Opera buffa, Opéra-comique, Singspiel, Operetta and Musical Comedy

Every weekday morning during the 9:00 hour, NEPR’s Big Classical Show helps get the day off to a rousing start with an overture, a prelude or some other kind of curtain-raiser.  In the years since we’ve started doing this, perhaps it has struck you, as it has me, that many of the most exciting such pieces come from the vast, diverse world of “light” music theater —  opera buffa , opéra-comique, Singspiel, operetta  and our own musical comedy.  What’s the difference between and among them? Let’s take a quick look at each genre, one or two at a time, over a few blog posts.

Oldest of them, and the one with greatest influence on the others, is the Italian opera buffa (“comic opera”), so-called to distinguish it from the loftier opera seria (you can translate that one yourself).  Breaking off as a separate operatic genre sometime in the early 18th century, your basic early buffa  centered around a pair of straight (i.e,. non-comic), often artistocratic, lovers, with the funny stuff provided by lower-born characters singing in local dialect.  Think the Marx Brothers clowning behind Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones in A Night at the Opera , and you get the basic idea.  Or you might find an “upstairs-downstairs” setup, with pompous aristocrats getting their comeuppance at the hands of their saucy servants — Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s La serva padrona  (“The Servant Girl as Mistress”), more about which in a later post, is a perfect example.  While increasingly popular through the 1700’s all over Italy, the buffa  really took hold by mid-century in Venice, where the comedies of the great dramatist Carlo Goldoni served as the model and subject matter for a generation of now mostly-forgotten composers.

[Eminently skippable explanatory digression:  While we most commonly hear the term opera buffa  when applied to Italian comic operas, other terms for antecedent, variant or near-identical genres also got slapped on other examples — terms such as intermezzo  (a small-scale buffa insterted between the acts of a larger serious opera), dramma giocoso  (“comic drama,” the term favored by Goldoni) and plain old commedia.  End of digression.]

Sung throughout, with recitative (“sung speech”) between the musical numbers, these comic operas, as they grew in size and stature, often featured at the end of each act an extended ensemble piece in which all participants took part, each character adding to the hilarity and to the musical texture.  Want to hear a great example?  It’s right there in the Act II finale of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro , one of the most magnificent passages of music theater ever composed, as much a delight the hundredth time as the first.  Well, not only were this and Mozart’s other collaborations with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte (Don Giovanni*  and Così fan tutte) the crowning glories of the opera buffa , they were getting pretty close to the end of the genre’s history.  Only Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia and Donizetti’s two comic masterworks, L’elisir d’amore  and Don Pasquale , are worthy follow-ups to Mozart’s immortal trilogy.  I guess the Romantics preferred tears and tragedy to laughter.

So, in addition to the examples cited above, where else can one find some fun opere buffe?  Antiquarians might investigate some of the drammi giocosi  of the hilariously named Baldassare Galuppi (1706-1785), important precursor to the classic buffa .  Without having heard more than excerpts, I can at least suggest that his Goldoni-based Il mondo alla roversa, ossia Le donne che comandano  (“The World Turned Upside-Down, or Women in Command”) might be worth checking out.  Joseph Haydn, whose immortality does not exactly derive from his music theater works, wrote several comic operas, all of which have been recorded.  One of the most popular comic operas of its day, Domenico Cimarosa’s Il matrimonio segreto  (“The Secret Marriage”) premiered in Vienna in 1792, one year after Mozart’s death.  It’s in yet another closely related genre, the melodramma giocoso , and has been recorded many times.  Here’s one rendition, featuring such fine singers as Arleen Auger, Julia Varady and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.  While none of these operas are up there with Le nozze di Figaro , they may still provide a fair measure of pleasure.
*Yes, the story of Don Giovanni  blends tragedy with comedy.  Musically and theatrically, though, it’s your basic buffa .  And it wouldn’t be the last time more serious subject matter makes its way into “light” musical theater.

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