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2003-03-04 Opera - where the guy gets stabbed in the back and sings instead of bleeding

"Opera is when a guy gets stabbed in the back, and instead of bleeding, he sings." (Ed Gardner) Whatever one thinks of opera, nobody can deny it is probably the most lavish of all art-forms. It has everything theatre has - drama, soliloquy, dialogue, scenery, lighting and action, and on top of all of that is layered some of the most sublime vocal and orchestral music.

 

In this, the first installment of a two-part extremely brief history of opera, I shall try to explain how this unique, enduring, and sadly often elitist art-form came to be. The association of music and drama goes back all the way to ancient Greece with the plays of Euripides and Sophocles. Parts of medieval liturgical dramas were sung and the `Miracle Plays' of the Middle Ages had incidental music. Later, there was a tradition to have intermedi/intermezzi between the acts of a play (most notably in Florence).

These were normally of a pastoral or mythological theme - men in tights `n all that. There were also `madrigal dramas' in which the singers were placed behind a curtain, their music often painting or highlighting moments in the drama. Not a bad idea, and I can immediately think of a whole host of singers who might be better off behind a curtain. Over the years, these madrigals employed more and more musical motifs such as weeping and laughing, and in so doing almost became mini- operas. `Madrigal dramas' were normally for concert performance or private entertainment, the most famous surviving example being "L'Amfiparnasso" by Vecchi.

The first opera, as we know it, came in 1597 with Jacopo Peri's "Dafne". Ten years later in 1607 came Claudio Monteverdi's "Orfeo" which many see as the first opera proper. By now, a type of free-style declamation known as `recitative' (literally `speech-song') was being used to hurtle the drama forward.

Caccini and Cavalli are other notable 17th century masters. In the second half of the 17th century, Venice became the hub of the opera world, but it was to spread even further. The Italian Lully moved to Paris and began to develop the role of the overture and ballet within opera. He was possibly more famous for stabbing himself in the foot with his large conducting stick and dying from gangrene. Centuries before electricity, `stage machinery' was a vital part of these early performances.

I was fortunate to have witnessed some of that original machinery in action at Drottningholm in Sweden and with it, the creation of fantastic storms and the intervention of multifarious gods. See Bergmann's "Magic Flute"on video for a real treat. Vocal virtuosity was beginning to be show-cased and was to reach its peak in 18th and 19th century opera. Antonio Vivaldi and Alessandro Scarlatti were prolific and successful opera composers in their day, in England John Blow and Henry Purcell stand out as early masters, and France had Rameau.

G.F. Handel spent 35 years of his life writing operas and his libretti were normally tales of magic or of Roman history. Handelian arias were either brilliant vocal displays or sustained sublime show-stoppers. The `Da Capo' aria was a chance for the singer to repeat the first part of the aria and show off by embellishing it, often beyond recognition (sure I've been a culprit myself).

The disturbing phenomenon that was `the castrato' had now become the star of the operatic stage, and also every adulterous lady's `dream date' - think about it, or maybe don't on second thoughts! (I will remind you of that fabulous film "Farinelli"). Gluck was the first real `opera reformist', being as concerned with the drama as he was with the music. There was now a war between people like Gluck and the composers of Italian comic opera, aptly called the `Guerre des Bouffons'.

Haydn's operas were very successful in their day but few are still performed, though Opera Theatre Company have staged several of his works very successfully. The first classical opera `giant' (and my `Desert Island' composer) was Mozart. Despite only living to his mid 30s, his works are the staple diet of opera companies everywhere. One only has to say names like "Figaro", "Cosi fan tutte", "Magic Flute" and "Don Giovanni" to prove that point, every one a hit. Here endeth my brief story of the birth of opera until the end of the 18th century. Apologies to the countless masters I have omitted. Part 2 next week.