A mid- to late 19th-century French comic opera in which a witty spoken dialogue and sparkling, light music combine in a genre designed to entertain. Its period of greatest popularity coincided with the reign of Napoleon III. It takes its name from the theatre directed by Offenbach where many were first performed, the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens (opened in 1855; see Operetta, fig.1). It differs from opéra comique of the same period in its more frankly humorous tone, often bordering on farce, and its use of parody and satire (literary, musical, social and sometimes political). The earliest example is Offenbach’s own Orphée aux enfers (1858). For over two decades Offenbach continued to write opéras bouffes, some of which, like La belle Hélène (1864) and La vie parisienne (1866), have long outlasted the society whose foibles were their targets. Among the most successful and prolific of his contemporaries and successors were Hervé (also a singer and theatre director) and Charles Lecocq, whose La fille de Madame Angot (1872) and several other works remain in the French light opera repertory.
See also Operetta.
J. Bruhr: L’opérette (Paris, 1962, 2/1974)
F. Bruyas: Histoire de l’opérette en France (Lyons, 1974)
C. Dufresne: Histoire de l’opérette (Paris, 1981)
M. ELIZABETH C. BARTLET
In 18th-century France the customary designation for Italian opera buffa performed in the original language or in French translation (for example, Paisiello’s Le roi Théodore à Venise, a 1786 parody of Il re Teodoro in Venezia). It was also occasionally applied to opéras comiques whose plots were indebted to Italian or Spanish prototypes for characterizations or dramatic construction and, more broadly, to those in which the comedy approached farce (as in Philidor’s Blaise le savetier of 1759 and Grétry’s Les deux avares of 1770). A few contemporary writers, notably Contant d’Orville, used opéra bouffon as a synonym for opéra comique.
A.G. Contant d’Orville: Histoire de l’opéra bouffon (Amsterdam and Paris, 1768)
A.C. Quatremère de Quincy: ‘Dissertation sur les opéras bouffons italiens’, Mercure de France (March 1789), 124–48 [also pubd separately]
N. Framery: De l’organisation des spectacles de Paris (Paris, 1790)
L. Péricaud: Théâtre de ‘Monsieur’ (Paris, 1908)
M. Robinson: ‘Opera buffa into opéra comique, 1771–90’, Music and the French Revolution: Cardiff 1989, 37–56
M. Noiray: ‘Le répertoire d’opéra italien au Théâtre de Monsieur et au Théâtre Feydeau (janvier 1789–août 1792)’, RdM, lxxxi (1995), 259–75
A. Fabiano: I ‘buffoni’ alla conquista di Parigi tra ‘Ancien Régime’ e Restaurazione (1752–1815) (Turin, 1998)
A. Di Profio: L'opera buffa à Paris: le cas du Théâtre de Monsieur/Feydeau (1789–1815) (diss., U. of Tours, 1999)
M. Noiray: ‘L'opera italiana in Francia nel XVIII secolo’, SOI, ii (forthcoming)
M. ELIZABETH C. BARTLET
(It.: ‘comic opera’).
The term ‘opera buffa’ was first applied to the genre of comic opera as it rose to popularity in Italy and abroad over the course of the 18th century. At first, ‘opera buffa’ did not appear as a designation in the librettos. Like ‘opera seria’, it was used in informal writings (letters, memoirs etc.) and in ordinary conversation, with reference to the spectacle as a whole. Librettists, even in the lowlier comic genre, had literary pretensions and accordingly entitled their work in ways that emphasized its status as literature. ‘Dramma giocoso’ occurs as early as 1695 (in G.C. Villifranchi’s preface to his L’ipocondriaco, composer unknown, performed at the Villa Medici at Pratolino) and recurs sporadically thereafter, alternating from about 1740 with terms such as ‘dramma bernesco’, ‘dramma comico’, ‘divertimento giocoso’ and ‘commedia per musica’. The last-named survived on an equal footing with ‘dramma giocoso’ from about 1760. The early Neapolitan-dialect librettos favoured ‘commedeia pe’ museca’. No special significance can be attached to any of these designations.
1. Comic opera before the 18th century.
2. Neapolitan ‘opera buffa’ to c1730.
3. The north to c1750.
4. The later 18th century.
5. The 19th century.
PIERO WEISS (1–4), JULIAN BUDDEN (5)
1. Comic opera before the 18th century.
A small number of comic operas were produced in the 17th century, although no great need for them can have been felt at a time when ‘serious’ operas were liberally interlaced with comic episodes. Comic opera had no conventions of its own at this time but on the whole tended to be modelled on the (spoken) commedia erudita. Both Villifranchi and his rather more famous predecessor at the Medici court, G.A. Moniglia, pointed to Terence as their model. Florence, indeed, could be said to have been the ‘centre’ of this ‘erudite’ type of comic opera: the inaugural work at the Teatro della Pergola in 1657 had been Moniglia’s dramma civile rusticale, Il potestà di Colognole, set to music by Jacopo Melani. It was followed, at irregular intervals and at different public or Medici theatres, by a dozen more such works up to 1699, when there occurred a hiatus of nearly 20 years before the next comic production.
