Opera seria

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Caricature of a performance of Handel's Flavio, featuring three of the best-known opera seria singers of their day: Senesino on the left, diva Francesca Cuzzoni in the centre, and art-loving castrato Gaetano Berenstadt on the right. Senesino, Cuzzoni, Berenstadt.JPG
Caricature of a performance of Handel's Flavio , featuring three of the best-known opera seria singers of their day: Senesino on the left, diva Francesca Cuzzoni in the centre, and art-loving castrato Gaetano Berenstadt on the right.

Opera seria (Italian pronunciation:  [ˈɔːpera ˈsɛːrja] ; plural: opere serie; usually called dramma per musica or melodramma serio) is an Italian musical term which refers to the noble and "serious" style of Italian opera that predominated in Europe from the 1710s to about 1770. The term itself was rarely used at the time and only attained common usage once opera seria was becoming unfashionable and beginning to be viewed as something of a historical genre. The popular rival to opera seria was opera buffa, the 'comic' opera that took its cue from the improvisatory commedia dell'arte.

Dramma per musica is a libretto. The term was used by dramatists in Italy and elsewhere between the late-17th and mid-19th centuries. In modern times the same meaning of drama for music was conveyed through the Italian Greek-rooted word melodramma. Dramma per musica never meant "drama through music", let alone music drama.

Melodramma is a 17th-century Italian term for a text to be set as an opera, or the opera itself. In the 19th-century, it was used in a much narrower sense by English writers to discuss developments in the early Italian libretto, e.g., Rigoletto and Un ballo in maschera. Characteristic are the influence of French bourgeois drama, female instead of male protagonists, and the practice of opening the action with a chorus.

Italian opera Operas in Italy or in the Italian language

Italian opera is both the art of opera in Italy and opera in the Italian language. Opera was born in Italy around the year 1600 and Italian opera has continued to play a dominant role in the history of the form until the present day. Many famous operas in Italian were written by foreign composers, including Handel, Gluck and Mozart. Works by native Italian composers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini, are amongst the most famous operas ever written and today are performed in opera houses across the world.


Italian opera seria (invariably to Italian libretti) was produced not only in Italy but almost throughout Europe, and beyond (see Opera in Latin America, Opera in Cuba e. g.). Among the main centres in Europe were the court operas based in Warsaw (since 1628), Munich (founded in 1653), London (established in 1662), Vienna (firmly established 1709; first operatic representation: Il pomo d'oro , 1668), Dresden (since 1719) as well as other other German residences, Saint Petersburg (Italian opera reached Russia in 1731, first opera venues followed c.1742), Madrid (see Spanish opera), and Lisbon. Opera seria was less popular in France, where the national genre of French opera (or tragédie en musique ) was preferred.

Libretto text used for an extended musical work

A libretto is the text used in, or intended for, an extended musical work such as an opera, operetta, masque, oratorio, cantata or musical. The term libretto is also sometimes used to refer to the text of major liturgical works, such as the Mass, requiem and sacred cantata, or the story line of a ballet.

Italy European country

Italy, officially the Italian Republic, is a European country consisting of a peninsula delimited by the Alps and surrounded by several islands. Italy is located in Southern Europe, and it is sometimes considered as part of Western Europe. The country covers a total area of 301,340 km2 (116,350 sq mi) and shares land borders with France, Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia, and the enclaved microstates of Vatican City and San Marino. Italy has a territorial exclave in Switzerland (Campione) and a maritime exclave in the Tunisian Sea (Lampedusa). With around 60 million inhabitants, Italy is the fourth-most populous member state of the European Union.

The history of opera in Latin America dates back to at least the early 18th century. Opera arrived in Latin America as a consequence of European colonization. On October 19, 1701, La púrpura de la rosa premiered in Lima in the Viceroyalty of Peru, the first opera known to be composed and performed in the Americas. It is an opera in one act by Spanish composer Tomás de Torrejón y Velasco with a libretto by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, and is the only surviving opera by Torrejón y Velasco. It tells the myth of the love of Venus and Adonis, which provoked Mars's jealousy and his desire for vengeance. Opera performances were performed also in the country of Mexico. It is within that nation that the first indigenous opera composers of Latin America emerged, with Manuel de Zumaya being considered the first and most important early opera composer. Outsider of Perú and Mexico, opera was slower to gain a foothold, and it wasn't until the early to mid-19th century that other nations in Latin America began producing their own opera composers. Many of these 19th-century operas focus on the historical conflict between Europeans and indigenous peoples and were influenced by zarzuela, a form of Spanish opera.

Acclaimed composers of opera seria included Alessandro Scarlatti, George Frideric Handel, Nicola Porpora, Leonardo Vinci, Johann Adolph Hasse, and in the second half of the 18th century Christoph Willibald Gluck, Niccolò Jommelli, Josef Mysliveček, Tommaso Traetta, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. By far the most successful librettist of the era was Metastasio, others were Apostolo Zeno, Ranieri de' Calzabigi and Lorenzo Da Ponte.

