Monday 1 March 2021

To delight the eyes and ears without the risk of sinning against reason or common sense: the creation of Reform Opera

The old Burgtheater in Vienna where Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice was premiered
The old Burgtheater in Vienna where Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice was premiered in1762
(Photograph taken pre-1880)

When Christoph Willibald Gluck and Ranieri de' Calzabigi premiered Orfeo ed Euridice at the Burgtheater in Vienna in 1762, the work showcased a new operatic style which merged elements of French and Italian opera, eschewed the virtuosity and many of the dramatic conventions of classic opera seria and prized emotion over display. It can often seem as if their type of opera, Reform Opera, sprang into life fully formed. But the Reform movement was one which had slowly gathered force across Europe during the mid-18th century, involving a pleasure-loving German duke, an English actor, an Italian singer coached by Handel, a French choreographer, and an Italian theorist, not to mention three or four different composers. All these contributed to the 'perfect storm' that was the Reform movement in Vienna.

The Italian style and the French style

The poet Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782) wrote opera librettos for nearly 50 years and for much of the mid-18th century he was the single most influential librettist in Italian opera. His texts eschew any of the comic elements which were common in late 17th century operas, whilst using fine poetry with a conscious desire to elevate the genre. His libretto for Adriano in Siria, originally set by Antonio Caldara (1670-1736) in 1732 was to be set by over 60 composers through to the early 19th century. Based in Vienna, Metastasio more than any particular composer came to define opera seria, a genre written for a small group of star singers who depended on dazzling vocal effects, with sometimes rather contorted dramatic situations which allowed protagonists to express the extremes of emotion and nobility of sentiment.

Whilst this style of opera effectively defined serious opera in Italian all over Europe during the 18th century, it wasn't the only serious operatic style. In France, setting the French language rather than Italian was of prime importance and a distinctive French style of serious opera, the tragédie en musique (tragédie lyrique) had developed [see my article, Politics, Poetry & Personal Interest: Lully, King Louis XIV and the invention of French opera]. This was a genre that had its origins in the late 17th century French rejection of Italian style and culture as part of the political rejection of the regime of Italian-born Cardinal Mazarin. 

Tragédie en musique was no less stylised than opera seria, with five acts each with a main aria, recitative and shorter arias ending in a divertissement for chorus and ballet.

The result, when it worked well, had a flexibility and fluidity with less focus on individual virtuosity. Whilst there were star French singers, casts for tragédie en musique could be significantly larger than in opera seria, with a large role for dancers and for chorus. Another interesting innovation was that recitative was largely accompanied by the orchestra, so that whilst tragédie en musique was divided into arias and recitative, there was a greater sense of continuity than in opera seria, with its long stretches of continuo accompanied recitative.

Tragédie en musique was not restricted to Paris, or to France, it was known in French spheres of influence such as Parma. Composers and commentators could easily hear both Italian and French opera and could wonder what would happen if we combined them. By the 1760s, Metastasian opera seria, which had had its glory days in the 1730s and 1740s was starting to look rather old-fashioned and there was a movement for change. We have come to call this movement Reform and to associate it with the operas created in Vienna by Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) and Ranieri de' Calzabigi (1714-1795) between 1762 and 1770, and the preface to their Alceste (1767) included a manifesto to Reform. But other composers were just as interested in experimenting, combining the French and the Italian, trying to produce a new type of opera.

Back in 1713, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) had been in London for three years. His third opera there, following Rinaldo and Il pastor fido, was Teseo. This, rather intriguingly, sets an Italian version of a French libretto by Philippe Quinault (1635-1688) originally written for Jean-Baptiste Lully(1632-1687), the tragédie en musique Thésée which originally premiered in 1675. The result is Handel's only opera in five acts, and one which treads wholesale over another opera seria convention, the exit aria whereby a singer's major arias signalled their departure from the stage. In Teseo, Medea has long sequences on stage, with aria following aria; this was something common in France, but not in opera seria. Handel would creatively break convention again, but never on such a large scale. There are hints that Teseo might have been intended to include other French elements, such as dance, but did not. This would not be the last time that Handel's unfettered creative imagination would be limited by his English aristocratic patrons.

