Opera in the Nineteenth Century

Hero worship, a return to nature, idealism, and fantasy are elements of late 18th-century romanticism that found their way into 19th-century German opera. Ludwig van Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio (1805, rev. 1814), is set against the background of French rescue opera and the theme of personal freedom versus political tyranny. But it was Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, which rested on the foundations of singspiel, that was really the point of departure for German romantic opera—for E. T. A. Hoffmann's Undine (1816) and Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz (1821) and Oberon (1826). These operas, although somewhat limited in melodic invention, fused in their plots the natural and the supernatural and paved the way for the grandiose music dramas of Richard Wagner, who also wrote his own librettos.

Wagner's early operas, such as Rienzi (1842), based on Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel of the same name, and Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman, 1843) are Italian-style operas, with arias, duets, trios, and choral pieces. In the romantic tradition, he turned to medieval lore for Tannhäuser (1845) and to tales of chivalry and knighthood for Lohengrin (1850), Tristan und Isolde (1865), and Parsifal (1882). Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868), Wagner's only comic opera, used the real-life cobbler and poet Hans Sachs as the central character.

The set pieces of the Italian school were put aside in favor of leitmotifs (leading motifs) that were used to identify individual characters and situations and present a continuous flow of music, at times almost symphonic in nature, which was uninterrupted by recitative. The culmination of this technique was Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelungs), a tetralogy composed of Das Rheingold (1869), Die Walküre (1870), Siegfried (1876), and Götterdämmerung (1876).

After the French Revolution (1789), spectacular and melodramatic operas became popular. Outstanding examples are by Luigi Cherubini, Étienne Nicolas Méhul, Jean François Lesueur, and Gasparo Spontini. Extensive use was made of plots involving rescue. Paris had now become the center of operatic activity, and the performance there of Daniel François Esprit Auber's La Muette de Portici (The Mute Girl of Portici, 1828), also known after its hero as Masaniello, Gioacchino Rossini's Guillaume Tell (William Tell, 1829), Giacomo Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable (1831), and Jacques Halévy's La Juive (The Jewess, 1835) established the grand opera tradition.

Grand opera, of which Meyerbeer's works are the outstanding examples, typically feature historical subjects with pointed reference to contemporary issues, religious elements, and violent passions. The influence of French grand opera was enormous, reaching even to the early works of Wagner and Verdi. Hector Berlioz's masterpiece Les Troyens (The Trojans, 1856–58), while owing nothing to Meyerbeer, may also be considered grand opera.

Opéra comique (distinguished from grand opera in that it had spoken dialogue) took two directions in the middle of the 19th cent., one lead toward operetta, the other toward a more serious, lyrical opera. Of that genre Ambroise Thomas, Charles Gounod, Georges Bizet, Léo Delibes, and Jules Massenet were the chief composers. Gounod's Faust (1859) and Bizet's Carmen (1875), two of the most popular French operas ever written, actually had spoken dialogue in their original versions, but this qualification for works given at the Opéra Comique theater was ultimately dropped. The operas of Emmanuel Chabrier and Vincent D'Indy show the influence of Wagner, while Gustave Charpentier's Louise (1900) is representative of naturalism. Perhaps the most complete realization of the ideals that had marked French opera from its beginning was Claude Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande (1902).

In Italy, the voice remained master of the orchestra, and melody, presented with clarity and directness, ruled out overly polyphonic writing. The early masters of this style were Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini. The arias were often in two large sections, a slow section displaying bel canto singing, i.e., smoothness of vocal line with flawless phrasing and high notes, followed by a cabaletta (a rapid section requiring precision singing). Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers, 1813) and Il Barbiere di Siviglia (1816) are just two of his comic operas that provide sparkling melodies, brilliant arias and ensembles, and fast-moving plots.

Gaetano Donizetti also wrote tragedies (for example, Lucia di Lammermoor, 1835) and a trilogy on the queens Elizabeth I, Mary Stuart, and Anne Boleyn that gave the soprano lead exquisite scenes and arias for displaying her ability at coloratura singing. His two comic operas L'Elisir d'Amore (1832) and Don Pasquale (1843) are in the same bubbling melodic vein of the best of Rossini. Vincenzo Bellini also gave his leading ladies splendid arias combining dramatic and coloratura techniques with unusually long melodic lines, such as those in Norma (1831) and I Puritani (1835). Neither he, Rossini, nor Donizetti slighted the male voices, writing parts that enabled them to display astonishing vocal versatility.

The dominant Italian composer in the second half of the 19th cent. was Giuseppe Verdi, whose operas epitomized the lyric-dramatic style of the Italian school. Verdi's operas are usually classified by periods—early, middle, late. Of the early period, Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar, 1842) was his first success. The middle period contains three undisputed masterpieces: Rigoletto (1851, based on Victor Hugo's drama The King's Jester), Il Trovatore (The Troubador, 1853), and La Traviata (1853, based on Alexandre Dumas' play Camille). All are characterized by Verdi's trademark: magnificent, sustained melodies in the standard forms of aria, recitative, and choral numbers.

The work initiating Verdi's third period was Aïda (1871). All his life Verdi searched for the ideal libretto and finally found two in his last operas. The tragic Otello (1887) and the comic Falstaff (1893), based on plays by Shakespeare with librettos by Arrigo Boito, brought new dimensions to operatic music. Verdi also wrote two operas for the Paris Opéra: Les Vêpres siciliennes (The Sicilian Vespers, 1855) and Don Carlos (1867).

Toward the end of the 19th cent. the verismo style came into being, which brought the seamier side of life to the operatic stage. Of these, Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry, 1890) and Ruggiero Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci (The Clowns, 1892), now almost always performed as a pair, are prime examples.

Of Verdi's successors in Italy, the only one who approached his genius was Giacomo Puccini. His simple, lyrical melodies, at times criticized for being overly sentimental, and his pungent orchestrations underline the tragic fates of his fragile heroines. Manon Lescaut (1893) and La Bohème (1896) were Puccini's first two triumphs, and both brought him international fame. Tosca (1900), based on a melodrama by Victorien Sardou, was another instant success, but Madama Butterfly (1904) failed when it was first performed, only to succeed when revised a few months after its premiere. The suggestion that Puccini write on an American theme resulted in La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West, 1910). Although not the overwhelming success of his previous operas, La Fanciulla had harmonic textures that were a departure from his earlier work and anticipated the music of his last opera, Turandot (1926).

The 19th cent. also saw the beginning of Russian opera. Mikhail Glinka in A Life for the Czar (1836) and Russlan and Ludmilla (1842), Aleksandr Dargomijsky in Russalka (1856), and Modest Moussorgsky in his masterpiece Boris Godunov (1874) turned to Russian history and literature to produce strictly national operas. Russian opera was marked by the nonnational romanticism of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky in Eugene Onegin (1879), after Pushkin's poem, and The Queen of Spades (1890). On the other hand, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov added the dimension of folklore and fantasy in May Night (1880), The Snow Maiden (1881), and in his last opera, The Golden Cockerel (1909).

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