Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Vincenzo Bellini: Norma

By the early nineteenth century, opera in Italy had become a universally popular art. In addition to large cities like Naples, Rome, Florence, Milan, and Venice, there were operatic performances in almost every town of moderate size on the Italian peninsula. Much of this popularity was attributable to the rise of opera buffa, which itself had evolved from the tradition of Italian street theater known as “commedia dell’arte”, opera that pretty much anyone could enjoy. Italian opera buffa made few intellectual demands on its audience and was perfectly suited to the Italian genius for wit, fast-paced dialogue, attractive tunes, and comic situations. Might we – with all due respect – suggest that early nineteenth-century Italian opera buffa is “opera lite” – sounds great but not terribly filling.

Giovanni Paisiello
Giovanni Paisiello (1714-1816)

Such opera buffa composers as Giovanni Paisiello (1714-1816) and Domenico Cimarosa (1749-1801) were masters of musical characterization, deft orchestration, and lilting melodies. Their operas were popular not only in Italy but throughout Europe.

We’d further observe that opera seria continued to be cultivated in the larger cities, primarily under aristocratic patronage.

What this all means is that by the early nineteenth century, Italian opera had become a major commercial enterprise: a highly profitable, highly competitive media industry. The commercial nature of Italian opera had its good side and its bad side. I submit for your consideration two opposing views of the relative merits of early nineteenth century Italian opera. First, the “good news”, presented by the opera historian and musicologist Donald Grout:

“Italian opera in the nineteenth century came out of an established tradition, healthily grounded in the life of a nation. Italy was less susceptible than northern countries to the seductions of the Romantic Movement, and composers in Italy were less tempted to try new and radical experiments. Romantic elements permeated Italian opera only gradually, and never to the same degree as in Germany and France. Moreover, opera was the only important Italian musical outlet in this period, so that the genius of the nation was largely concentrated on this one genre, and such a situation tended to encourage a conservative attitude.”

Grout’s statement expresses well the overwhelming popularity and basic conservatism of early nineteenth century Italian opera.

Hector Berlioz
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

For a rather more critical, contemporary evaluation of early nineteenth century Italian opera, we turn to the composer and conductor Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), a Romantic era man par excellence.

“Opera for the Italians is a sensual pleasure and nothing more. For this noble expression of the mind they have hardly more respect than for cooking! They want a score that, like a plate of macaroni, can be [digested] immediately without their having to think about it or even pay attention to it!”

(Goodness, once again, Hector’s got some sand in his skivvies!)

What Berlioz was bellyaching about was, in his opinion, the lack of experimentation and artistic risk and the overwhelming importance of the “pleasure principle” in early nineteenth century Italian opera.

Let us, for a moment, put ourselves inside Monsieur Berlioz’s famously hairy head, and discuss those specific musical aspects of Italian opera that earned it, in his opinion, such an unqualified “two thumbs down”!

The two genres of opera popular in Italy during the early nineteenth century were, to Berlioz’ mind, hopelessly antiquated: opera buffa, which had existed for roughly 100 years by the time Berlioz composed the Symphonie Fantastique in 1830, and opera seria, which had existed for some 130 years by the time of the Symphonie Fantastique.

While Italian composers had, admittedly, continued to compose opera serie and opera buffe well into the nineteenth century, the musical “style” of these operas had emerged recently, around 1810. It’s a musical style based on the primal, deep-seated, deep-rooted Italian convictions that opera is, in essence, the highest manifestation of song and that its primary purpose is to delight and move the hearer with music that is tuneful, unsentimental, spontaneous, and in every sense of the word, popular. This operatic style is called “bel canto opera”: “bel canto” meaning “beautiful song”, and, by extension, “beautiful voice”.…

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