A synthesis of French and Italian styles in Stuttgart

Niccolò Jommelli (1714-1770) was an Italian composer from the influential Neapolitan school that not only produced castratos such as Farinelli (Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi, 1705-1782) but composers like Niccolo Porpora (1686-1768) who wrote dazzling vehicles for the star singers. Jommelli, however, would move in another direction. His large output of operas was written for Rome, Venice, Bologna, and other Italian cities, often setting the librettos of Metastasio. But in 1753, Jommelli was made Kapellmeister to Duke Karl Eugen of Württemberg in Stuttgart, and Jommelli wrote several operas for the Duke which were premiered in the theatre in the Duke's palace at Ludwigsburg. Mozart and his father Leopold passed through Ludwigsburg in 1763 on their "grand tour" and met the composer. The Duke was licentious, pleasure-loving and spendthrift, but one of his interests was opera and he developed a taste for French opera when visiting Paris. He seems to have given Jommelli a relatively free hand, so Jommelli's operas for Stuttgart start to experiment. He concentrates more on the story and the drama rather than writing display arias and included more ensembles and choruses. He built up one of the finest orchestras in Europe, numbering 47 by 1767; there is greater use of the orchestra in the recitatives, and greater use of the orchestra altogether, and ballet as well.

Ludwigsburg Palace Theatre stage equipement from 1758
Ludwigsburg Palace Theatre stage equipement from 1758

Jommelli's operas are not perfect, but they provide a fascinating glimpse into an operatic world separate from that of Gluck and Vienna. In 2016, Ian Page and Classical Opera performed Jommelli's 1766 opera Il Vologeso, in my review, I said that the music sounded like Gluck at his most vigorous. The libretto was written by Jommelli's long-time collaborator Mattia Verazi (c1730-1794) and the two created works that are a long way from Metastasian opera seria, full of personal emotion and even dropping the exit aria convention. Verazi had written an Ifegenia in Aulide with Jommelli in Rome in 1751 (a very Gluckian subject that), and from 1755 Verazi would write several librettos for Jommelli's Stuttgart operas.

Jommelli's travels may have given him a chance to experience French tragédie en musique in some way. He seems to have written one opera, Demetrio, for Parma, a French sphere of influence, in 1749 (using a libretto by Metastasio) and intriguingly would revise one of his Italian operas for Paris, as Il paratajo (Paris, 1753), this is a two-act serenade based on a libretto by Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793). Both of these works point to the cross-pollination between French and Italian opera. Jommelli would be influenced in his use of ballets by the operas of Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764), whose operas date from his later years, 1733-1763. And both Parma and Paris were places to hear all things French.

In 1758, the Duke would fit-out the theatre in his palace at Ludwigsburg (the largest Baroque palace in Europe). The theatre had been built by the Duke's father, but it was Duke Karl Eugen who installed the very latest in theatrical equipment. The theatre still survives and is used for performances [I saw a memorable performance of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro there in the 1980s, with a staging which used original 18th century furniture from the palace], but the auditorium was re-fitted in the latest neo-classical style in the early 19th century.

Noverre Lettres sur la danse et les ballets, Lyon 1760
Noverre's Lettres sur la danse et les ballets, Lyon 1760

From the early 1760s, the ballet master in Stuttgart was choreographer Jean-Georges Noverre (1727-1810) who effectively invented the ballet d'action, a precursor of the narrative ballets of the 19th century. Noverre was influenced by Rameau's music and used it for ballets, and in 1755 he was invited to London by actor-manager David Garrick (1717-1779), and Noverre's dramatic style seems to have been in turn influenced by Garrick's acting. And Noverre would work on a series of ballets for Stuttgart in the 1760s where his work interacted with that of Jommelli, even when apparently separate. In 1763, Jommelli presented Didone abbandonata for the Duke's birthday, and after the first act, there was Jason et Médée, Noverre's ballet d'action which supported, echoed, and furthered the action, drama, and emotion of Jommelli's opera. In 1760, Noverre had published his Lettres sur la danse, et les ballets, which spread the word on his thoughts on dance.

Gaëtan Vestris in Noverre's Jason et Médée
Gaëtan Vestris in Noverre's Jason et Médée

The influence of Rameau in Parma

Parma was a minor dukedom in Italy, but the duke was Spanish and his wife was French, a daughter of King Louis XV of France no less. In 1748, Infante Philip of Spain (whose mother was from the Farnese family which had ruled Parma) had become Duke of Parma and in 1739 he married Princess Louise Élisabeth of France. The marriage would be unhappy and the princess died in 1759, but a craze for all things French and a fixation with Versailles would ensure that French influence extended to opera here. As we have seen, Jommelli would write an opera for Parma in 1749, and when, in 1759 the young Italian composer Tommaso Traetta (1727-1779) pitched up there, he found that the man in charge of opera was a highly cultivated Paris-trained Frenchman, Guillaume du Tillot (1711-1774), and Traetta seems to have had access either to Rameau's operas or reports of them. At least, the influence of Rameau looms large in Traetta's operas from this point.