Alessandro Scarlatti Italian composer

Pietro Alessandro Gaspare Scarlatti was an Italian Baroque composer, known especially for his operas and chamber cantatas. He is considered the founder of the Neapolitan school of opera. He was the father of two other composers, Domenico Scarlatti and Pietro Filippo Scarlatti.

George Frideric Handel 18th-century German, later British, Baroque composer

George FridericHandel was a German, later British, Baroque composer who spent the bulk of his career in London, becoming well known for his operas, oratorios, anthems, and organ concertos. Handel received important training in Halle and worked as a composer in Hamburg and Italy before settling in London in 1712; he became a naturalised British subject in 1727. He was strongly influenced both by the great composers of the Italian Baroque and by the middle-German polyphonic choral tradition.

Nicola Porpora Italian composer

Nicola (Antonio) Porpora was an Italian composer and teacher of singing of the Baroque era, whose most famous singing student was the castrato Farinelli. Other students included composers Matteo Capranica and Joseph Haydn.


Opera seria built upon the conventions of the High Baroque era by developing and exploiting the da capo aria, with its A–B–A form. The first section presented a theme, the second a complementary one, and the third a repeat of the first with ornamentation and elaboration of the music by the singer. As the genre developed and arias grew longer, a typical opera seria would contain not more than thirty musical movements. [1]

The da capo aria is a musical form for arias that was prevalent in the Baroque era. It is sung by a soloist with the accompaniment of instruments, often a small orchestra. The da capo aria is very common in the musical genres of opera and oratorio. According to Randel, a number of Baroque composers composed more than a thousand da capo arias during their careers.

A typical opera would start with an instrumental overture of three movements (fast-slow-fast) and then a series of recitatives containing dialogue interspersed with arias expressing the emotions of the character, this pattern only broken by the occasional duet for the leading amatory couple. The recitative was typically secco: that is, accompanied only by continuo (harpsichord and cello, sometimes supported by further bass instruments). At moments of especially violent passion secco was replaced by stromentato (or accompagnato) recitative, where the singer was accompanied by the entire body of strings. After an aria was sung, accompanied by strings and oboe (and sometimes with horns or flutes), the character usually exited the stage, encouraging the audience to applaud. This continued for three acts before concluding with an upbeat chorus, to celebrate the jubilant climax. The leading singers each expected their fair share of arias of varied mood, be they sad, angry, heroic or meditative.

The dramaturgy of opera seria largely developed as a response to French criticism of what were often viewed as impure and corrupting librettos. As response, the Rome-based Academy of Arcadia sought to return Italian opera to what they viewed as neoclassical principles, obeying the classical unities of drama, defined by Aristotle, and replacing "immoral" plots, such as Busenello's for L'incoronazione di Poppea , with highly moral narratives that aimed to instruct, as well as entertain. However, the often tragic endings of classical drama were rejected out of a sense of decorum: early writers of opera seria librettos such as Apostolo Zeno felt that virtue should be rewarded and shown triumphant, while the antagonists were to be put on their way to remorse. The spectacle and ballet, so common in French opera, were banished. [1]

The classical unities, Aristotelian unities, or three unities represent a prescriptive theory of dramatic tragedy that was introduced in Italy in the 16th Century and was influential for three centuries. The three unities are:

  1. unity of action: a tragedy should have one principal action.
  2. unity of time: the action in a tragedy should occur over a period of no more than 24 hours.
  3. unity of place: a tragedy should exist in a single physical location.
Aristotle Classical Greek philosopher

Aristotle was a Greek philosopher during the Classical period in Ancient Greece, the founder of the Lyceum and the Peripatetic school of philosophy and Aristotelian tradition. Along with his teacher Plato, he has been called the "Father of Western Philosophy". His writings cover many subjects – including physics, biology, zoology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, poetry, theatre, music, rhetoric, psychology, linguistics, economics, politics and government. Aristotle provided a complex synthesis of the various philosophies existing prior to him, and it was above all from his teachings that the West inherited its intellectual lexicon, as well as problems and methods of inquiry. As a result, his philosophy has exerted a unique influence on almost every form of knowledge in the West and it continues to be a subject of contemporary philosophical discussion.

<i>Lincoronazione di Poppea</i> opera by Claudio Monteverdi

L'incoronazione di Poppea is an Italian opera by Claudio Monteverdi. It was Monteverdi's last opera, with a libretto by Giovanni Francesco Busenello, and was first performed at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice during the 1643 carnival season. One of the first operas to use historical events and people, it describes how Poppaea, mistress of the Roman emperor Nero, is able to achieve her ambition and be crowned empress. The opera was revived in Naples in 1651, but was then neglected until the rediscovery of the score in 1888, after which it became the subject of scholarly attention in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Since the 1960s, the opera has been performed and recorded many times.


