theater: curtain closed with the audience already present and waiting for opera
25-09-2021

The origins of Italian Opera

From the first performances in the courts to the theatre

In 1600, a new theatrical and musical genre was born in Italy: Opera, which was destined to occupy theatre seasons and bring people together in a single hall to this day. Italian opera was born in the courts, moved to the theatre, changed its form and became one of the most beloved and profitable genres in the history of music. Among the greatest masterpieces are Verdi's Traviata, Puccini's Madama Butterfly, Boheme and Turandot, Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro and Così fan tutte, Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana, Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia etc..

The first operas in the court of Florence

The first attempt at a fully sung performance took place in the court of Florence. The purpose of these first performances was to meet the need to create festive and unrepeatable events, or to celebrate particularly important occasions to which as much solemnity as possible had to be attributed. Thus, the first operas were performances designed and produced by the permanent staff of the court (men of letters, musicians, architects, engineers, tailors, carpenters, etc.) and then performed for a very select audience, who could only enter by invitation. The prince spared no expense in putting on these performances to enhance his prestige in the eyes of his friends, rivals and guests.

Signoria Square in Florence 1600

Signoria Square, Florence

The publications surrounding this event, the descriptions, the commentaries, the sets and the music, meant that the spread and subsequent emulation was inevitable. In fact, after Florence, a sort of competition broke out between the courts that, to celebrate their own greatness, took on the task of producing these magnificent representations. This happened in the courts of Mantua, Ferrara, Parma, Piacenza and Turin.

In Mantua, the first to take up the first challenge of the flourishers were the intellectuals of the Accademia degli Invaghiti who organised the first performance of Monteverdi's Orfeo. Later, in 1608, the Gonzaga court planned the performance of other works such as Daphne by Marco da Gagliano and Ariadne by Claudio Monteverdi, both based on texts by Ottavio Rinuccini.

Court opera in Rome

In the following decades, another city assiduously promoted this new kind of performance: Rome. Here, too, opera found a home in the palaces of the nobility and cardinals, but also in seminaries and religious colleges, without ever entering the papal court, which (obviously) refused to put on a profane performance. Roman opera production took on a particular connotation due to the important Catholic power and so, apart from the common plots of classical mythology, numerous operas about the lives of saints were born, in fact one of the first was Stefano Landi's opera Sant'Alessio (1631) to a libretto by Giulio Rospigliosi. This was one of the first to stage the life (albeit fictional) of a real man, with his own problems and inner dramas. It followed a trend of Roman operas based on the lives of saints, for example: Didymus and Theodora (1635), St Bonifatius (Virgil Mazzocchi, 1638), St Eustace (again by Mazzocchi, 1643) etc. The frequent performances of this genre made it possible to create a series of works based on the lives of saints.
Frequent performances of this kind accustomed the audience to characters who, instead of speaking, talked while singing.

In 1632, with the second performance of St. Alexis, the great season of the so-called Barberini operas in the Barberini palace was inaugurated. The Barberinis were the most powerful Roman family of the years, celebrating the fasti (days in the ancient Roman calendar free from purely religious events) with the most important artists, including the famous Girolamo Frescobaldi.
Probably the first Barberinian work was the 'fiaba boscareccia' Diana schernita (1629) by Giacinto Cornacchioli.
This production took place in various palaces of the city (such as the Palazzo della Cancelleria) and a semi-permanent theatre with 3500 seats was even set up near the gardens of the family palace. In addition to the quantity of the productions, there was no lack of quality, as they made use of sets and new machinery designed by artistic director Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Moreover, Giulio Rospigliosi himself was the author of most of the librettos, including Erminia sul Giordano (1633, Michelangelo Rossi), the subject of which was later dealt with in Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata.
The decline of Barberini's operatic activities was marked not only by the death of Pope Urban VIII in 1644 and the election of Pope Innocent X, but also by the coming to power of the rival Pamphilj family.

Entrepreneurial opera

While the city of Rome was culturally enlivened by Barberini's productions, the axis of Italian operatic life shifted to the north and especially to Venice. Even if from the beginning of the 17th century it began to suffer from a serious economic crisis, the Venetian lagoon could still maintain a rather lively cultural life, also facilitated by the freedom of the press and of thought, as well as by a great circulation of capital, not very common at that time.

It was in Venice, precisely in 1637, that the court opera changed to impresario opera.
This happened when a group of Venetian and Roman musicians, headed by the librettist Benedetto Ferrari and the composer Francesco Manelli, rented the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice where they performed the opera Andromeda (by Manelli and Ferrari) with a more than satisfactory final result: they recovered the costs of the staging thanks to ticket sales. From that moment on, the opera was no longer dependent on the financial support of the prince of the court, but became a real commercial enterprise with a profit motive.
However, despite the fact that it appeared to be a cultural activity open to society, ticket prices were so high that only the wealthiest audience could afford them, so the audience for court opera and impresario opera remained almost unchanged.

una rappresentazione teatrale: i cantanti sul palco, l'orchestra nella buca ed il pubblico in platea con un servizio di ristorazione

The job of the entrepreneur between expenses and earnings

Along with the impresario's work came the figure of the impresario who, if he was not already an aristocrat, carried out a stable activity at the same time. His job consisted of investing capital by paying (and thus anticipating) the initial costs of the production. Sometimes a single capital was not enough, and for this reason companies of impresarios were set up (as happened with Andromeda).

In practical terms, the impresario had to rent the theatre, pay the opera composer, the musicians, the singers (possibly even the better known and therefore more expensive ones), the set designer, the copyist, the technical staff, carpenters, tailors, hairdressers, etc. He was the one who often avoided this list. However, the librettist was the one who often did not make this list. Most of the time he was an aristocrat, took charge of the printing costs and then took the entire proceeds from the sale of the librettos.
In the meantime, the only source of income for the impresario was ticket sales, and if the audience flow was insufficient then the impresario would go into debt, so the custom began to spread of renting the theatre boxes in advance (even for the whole theatre season) to aristocratic families who could even have one furnished and personalised according to their taste. However, just maintaining a balance between costs and earnings, trying to reduce expenses (orchestras became increasingly scarce, choirs disappeared), was not easy for impresarios, many fled, others were arrested or simply went bankrupt.

A successful strategy, unfortunately not in favour of music, was to organise spaces in the theatre for games of chance, the proceeds of which allowed the impresario to continue management.

By Roberta Gennuso
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