Teatro Farnese in Parma
Teatro Farnese in Parma

Another influence was essayist and philosopher Francesco Algarotti (1712-1764), his Essays on the Opera (1755) proposed a heavily simplified model of opera seria, with the drama pre-eminent, instead of the music, ballet or staging. The drama itself should "delight the eyes and ears, to rouse up and to affect the hearts of an audience, without the risk of sinning against reason or common sense".

In 1759, Traetta wrote Ippolito ed Aricia which owes a lot to Rameau's great tragédie lyrique of 1733, Hippolyte et Aricie, but the new Italian libretto isn't a pale imitation of the French one, though it does retain key French elements. The Italian libretto is by the poet Carlo Innocenzo Frugoni (1662-1768), who actually corresponded with Francesco Algarotti during the creation of the opera.

So we have an Italian opera with bravura exit arias, but a five-act structure, occasional opportunities for French-style spectacle and effects, dances and divertissements at the end of each of those five acts, and a more elaborate use of the chorus. Du Tillot seems to have been the man behind this synthesis, but it struck a chord with Traetta who wrote several works for Parma into the early 1760s. The Duke allowed him to take commissions in other courts and in 1761 his opera Armida was premiered in Vienna. The libretto is based on Quinault's libretto Armide which was set by Lully, but Traetta's opera for all its experiments with French style drama, also included a significant number of Da Capo arias, that staple of Italian opera seria.

Towards Reform in Vienna

Ranieri de' Calzabigi was an Italian poet who had spent the 1750s in Paris, exploring opera and becoming a friend of Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798). Calzabigi was impressed with tragédie en musique and was also interested in combining it with Italian opera. Here he was remarkably well-positioned as he had produced an edition of Metastasio's works. In 1761 Calzabigi settled in Vienna and came into the orbit of Count Giacomo Durazzo (1717-1794) who had been appointed director of the Imperial Theatres in 1754. Durazzo was similarly interested in reforming Italian opera seria.

At around the same time, the composer Christoph Gluck settled in Vienna. He had had an itinerant career, writing opera in a variety of styles but concentrating on Italian opera seria. The important thing to understand about Gluck was that he was something of a chameleon, and whilst in the 1760s he would write Reform Opera for Vienna, he would write unreformed opera seria at the same time, and then move to Paris to write tragédie en musique. After settling in Vienna, he started off by writing opera seria, including libretti by Metastasio, but then moved to one-act French opéras comiques.

So we have a group of opera-minded people in Vienna, all in influential positions and all interested in operatic reform. There was Durazzo, Gluck and Calzabigi, but there was also the choreographer Gasparo Angiolini (1731-1803) who became director of ballet at the Imperial Theatres in Vienna in 1758. Angiolini was interested in the dramatic possibilities of dance and would work with Gluck on the ballet Don Juan (1761) and the opera Orfeo ed Euridice (1762). There is another link between the Reformists. The major players, Durazzo, Gluck, Calzabigi, and Angiolini were all Freemasons.

Garrick, Handel and the castrato

There is one final figure in this mix, the castrato Gaetano Guadgani (1728-1792) who would create the role of Orfeo in Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice. In 1748, the young Guadagni pitched up in London singing in a second-class Italian opera company. Guadagni seems to have lacked the rigorous training of most castrati and the music historian Charles Burney (1726-1814) would describe him as a 'wild and careless singer'. But the singer clearly had something, because he caught the eye (or ear) of George Frideric Handel. By this period, Handel was writing only oratorios and he was using a group of singers who had largely been trained by himself, not necessarily great virtuosos but all expressive in one way or another. Handel seems to have taken Guadagni into this group and groomed him, writing some more bravura elements into Messiah for him. Guadagni did not take over the contralto role in the oratorio, Handel only ever let the contralto arias be sung by a woman, instead, there were new passages. The role of Didymus in Handel's penultimate oratorio Theodora (1750) was also written for Guadagni.

William Hogarth: David Garrick as Richard III
William Hogarth: David Garrick as Richard III

Almost as important, Guadagni saw David Garrick performing in London, and Garrick was revolutionising stage-acting, introducing a new element of naturalism. As we have seen, Noverre's experience of Garrick's innovative acting style in London influenced his development of dramatic ballet. Guadagni would perform for Garrick, in an English opera The Fairies by Handel's sometime amanuensis, John Christopher Smith (1712-1795), and according to Charles Burney the actor 'took much pleasure in forming him'. All this contributed to creating an expressive singer who would be an ideal interpreter of Gluck's Orfeo with Burney describing his 'attitudes, action and impassioned and exquisite manner of singing the simple and ballad-like air Che farò'. Intriguingly Guadagni and Noverre seem to have overlapped in London, a fascinating coincidence and perhaps influential on the direction of Reform Opera in Vienna.