The age of opera seria corresponded with the rise to prominence of the castrati, often prodigiously gifted male singers who had undergone castration before puberty in order to retain a high, powerful soprano or alto voice backed by decades of rigorous musical training. They were cast in heroic male roles, alongside another new breed of operatic creature, the prima donna. The rise of these star singers with formidable technical skills spurred composers to write increasingly complex vocal music, and many operas of the time were written as vehicles for specific singers. Of these the most famous is perhaps Farinelli, whose debut in 1722 was guided by Nicola Porpora. Though Farinelli did not sing for Handel, his main rival, Senesino, did. [2]


Jacopo Amigoni: Il cantante Farinelli con amici (among which Metastasio), c. 1752 (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne) Jacopo amigoni, il cantante farinelli con amici, 1750-52 circa.JPG
Jacopo Amigoni: Il cantante Farinelli con amici (among which Metastasio), c.1752 (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne)

Opera seria acquired definitive form early during the 1720s. While Apostolo Zeno and Alessandro Scarlatti had paved the way, the genre only truly came to fruition due to Metastasio and later composers. Metastasio's career began with the serenata Gli Orti Esperidi ("The Gardens of the Hesperides"). Nicola Porpora, (much later to be Haydn's master), set the work to music, and the success was so great that the famed Roman prima donna, Marianna Bulgarelli, "La Romanina", sought out Metastasio, and took him on as her protégé. Under her wing, Metastasio produced libretto after libretto, and they were rapidly set by the greatest composers in Italy and Austria, establishing the transnational tone of opera seria: Didone abbandonata , Catone in Utica , Ezio , Alessandro nelle Indie , Semiramide riconosciuta , Siroe and Artaserse . After 1730 he was settled in Vienna and turned out more librettos for the imperial theater, until the mid-1740s: Adriano in Siria , Demetrio , Issipile  [ de ], Demofoonte , Olimpiade , La clemenza di Tito , Achille in Sciro , Temistocle , Il re pastore and what he regarded as his finest libretto, Attilio Regolo . For the librettos, Metastasio and his imitators customarily drew on dramas featuring classical characters from antiquity bestowed with princely values and morality, struggling with conflicts between love, honour and duty, in elegant and ornate language that could be performed equally well as both opera and non-musical drama. On the other hand, Handel, working far outside the mainstream genre, set only a few Metastasio libretti for his London audience, preferring a greater diversity of texts.

At this time the leading Metastasian composers were Hasse, Antonio Caldara, Vinci, Porpora, and Pergolesi. Vinci's settings of Didone abbandonata and Artaserse were much praised for their stromento recitative, and he played a crucial part in establishing the new style of melody. Hasse, by contrast, indulged in stronger accompaniment and was regarded at the time as the more adventurous of the two. Pergolesi was noted for his lyricism. The main challenge for all was achieving variety, a break from the pattern of recitativo secco and aria da capo . The mutable moods of Metastasio's librettos helped, as did innovations made by the composer, such as stromento recitative or cutting a ritornello. During this period the choice of keys to reflect certain emotions became standardized: D minor became the choice key for a composer's typical "rage" aria, while D major for pomp and bravura, G minor for pastoral effect and E flat for pathetic effect, became the usual options. [3]


Anton Raaff, the German tenor who created the title role in Mozart's Idomeneo, seen here performing a heroic role, c. 1780 Anton Raaff.jpg
Anton Raaff, the German tenor who created the title role in Mozart's Idomeneo , seen here performing a heroic role, c.1780

After peaking during the 1750s, the popularity of the Metastasian model began to wane. New trends, popularized by composers such as Niccolò Jommelli and Tommaso Traetta, began to seep into opera seria. The Italianate pattern of alternating, sharply-contrasted recitative and aria began to give way to ideas from the French operatic tradition. Jommelli's works from 1740 onwards increasingly favored accompanied recitative and greater dynamic contrast, as well as a more prominent role for the orchestra while limiting virtuosic vocal displays. Traetta reintroduced the ballet in his operas and restored the tragic, melodramatic endings of classical dramas. His operas, particularly after 1760, also gave a larger role to the chorus.

