Opera in the Romantic Period
March 10, 2014 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.
Last week’s blog dealt with Mozart’s contribution to opera of the Classical period. This week we continue our journey through the history of opera with Romantic Opera. By this, I do not mean opera that tells stories of romance and love (although there are plenty of love stories to be found!), but operas that were composed during what we refer to as the Romantic period in music history.
The Romantic period overlapped with and followed the Classical period, and covers roughly the nineteenth century, give or take a decade. It is marked by an increase of chromaticism in its harmony—that is, a more free use of pitches that aren’t specifically in the key of a piece. Chromaticism makes for very interesting harmonies that can surprise and delight, while still being in the general realm of what one might expect. There is also a greater freedom in musical forms than we saw in the Classical period. Composers began to bend and stretch the structures that underpinned most of the music in the century leading up to Romanticism.
In terms of opera, the Romantic period saw a lot of interesting changes. In Italian opera, the Romantic period really got going with the operas of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. The emphasis was still squarely on the fireworks a singer could bring to the production—this has always been a central concern for Italian opera. But as the century progressed, the operas of Verdi brought more realism into the narratives. The singing was still incredible, but the overall production became less about the vocal prowess of any one singer and more about the human drama and coherence of the ensemble. The strict difference between recitative and aria also started to blur. In the operas of Mozart, for example, the recitative moves the drama along and consists of a singing style that mimics a heightened version of recitation. Oftentimes, the singer is accompanied by just one or two instruments, allowing for more vocal and rhythmic freedom. Once the aria starts, however, the leader of the orchestra keeps the tempo and the singer must follow. In the Romantic period, this division began to disappear.
In France, Italian opera was very popular at the turn of the nineteenth century. Ironically, it was Italian composer Rossini helped usher in a new era in France with his final opera, Guillaume Tell. French Grand Opera, as it was called, is characterized by historical plots, large orchestras and casts, and stunning stage effects. The most notable composer of this type of production was Prussian composer Giacomo Meyerbeer. His style has been described as a combination of German orchestral writing and Italian vocal technique. The presence of ballet in French Grand Opera—and indeed in all French opera up to this point—represents the importance of the art of dance in French culture. In the late Romantic period, other talents emerged like Jacques Offenbach, who composed operettas like Orpheus in the Underworld, and Charles Gounod, who composed Faust.
Early Romantic opera in Germany was dominated by Carl Maria von Weber. His most famous opera Der Freischütz demonstrates some of the important themes in German opera of this period. (Beware: there are opera spoilers ahead!) It has everything an early German Romantic opera should have: supernatural elements, a pure-hearted woman, the devil (specifically a deal with the devil), and a speaking role—German opera did not shy away from spoken dialogue, something that was not common in Italian opera. (Some German operas like Mozart’s Magic Flute are technically singspiele, operas with spoken dialogue.)The protagonist of Der Freischütz is Max, and he wants to win the heart of Agathe, the daughter of the Prince of Bohemia. In order to do this, he must win a shooting contest. After failing at a preliminary trial, he takes the advice of his “friend” Caspar, who—having already sold his soul to the devil—hopes to steer Max into taking his place with “the evil one,” Zamiel. The central episode of this opera is the scene in the Wolf’s Glen where Zamiel casts seven magic bullets for Max. The last of these bullets is not intended to reach its mark, however, but Max doesn’t know this. Agathe, who has a feeling that something is going to go wrong, feels better when she puts on a bridal wreath that has been blessed by a holy hermit. Max shoots six of his seven targets perfectly. For the last one, he is asked to hit a dove, but Zamiel steers the bullet towards Agathe. The bridal wreath—and her pure heart, of course—save her from the devil’s bullet.
Late German opera is represented far and away by one singular voice: Richard Wagner. For Wagner, opera represented the ideal genre, a work that encompassed all other art forms (music, visual art, drama, dance). Wagner coined the term Gesamtkunstwerk, total work of art, to express this concept. Also, Wagner preferred to call his operas “Music dramas.” In Wagner’s mature operas, any semblance of separation between recitative and aria is gone, and what we’re left with is a style that is perhaps best referred to as “arioso.” Wagner—who acted as librettist on many of his music dramas—wrote about German folk topics, drawing on mythology for his narratives. One of his crowning achievements is the four-opera Ring cycle, an epic story that spans generations and features a cursed ring, a magic sword, and both gods and humans.
Musically speaking, one of Wagner’s most important contributions to opera was the use of leitmotivs, or musical ideas that represent ideas, characters, objects, or emotions. These leading motives are found primarily in the orchestra—not in the sung lines—and function as subtext or provide the true thoughts of a character. This musical concept has come down to us in film music. Themes may herald the appearances of characters, the discovery of secrets, or burgeoning love. In Wagner’s Ring, the meaning of leitmotivs is consistent throughout all four operas. (For a modern equivalent, think of John Williams’ scores to the six Star Wars films.) Wagner changed German opera and influenced generations of composers with his techniques.
In the Romantic period, nationalistic voices emerged and composers began to write operas in their native languages. Although Russian opera had existed since the late eighteenth century, the first important Russian operas of the Romantic period came with Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Lyudmila. These operas were joined by other masterpieces of the genre like Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Borodin’s Prince Igor, and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades. Poland gave us Stanislaw Moniuszko’s opera Straszny Dwor from 1861-4, and Czech composer Bedrich Smetana made an important contribution with his eight operas, with The Bartered Bride emerging as the most popular the bunch. Antonin Dvorak, also Czech, gave the world his Rusalka right at the turn of the twentieth century.
So this is where we'll leave our history of opera for the moment: 1901. We’ll pick up here in a week and see what happened to opera in the twentieth century.