Reform in Vienna, first fruits

The first fruit of Reform in Vienna wasn't an opera at all, but a ballet, Don Juan with music by Gluck, libretto by Calzabigi and choreography by Angiolini. If you were going to reform opera and incorporate French elements such as dance, then having a choreographer on board was important. In Don Juan, the collaborators created a dance drama, away from the conventional divertissements. In fact, a strong influence on Don Juan and on the opera Orfeo ed Euridice which followed in 1762, was our old friend Jean-Georges Noverre. In his Lettres sur la danse et sur les ballets Noverre rejected technique for its own sake as worthless gymnastics. He said that dancers should express human passions and emotions.

So we have a positive cocktail of influences and references, from Algarotti's ideas for simplifying opera to David Garrick's new acting style, to Noverre's view that dancers should express emotion (with Noverre himself influenced by Rameau), to Jommelli's experiments with blending French and Italian style in Stuttgart, to Guadagni more naturalistic operatic acting type, to perhaps Traetta's operas in Parma and Vienna (with Traetta's Armida having premiered in Vienna the year before Orfeo ed Euridice). Orfeo ed Euridice was premiered at the Burgtheater in Vienna in 1762, in the presence of Empress Maria Theresa. It wasn't strictly an opera seria, but a festa teatrale, a shorter operatic event on a mythological subject as part of wider celebrations or court events, and on this occasion it was for the name day of Maria Theresa's husband, Emperor Francis I.

The drama and the music aim for noble simplicity, and the contorted plotting of Metastasio is avoided. The dramaturgy has a modernism to it, in that there is a clear arc of drama through the whole piece, whereas in opera seria of the high Baroque what were most important were the individual scenes which placed the characters under extreme emotional or moral stress. Similarly, Orfeo ed Euridice uses both the chorus and dance to coherent dramatic effect, as part of the storytelling.

Johann Franz Greipel – a performance of Il Parnaso confuso by Christoph Willibald Gluck (music) and Pietro Metastasio (libretto). Performed on 24 January 1765 by the children of Maria Theresia: Maria Amalia (Apollo), Maria Elisabeth (Melpomene), Maria Josepha (Euterpe), Maria Karolina (Erato), Leopold (Harpsichord)
Johann Franz Greipel – a performance of Il Parnaso confuso by Christoph Willibald Gluck and Pietro Metastasio. Performed on 24 January 1765 by the children of Empress Maria Theresia: Maria Amalia (Apollo), Maria Elisabeth (Melpomene), Maria Josepha (Euterpe), Maria Karolina (Erato), Leopold (Harpsichord)

Gluck would create a revised version of the opera for a programme of three one-act operas, Le feste d'Apollo, which was premiered in Parma in 1769 for the wedding celebrations of Duke Ferdinand (son of Duke Philip) and Archduchess Maria Amalia of Austria (one of Empress Maria Theresa's daughters). Gluck had written several one-act operas for the Imperial family in Vienna (the children of Maria Theresa seem to have been horribly talented) and the new Duchess of Parma had actually performed in two of these, so was clearly familiar with Gluck and his music.

Traetta in Vienna

Having written Armida for Vienna in 1761, Traetta returned in 1763 for Ifigenia in Tauride and was clearly influenced by Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice of the previous year, in fact Guadagni sang Oreste in Ifigenia, complete with a scene with the Furies which is indebted to Gluck's opera. Relations between Traetta and Gluck were evidently cordial, in 1767, Gluck directed a performance of Traetta's Ifigenia in Tauride in Florence and wrote the music for the prologue. With Ifigenia, Traetta probably went further towards French opera than would be possible anywhere, outside Paris.

By 1768 Traetta was in St Petersburg at the court of Empress Catherine the Great, though at first, he produced simply revisions of previous operas largely in the Italian opera seria style. Then in 1772, came Antigona based on Sophocles, a work which almost completely abandons the da capo aria and in which Traetta writes fluidly for ensembles, mixing choruses with solo singing.

Reform in Vienna, a manifesto

Following Orfeo ed Euridice, Gluck and Calzabigi would produce a full-scale opera seria, Alceste in 1767. But before then, Gluck also produced three full-scale opera seria (two based on Metastasio librettos), an opera comique and a one-act opera (also based on Metastasio), all for Vienna. So his mind was not entirely on Reform. 

