The style of opera that was popular in the Baroque came to be known as opera seria. It dealt with serious historical and/or mythological themes. This style of opera remained popular in the early part of the Classical era, but a new genre of opera emerged: opera buffa. This page talks about the characteristics of opera buffa and the ways it differed from opera seria. Also make note of some of the regional variations of opera buffa (Singspiel, opera comique, etc.).
Opera buffa (Italian, plural: opere buffe; English: comic opera) is a genre of opera. It was first used as an informal description of Italian comic operas variously classified by their authors as “commedia in musica,” “commedia per musica,” “dramma bernesco,” “dramma comico,” “divertimento giocoso.”
Especially associated with developments in Naples in the first half of the 18th century, whence its popularity spread to Rome and northern Italy, buffa was at first characterized by everyday settings, local dialects, and simple vocal writing (the basso buffo is the associated voice type), the main requirement being clear diction and facility with patter.
The New Grove Dictionary of Opera considers La Cilla (music by Michelangelo Faggioli, text by F. A. Tullio, 1706) and Luigi and Federico Ricci’s Crispino e la comare (1850) to be the first and last appearances of the genre, although the term is still occasionally applied to newer work (for example Ernst Krenek’s Zeitoper Schwergewicht). High points in this history are the 80 or so libretti by Carlindo Grolo, Loran Glodici, Sogol Cardoni and various other approximate anagrams of Carlo Goldoni, the three Mozart/Da Ponte collaborations, and the comedies of Gioachino Rossini.
Similar foreign genres such as opéra comique or Singspiel differed as well in having spoken dialogue in place of recitativo secco, although one of the most influential examples,Pergolesi’s La serva padrona (which is an intermezzo, not opera buffa), sparked the Querelle des bouffons in Paris as an adaptation without sung recitatives.
Comic characters had been a part of opera until the early 18th century, when “opera buffa” began to emerge as a separate genre. Opera buffa was a parallel development to opera seria and arose in reaction to the so-called first reform of Zeno and Metastasio. It was, in part, intended as a genre that the common man could relate to more easily. Whereas opera seria was an entertainment that was both made for and depicted kings and nobility, opera buffa was made for and depicted common people with more common problems. High-flown language was generally avoided in favor of dialogue that the lower class would relate to, often in the local dialect, and the stock characters were often derived from those of the Italian commedia dell’arte.
In the early 18th century, comic operas often appeared as short, one-act interludes known as intermezzi that were performed in between acts of opera seria. These gave way to the full-fledged opera buffa later in the 18th century. La serva padrona by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710–1736), is the one intermezzo still performed with any regularity today, and provides an excellent example of the style.
Apart from Pergolesi, the first major composers of opera buffa were Nicola Logroscino, Baldassare Galuppi and Alessandro Scarlatti, all of them based in Naples or Venice.
The opera buffa’s importance diminished during the Romantic Period. Here, the forms were freer and less extended than in the serious genre and the set numbers were linked by recitativo secco, the exception being Donizetti’s Don Pasquale in 1843. With Rossini, a standard distribution of four characters is reached: a prima donna soubrette (soprano or mezzo); a light, amorous tenor; a basso cantante or baritone capable of lyrical, mostly ironical expression; and a basso buffo whose vocal skills, largely confined to clear articulation and the ability to “patter,” must also extend to the baritone for the purposes of comic duets.
The type of comedy could vary, and the range was great: from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville in 1816 which was purely comedic, to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in 1786 which added drama and pathos. Another example of Romantic opera buffa would be Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore of 1832.
Relation to and Differences from Opera Seria
While opera seria deals with gods and ancient heroes and only occasionally contained comic scenes, opera buffa involves the predominant use of comic scenes, characters, and plot lines in a contemporary setting. The traditional model for opera seria had three acts, dealt with serious subjects in mythical settings, as stated above, and used high voices (both sopranos and castrati) for principal characters, often even for monarchs.
In contrast, the model that generally held for opera buffa was having two acts (as, for example, The Barber of Seville), presenting comic scenes and situations as earlier stated and using the lower male voices to the exclusion of the castrati. This led to the creation of the characteristic “basso buffo,” a specialist in patter who was the center of most of the comic action. (A well-known basso buffo role is Leporello in Mozart’s Don Giovanni).