These few paragraphs drill down a bit deeper into the styles of the three opera composers we’ll study: Verdi, Wagner, and Pucinni. I don’t want to give the impression that nothing was happening in opera outside of Italy and Germany. Paris was a major center of opera composition in the 19th century, and there were world class opera houses in Prague and London that are still operating today. We simply have to pare down our focus in a one-semester survey course like this, and Verdi and Wagner were the biggest names in the business.
Bel canto, Verdi, and Verismo
La donna è mobile
Please listen to the following audio file to hear Enrico Caruso sing “La donna è mobile,” from Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto (1908)
No Pagliaccio non son
Please listen to the following audio file to hear an aria from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. Performed by Enrico Caruso
The bel canto opera movement flourished in the early 19th century and is exemplified by the operas of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Pacini, Mercadante and many others. Literally “beautiful singing,” bel canto opera derives from the Italian stylistic singing school of the same name. Bel canto lines are typically florid and intricate, requiring supreme agility and pitch control. Examples of famous operas in the bel canto style include Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia and La Cenerentola, as well as Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.
Following the bel canto era, a more direct, forceful style was rapidly popularized by Giuseppe Verdi, beginning with his biblical opera Nabucco. Verdi’s operas resonated with the growing spirit of Italian nationalism in the post-Napoleonic era, and he quickly became an icon of the patriotic movement (although his own politics were perhaps not quite so radical). In the early 1850s, Verdi produced his three most popular operas: Rigoletto, Il trovatore and La traviata. But he continued to develop his style, composing perhaps the greatest French Grand Opera, Don Carlos, and ending his career with two Shakespeare-inspired works, Otello and Falstaff, which reveal how far Italian opera had grown in sophistication since the early 19th century.
After Verdi, the sentimental “realistic” melodrama of verismo appeared in Italy. This was a style introduced by Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticanaand Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci that came virtually to dominate the world’s opera stages with such popular works as Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly and Turandot. Later Italian composers, such as Berio and Nono, have experimented with modernism.
The first German opera was Dafne, composed by Heinrich Schütz in 1627, but the music score has not survived. Italian opera held a great sway over German-speaking countries until the late 18th century. Nevertheless, native forms would develop in spite of this influence. In 1644 Sigmund Staden produced the first Singspiel, Seelewig, a popular form of German-language opera in which singing alternates with spoken dialogue. In the late 17th century and early 18th century, the Theater am Gänsemarkt in Hamburgpresented German operas by Keiser, Telemann and Handel. Yet most of the major German composers of the time, including Handel himself, as well as Graun, Hasse and later Gluck, chose to write most of their operas in foreign languages, especially Italian. In contrast to Italian opera, which was generally composed for the aristocratic class, German opera was generally composed for the masses and tended to feature simple folk-like melodies, and it was not until the arrival of Mozart that German opera was able to match its Italian counterpart in musical sophistication.
Mozart’s Singspiele, Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1782) and Die Zauberflöte (1791) were an important breakthrough in achieving international recognition for German opera. The tradition was developed in the 19th century by Beethoven with his Fidelio, inspired by the climate of the French Revolution. Carl Maria von Weber established German Romantic opera in opposition to the dominance of Italian bel canto. His Der Freischütz (1821) shows his genius for creating a supernatural atmosphere. Other opera composers of the time include Marschner, Schubert and Lortzing, but the most significant figure was undoubtedly Wagner.
Wagner was one of the most revolutionary and controversial composers in musical history. Starting under the influence of Weber and Meyerbeer, he gradually evolved a new concept of opera as a Gesamtkunstwerk (a “complete work of art”), a fusion of music, poetry and painting. He greatly increased the role and power of the orchestra, creating scores with a complex web of leitmotifs, recurring themes often associated with the characters and concepts of the drama, of which prototypes can be heard in his earlier operas such as Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser and Lohengrin; and he was prepared to violate accepted musical conventions, such astonality, in his quest for greater expressivity. In his mature music dramas, Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Der Ring des Nibelungen and Parsifal, he abolished the distinction between aria and recitative in favor of a seamless flow of “endless melody.” Wagner also brought a new philosophical dimension to opera in his works, which were usually based on stories from Germanic or Arthurian legend. Finally, Wagner built his own opera house at Bayreuth with part of the patronage from Ludwig II of Bavaria, exclusively dedicated to performing his own works in the style he wanted.
Opera would never be the same after Wagner and for many composers his legacy proved a heavy burden. On the other hand, Richard Straussaccepted Wagnerian ideas but took them in wholly new directions. He first won fame with the scandalous Salome and the dark tragedy Elektra, in which tonality was pushed to the limits. Then Strauss changed tack in his greatest success, Der Rosenkavalier, where Mozart and Viennesewaltzes became as important an influence as Wagner. Strauss continued to produce a highly varied body of operatic works, often with libretti by the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Other composers who made individual contributions to German opera in the early 20th century include Alexander von Zemlinsky, Erich Korngold, Franz Schreker, Paul Hindemith, Kurt Weill and the Italian-born Ferruccio Busoni. The operatic innovations ofArnold Schoenberg and his successors are discussed in the section on modernism.
During the late 19th century, the Austrian composer Johann Strauss II, an admirer of the French-language operettas composed by Jacques Offenbach, composed several German-language operettas, the most famous of which was Die Fledermaus, which is still regularly performed today. Nevertheless, rather than copying the style of Offenbach, the operettas of Strauss II had distinctly Viennese flavor to them, which have cemented the Strauss II’s place as one of the most renowned operetta composers of all time.