounded by food and drink and friends and the glow of a thousand candles, happily hearing it all for the first—or the twenty-first—time.



Chapter Three— When Opera Was Still Serious

Preferred Citation: Littlejohn, David. The Ultimate Art: Essays Around and About Opera. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  1992.