Joseph Siffred Duplessis - Christoph Willibald Gluck - playing his Clavichord
Joseph Siffred Duplessis: Christoph Willibald Gluck playing his Clavichord

premiered at the Burgtheater in December 1767, then in 1769 Gluck published the score with a preface, probably written by Calzabigi, which laid out the manifesto of Reform:

  • no da capo arias
  • no opportunity for vocal improvisation or virtuosic displays of vocal agility or power
  • no long melismas
  • a more predominantly syllabic setting of the text to make the words more intelligible
  • far less repetition of text within an aria
  • a blurring of the distinction between recitative and aria, declamatory and lyrical passages, with altogether less recitative
  • accompanied rather than secco recitative
  • simpler, more flowing melodic lines
  • an overture that is linked by theme or mood to the ensuing action

There would be a revival of Alceste in Vienna in 1770, with the tenor role of Admetus transferred to soprano castrato, Giuseppe Millico (1737-1802), who had played Orfeo in Parma. The final Vienna opera by Gluck and Calzabigi is Paride ed Elena, which tells the story of the Judgement of Paris. The work premiered at the Burgtheater in November 1770, with Millico as Paride. The opera is the least known of the three Reform Operas and was the least popular in Vienna. In the period to 1800, there were more than 100 performances of Orfeo ed Euridice in Vienna, compared to more than 70 of Alceste and just 25 of Paride ed Elena.

Paride ed Elena would be the last new opera that Gluck wrote for Vienna and his last collaboration with Calzabigi. In 1774, Calzabigi was banished as the result of a court scandal and he moved to Pisa and Naples. In the late 1770s he offered a number of librettos to Gluck, who declined to set them but Gluck passed Calzabigi's libretto for Le Dainidi to his protege Antonio Salieri (1750-1825). Much re-worked, and translated into French as Les Danaides the work would be presented in Paris in 1784. Calzabigi wrote further opera librettos, including Elfrida (1792) and Elvira (1794) which were set by Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816).

Gluck in Paris

In 1770, Gluck signed a contract with the Paris Opera and would write seven operas for Paris. His period there was not without controversy, particularly the issue of quite what style to write in. His first opera Iphigénie en Aulide (1774) sparked huge controversy, with Gluck's opponents bringing in the leading Italian composer Niccolò Piccinni (1728-1800) to Paris to demonstrate the superiority of Neapolitan opera. Piccinni's Roland would premiere in Paris in 1776, though it was far more Italian than French, and Piccinni would go on to write several more operas for Paris.

François-Joseph Bélanger: Set design for Gluck's Alceste in Paris
François-Joseph Bélanger: Set design for Gluck's Alceste in Paris

Gluck followed this up with expansions of two of his Reform Operas. Orphée et Euridice came first, in 1774, with the hero now sung by an haut-contre and the work expanded with further dance episodes (including music lifted from Don Juan), then in 1776 came Alceste, but this had a more thorough-going re-composition. Gluck then courted controversy and set one of Philippe Quinault's librettos for Lully, Armide, which again caused controversy. Whilst the work was never Gluck's most popular French opera, it was highly influential in showing how the tradition could be renewed. The work was still in the repertoire of the Paris Opera in the 1820s when Berlioz saw it performed. It is in the next French opera that Gluck seems to take Reform further. Iphigénie en Tauride premiered in 1779, dance movements are almost completely absent, the tone of the work is highly consistent, the recitatives are generally short and accompanied. Gluck's final French opera was Écho et Narcisse from 1779. It is a pastoral piece, a genre not popular at the time and lasted only 12 performances. Gluck returned to Vienna and did not go back to Paris.

In 1781 Gluck produced a German version of the opera, Iphigenia in Tauris, for the visit of the Russian Grand Duke Paul to Vienna, with the libretto translated and adapted by the Austrian writer Johann Baptist von Alxinger (1755-1797) in collaboration with the composer. Among the major changes was the transposition of the role of Oreste from baritone to tenor and the replacement of the final chorus of Act 2 with an instrumental movement. The revised version was the only opera Gluck wrote in German and his last work for the stage.

Glukc's setting of the Orpheus legend would go on to have a fascinating after life during the 19th century [see my article Berlioz and the creation of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice as a 19th century masterpiece]. Gluck's heir in Vienna would be Antonio Salieri, who wrote his first opera seria for Vienna, Armida, at the age of 20 in 1771 [see my recording review] and would go on to write operas both for Vienna and for Paris. But that is another story.

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