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Origin And Meaning Of Opera

( Originally Published 1920 )



BY CHARLES KNIGHT.

AN "opera" (Italian, "a work") is a regular drama set to music, always accompanied by scenic representation, frequently by machinery, and sometimes by dancing. It appears (according to Doni) to have originated at Florence towards the end of the 16th century. The true opera, as found on all the Italian stages, whether in Italy or elsewhere, and as performed in the French language at the Academie Imperiale, admits no speaking; all is recitation or air, etc.; while what is called opera in the national theatres of Germany and England, as well as the French opera comique, is of a mixed kind-partly spoken, partly sung. In Italy the opera is divided into four kinds,-namely, the sacred, the serious, the semi-serious, and the buffa or comic. 1n France the division is into the grand'opera and opera comique. In Germany the divisions are more numerous, embracing the grand opera, the serious, the tragic, the heroic, the romantic, the allegorical, the military melodrama, the comic, and others.

The constituents of an opera, says Rousseau, are the poem, the music, and the decorations. The poetry addresses itself to the mind, the music to the ear, the painting to the eye; and it is the duty of the three to unite their powers, in order to move and make an impression on the heart. The truth is, that the poetry of an opera has long ceased to be considered otherwise than as a vehicle for music, and, but for the scenery and decorations, the saying of the Abbe Arnaud, that the Italian opera is a concert, of which the drama is the pretext, would be applicable to nine in ten of all productions of the kind that have appeared during the last seventy or eighty years.

The moment that the opera appeared out of its native country, and especially when it reached the British shores, it was attacked by a host of critics and wits. Addison and Swift were among the first to level the shafts of ridicule at it, and were followed by Pope, Young, and many others. Addison lived to retract his opinion; for some of the absurdities which the opera in its infant state presented were soon corrected, though certainly enough remained, and must for ever remain, to sanction the objections of those who tried, or may still judge, the melodrama by the cold stubborn laws of unpoetical probability...

That the opera, properly so called, whether Italian or French, is the offspring of the Greek drama,-an opinion that for years past has been gaining ground,-is supported by the most learned and able writers on the subject, and seems likely ere long to be universally adopted. The first that we have met with who has touched on this point is the "philosopher of Malmesbury, " Hobbes, who, in a letter to Sir William D'Avenant, says, "There is, besides the grace of style, another cause why the ancient poets chose to write in measured language, which is this: their poems were made at first with intention to have them sung, as well epic as dramatic (which custom hath long time been laid aside, but began to be revived in part of late years in Italy), and could not be made commensurable to the voice or instruments in prose-the ways and motions whereof are so uncertain and undistinguished (like the way and motion of a ship in the sea), as not only to discompose the best composers, but also to disappoint sometimes the most attentive reader, and put him to hunt counter for the sense. It was therefore necessary for poets in those times to compose in verse." This letter is dated Paris, 1650; consequently, written anterior to the establishment of the Academic Royale, or French opera.

Dryden, in the beginning of the preface to his "Albion and Albanius," rather hastily calls the opera "a modern invention, though built upon the foundation of the ethnic worship," and conjectures that it was borrowed from the Spanish Moors; but in a postscript to the same he corrects himself in the following rather awkwardly-expressed manner: "Possibly the Italians went not so far as Spain for the invention of their operas; they might have it in their own country, and that by gathering up the shipwrecks of the Athenian and Roman theatres, which we know were adorned with scenes, music, dances, and machines, especially the Grecian." The learned Jesuit, Pere Menestrier, in his work "Des Representations en Musique," maintains that the ancient tragedies were chanted. Metastasio, in his "Estratto della Poetica d'Aristotile," expresses a most decided opinion that the Greek and Roman dramas, both tragedies and comedies, were sung, and cites in proof of this numerous classical authorities. Pye, in his "Commentary on the Poetic of Aristotle," while disputing some of the inferences of Metastasio, is obliged, though unwillingly, to acknowledge that the opera "most probably" is "a lineal and legitimate offspring of the Greek tragedy," and that the vastness of the Roman theatre "turned the necessary means of modulating the voice into a real musical accompaniment;" that is to say, the magnitude of the place rendered chanting or recitative unavoidable.

After collating what has been stated by various authors as to the date of its origin, we are persuaded that no regular opera was produced and publicly performed till Ottavia Rinuccini wrote and Jacopo Peri composed the drama of "Euridice" for the nuptials of Henri IV. of France and Mary of Medicis. This was represented in a very splendid manner at Florence, in 1600, and there published in the same year. Dr. Berni tells us 'Hist.' iv. 25) that he was never able to find more than one copy of Peri's "Euridice," which was in the library of the Marchese Rinuccini, a descendant of the poet. Having the good fortune to possess this very rare work, which is now before us, we can corroborate what the musical historian has said of it, that it is printed in score and barred, two very uncommon circumstances at the time of its publication; that the recitative seems to have been not only the model of subsequent composers of early Italian operas, but of the French operas of Lulli; that figures are often placed over the base to indicate the harmony; that the time changes as frequently as in the old French serious operas; and though the word aria occurs, it is difficult to distinguish air from recitative by any superiority of melody, except in the choruses. There is no overture to this, but a musical prologue of seven stanzas instead, sung in the character of Tragedy. Peri, in an address to his readers (a lettori), gives an account of his orchestra, which was placed behind the scenes, and consisted of a harpsichord, a large guitar, a lira grande (that is, a viol da Gamba, according to Burney), and an arch-lute.

The Bolognese dispute with the Florentines the honour of having first produced a musical drama, but it appears that the "Euridice" was performed in their city the year after it had been produced at Florence. The opera was introduced at Venice in 1637, at Naples in 1646, and at Rome in 1671.

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