The culmination of these reforms arrived in the operas of Christoph Willibald Gluck. Beginning with Orfeo ed Euridice , Gluck drastically cut back on the possibilities for vocal virtuosity afforded to singers, abolished secco recitative (thereby heavily reducing the delineation between aria and recitative), and took great care to unify drama, dance, music, and theatrical practice in the synthesis of Italian and French traditions. He continued his reform with Alceste and Paride ed Elena . Gluck paid great attention to orchestration and considerably increased the role of the chorus: he also cut back heavily on exit arias. The labyrinthine subplots that had riddled earlier baroque opera were eliminated. In 1768, the year after Gluck's Alceste, Jommelli and his librettist Verazi produced Fetonte. Ensemble and chorus are predominant: the usual number of exit arias slashed in half. For the most part, however, these trends did not become mainstream until the 1790s, and the Metastasian model continued to dominate. [4]


Gluck's reforms made most of the composers of opera seria of the previous decades obsolete. The careers of Hasse, Jommelli, Galuppi, and Traetta were effectively finished. Replacing them came a new wave of composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn, Antonio Salieri (a disciple of Gluck), Antonio Sacchini, Giuseppe Sarti, and Domenico Cimarosa. The popularity of the aria da capo began to fade, replaced by the rondò. Orchestras grew in size, arias lengthened, ensembles became more prominent, and obbligato recitative became both common and more elaborate. While throughout the 1780s Metastasio's libretti still dominated the repertory, a new group of Venetian librettists pushed opera seria in a new direction. The work of Gaetano Sertor and the group surrounding him finally broke the absolute dominance of the singers and gave opera seria a new impetus towards the spectacular and the dramatic elements of 19th-century Romantic opera. Tragic endings, on-stage death and regicide became the norm rather than the exception. By the final decade of the century opera seria as it had been traditionally defined was essentially dead, and the political upheavals that the French Revolution inspired swept it away once and for all. [5]

Social context

With a few exceptions, opera seria was the opera of the court, of the monarchy and the nobility. This is not a universal picture: Handel in London composed not for the court but for a much more socially diverse audience, and in the Venetian republic composers modified their operas to suit the public taste and not that of the court. But for the most part, opera seria was synonymous with court opera. This brought with it a number of conditions: the court, and particularly the monarch, required that their own nobility be reflected on the stage. Opera seria plot-lines are heavily shaped by this criterion: Il re pastore displays the glory of Alexander the Great, while La clemenza di Tito does the same for the Roman emperor Titus. The potentate in the audience would watch his counterparts from the ancient world and see their benevolent autocracy redound to his own credit.

Many aspects of the staging contributed to this effect: both the auditorium and stage were lit during performances, while the sets mirrored almost exactly the architecture of the palace hosting the opera. Sometimes the links between opera and audience were even closer: Gluck's serenata Il Parnasso Confuso was first performed at Vienna with a cast consisting of members of the royal family. However, with the French Revolution came serious political upheavals across Italy, and as new, more egalitarian republics were established and old autocracies fell away, the Arcadian ideals of opera seria seemed increasingly irrelevant. Rulers were no longer free from violent deaths, and under new social ideals the hierarchy of singers broke down. Such significant socio-political change meant that opera seria, so closely allied to the ruling class, was finished. [6]

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<i>Artaserse</i> Libretto by Pietro Metastasio

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<i>Ezio</i> (Handel) Opera by Georg Friedrich Händel

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Marco Coltellini Italian librettist

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Antonio Salvi Italian poet

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<i>Semiramide</i> (Mysliveček) opera by Josef Mysliveček

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<i>La Nitteti</i> opera by Josef Mysliveček

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<i>Il trionfo di Clelia</i> (Mysliveček) opera by Josef Mysliveček

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<i>Romolo ed Ersilia</i> opera by Josef Mysliveček

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Ezio is an opera libretto by Pietro Metastasio, first officially set to music by Pietro Auletta and premièred in the Teatro delle Dame, Rome, on December 26, 1728; an unauthorized setting by Nicola Porpora had already been premièred a month earlier in Venice.

<i>Semiramide riconosciuta</i> (Meyerbeer) opera by Giacomo Meyerbeer

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Semiramide riconosciuta is an opera libretto by Pietro Metastasio (1698–1782), written in 1729. It is for opera seria, and accordingly consists of recitatives and da capo arias. It tells a story of the legendary Semiramis, wife of the Biblical Nimrod.

Giovanni Ambrogio Migliavacca

Giovanni Ambrogio Migliavacca was an Italian poet and librettist. A student and protégé of Metastasio, he was primarily active in the court theaters of Dresden and Vienna. His most successful work was the libretto for the opera Solimano, first set by Johann Adolph Hasse in 1753 and subsequently set by 18 other composers in the course of the next 50 years.



  1. 1 2 Grove, section 1: "Dramaturgy".
  2. For this section see Orrey, p. 72.
  3. Grove: section 2, 1720–1740
  4. General reference for this section: Grove, section 3: "1740–1770".
  5. General reference for this section: Grove, section 4: "1770–1780".
  6. General references for this section: see Orrey, Chapter 5, especially pp. 67–84. For the French Revolution's effect on opera seria, see Grove, section 4.

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