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Italian Opera

Over the centuries, many different musical influences reached Italy by way of generations of peoples coming to settle there, but in the late XVIth cent. melodrama was invented, and was the most complete expression of musical civilisation ever produced in Italy.

Italian musical theatre began life in the XVIIth cent at the court of the Medici in Florence. Euridice, by Jacopo Peri, was staged at the Pitti Palace for the marriage of Maria de’ Medici to Henry IVth of France. But only a few courtesans could enjoy the show, staged as it was to mark a special event thanks to the sponsorship of the Prince, and once over, the work was soon forgotten. It would be 1637 before operatic theatre was properly begun in Venice. To curb high costs, it became necessary to stage the same show many times for the public and this soon transpired when it became fashionable to go to the theatre; above all, opera came into its own as entertainment at Carnival time. Librettists and composers of the time drew on classical mythology for their themes though poems of chivalry by Ariosto and Tasso also provided plentiful inspiration as well as erotic stories from the worlds of Virgil and Homer. “Everything in life is a farce” is a maxim from Falstaff by Giuseppe Verdi, composed in 1893 for a libretto by Arrigo Boito. In the world of opera itself everything is exaggerated, perhaps even a farce. On the other hand lyrical opera has been defined as being a literary genre in which, if a character is stabbed in the back he doesn’t fall but just starts singing heartily!!

The most famous Italian opera writers are Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Puccini and Verdi, who all successfully gave voice to the feelings and anxieties of Italian society of their day. And it was above all through opera that those feelings were expressed: for example the discontent that pervaded Italy after the Unification was more magnificently encapsulated in Don Carlos by Verdi than in any other literary genre.

As well, the temperament of women shines out to perfection in opera’s female characters. A truly dramatic female character is portrayed in Lucia of Lammermuir by Donizetti, and Italian opera is full of real women such as Violetta, Tosca, Santuzza, Amelia in The Masked Ball, and Gilda in Rigoletto. In the land of the hundred cities there are just as many opera theatres, nearly always in splendid XVIIIth – XIXth cent. architecture, with twelve grand theatres of fame, including the world-famous La Scala in Milan, the Petruzzelli of Bari and The Fenice Theatre of Venice. One great opera director is Riccardo Muti who has in recent times perfected some highly original and moving interpretations in particular for the operas of Verdi.

Opera singers of the highest repute include Luciano Pavarotti, Mirella Freni and Renata Scotto and on the current international scene are emerging new names such as Barbara Frittoli, Sonia Ganassi and Michele Pertusi.


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