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History of opera from Monteverdi to Puccini

To make the most of the performances at the Arena di Verona, you should understand a little about the history of opera.

Opera evolved from the musical shows and pageants that became popular in European courts (and examples local to Verona would include Padua, Mantua and Verona itself) from the 1500s. The first opera is considered to be Dafne, composed by Peri in 1598 for the Medici court in Florence. But the first fully fledged opera composer was Monteverdi, who wrote for the small Italian state of Mantova (Mantua) just south of Verona. He composed Orfeo in 1607, then wrote for the world's first public opera house, opened in 1637 in Venice. Opera then has its roots deep in the Italian soil, soul and psyche.

The genre became popular. The other major seventeenth century opera still popular today is Dido and Aeneas, composed in 1689 by English Baroque composer (and arguably the greatest ever composer produced by England) Henry Purcell. The eighteenth century sees the Baroque traditon continuing, with the Italians at the fore. Operas tackled serious themes (Opera Seria) and comic ones (Opera Buffa), and the themes and characters here were drawn heavily from a European tradition that also surfaces in mutated fashion in forms such as Pantomime and Punch and Judy shows (and in many folk tales).

Opera Seria drew its often-tragic themes from history, legend and myth (rather like Shakespeare). There was Handel's Ariodante (1735) and Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice (1762). Opera Buffa saw impersonation, confusion, disguises and misunderstandings. If some of the jokes are a little thin two centuries on, the liveliness and brio (plus the sheer musical quality) persists. Examples are Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte (1790) and Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786).

The Verona Area, home to the Verona Opera Festival

Now operas evolved with a more spoken style of links, with more dialogue: the German Singspiel, France's Opéra Comique, and England's Ballad Opera (such as John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728). Singspiel pieces include Mozart's Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute, 1791). Beethoven's Fidelio (1805) has spoken dialogue but is classified a rescue opera (the inspiration being the French Revolution).

As nationalism swept Europe in the nineteenth century, so the various European nations developed their own traditions. Bel Canto (beautiful singing) developed in Italy, growing out of the Opera Seria style. Verdi began in this school, though this genius among geniuses was to define his own style that transcended the genres. A reaction to the prettiness of Bel Canto, Opera Verismo evolved towards the end of the 1800s, dealing with grittier themes: murder, infidelity, betrayal and (without fail) death. Nowadays we would hardly see this as realism, rather melodrama (and the style was to inform the early Hollywood silent movies to a great degree), but it provided a welcome change and moved the genre on into the twentieth century.

The interior of the Verona ArenaA further image of the Arena di Verona

Examples of Opera Buffa are Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville, 1816), Bellini's Norma (1831), and Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore (The Love Potion, 1832). Classically, the hero is a tenor, who endures misunderstandings, subterfuges and disguises (and sundry other comic nonsense). He, and the other characters will emerge in the final act, probably confused and humiliated but (unlike in Opera Seria) at least alive.

Grand Opera and Opéra Comique emerged in France in the mid-1800s. The former were lavish productions, often incorporating ballet, huge casts and much scenery. Long, elaborate and expensive, the likes of Les Huguenots (1836 by Meyerbeer) are not much performed today. Operas Comiques were lighter in tone and shorter. Bizet's Carmen (1875) is an example. Rather confusingly, as is the case with Carmen, Operas Comiques could often have tragic subject matter.

Verdi, with a long career (from his debut 'Oberto' in 1836 to Falstaff in 1893) was to be the major figure in Italian opera. His long career coincided and at times reflected the surge in Italian nationalism. His very name became an acronym within the Risorgimento, with the cry 'Viva Verdi'. Verdi stood for Vittorio Emanuele Re D'Italia, Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy. So the crowds cheered Verdi as the cheered Italian nationalism. Verdi, apparently, tacitly assented to this. He was also a superb composer for the human voice; his tremendous dramatic sense saw him taking a keen interest in the writing of librettos, the staging and the design of his operas; the characterisation is always strong; and they have great tunes!

With the end of the nineteenth century we see the rise of the aforementioned Opera Verismo, traditionally well represented in the Verona opera season. Cavelleria Rusticana (1890) by Mascagni and Pagliacci (1892) by Leoncavallo are often shown together: two marvellously complementary tragic works. Giacomo Puccini, who was to succeed Verdi as the doyen of Italian composing, drew heavily on Verismo in Tosca (1900), which is regularly presented at the Arena di Verona.

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