Rome had pioneered in this field with Giulio Rospigliosi’s Chi soffre speri (1637 as Il falcone) and Dal male il bene (1653), the former based on a Boccaccio novella, the latter on a Spanish comedia, and so both, quite clearly, in the ‘erudite’ tradition. Bologna, too, witnessed some comic operas in the 17th century, several of them imported from Florence. Here the Inquisition inhibited the free growth of what might otherwise have been a truly popular genre: eight different indigenous scherzi giocosi are listed by Ricci for the period 1669–98, after which, as at Florence, no more comic operas were seen for some 20 years. It is perhaps no coincidence that Rome, Florence and Bologna were to become important stations in the spread of the 18th-century opera buffa, a more ‘modern’ genre whose true birthplace was Naples.
2. Neapolitan ‘opera buffa’ to c1730.
It was at Naples that a new type of comic opera had its beginnings, patronized at first by eminent and, it would seem, enlightened members of the legal profession and aristocracy. The earliest known example is La Cilla (music by Michelangelo Faggioli, a lawyer, text by F.A. Tullio, later a prolific librettist), first performed in 1706 presumably at the home of the Neapolitan minister of justice to whom it was dedicated, then revived at the palace of the Prince of Chiusiano in 1707 and 1708. Only the libretto survives (no score from earlier than 1717 has been preserved, and no complete score earlier than 1722), but it, at least, is the very prototype of the kind of spectacle that was soon to thrive in the ‘little theatres’ of Naples: the setting is a district of the city itself, and the characters all speak in the local dialect. This lends an air of unadorned reality to what would otherwise have simply been the conventional characters and plot of an ‘erudite’ comedy. The innamorati, true to convention, are serious roles; but as they express themselves in the everyday dialect, their sentiments sound natural rather than stylized. Later Neapolitan comic operas often feature two pairs of lovers (the male lovers often portrayed by female sopranos) and the plot hinges on their fate. Surrounding them one finds such stock comedy figures as the old man, the old woman (a tenor role), the swaggering captain (bass) and the saucy shop boy (soprano). The local dialect and setting transmute all these traditional types from the caricatures they had been in earlier, Baroque comedy (both written and improvised) into more believable characters. Thus from the very beginning Neapolitan opera buffa reflects a new perception of everyday life; and from the very beginning it deals with both serious and comic characters and situations. These traits remained characteristic of the genre even after it was divested of the local setting and dialect, and became cosmopolitan.
The Teatro dei Fiorentini, a century-old playhouse, became the earliest public theatre to house Neapolitan opera buffa. Its first offering, in October 1709, was Patrò Calienno de la Costa, with music by Antonio Orefice, words by ‘Mercotellis’ (a pen-name); this was soon followed by another dialect opera, Lo spellecchia, with music by Tommaso de Mauro, words by C. de Petris. According to one witness, a northern nobleman, Neapolitans now began to abandon the S Bartolomeo theatre, home of opera seria, preferring to fill ‘the Teatro de’ Fiorentini, which is presenting real trash [una vera porcheria], unworthy of being seen, in the Neapolitan language’ (see Croce, 4/1947, p.140). Other theatres, the Nuovo and the Pace, opened their doors to opera buffa in 1724, by which time the new genre was a Neapolitan fixture attracting some of the best opera seria composers (Alessandro Scarlatti had tried his hand at it in 1718 with Il trionfo dell’onore at the Fiorentini, an unusual work in that the text was in Italian rather than Neapolitan, and the lovers were aristocrats). The new generation of composers – among them Vinci, Hasse and Pergolesi – were equally at home in both the serious and the comic genres.
The earliest singers were for the most part local and not professionally trained. Their music is accordingly relatively free of bravura passages but in other respects not unlike that of the contemporary opera seria (the arias are nearly all in da capo form). Like opera seria, these works are in three acts; Acts 1 and 2 often end with a short brawl for three or four of the cast, the germ of what later, in the north, was to become the extended opera buffa finale. The overtures, three-movement sinfonias, are indistinguishable from those of opera seria.
3. The north to c1750.
From Naples, opera buffa spread to Rome. Bernardo Saddumene, one of the leading Naples librettists, arrived there with some buffo singers and a composer (Giovanni Fischietti) in January 1729. Having recruited local castrato singers to play the female roles (women were not allowed on stage in Rome), he produced his Li zite ’ngalera (performed at Naples in 1722 to Vinci’s music) under a new name, La Costanza, and with new music (by Fischietti). The serious roles were sung in Italian, the comic ones in the original dialect (a scheme that Saddumene later introduced to Naples, where it remained standard for the rest of the century). This and his La somiglianza (produced in February) appear to have been the earliest Neapolitan comic operas performed in Rome. The time was evidently ripe for the new genre to spread north. During the 1730s Rome became a centre of opera buffa; italianized Neapolitan operas as well as original Italian ones were produced there, principally at the Teatro Valle. Among the former, Gaetano Latilla’s La finta cameriera (1738, known in Naples as Il Gismondo, 1737), among the latter Latilla’s Madama Ciana (1738) and Rinaldo di Capua’s La commedia in commedia (1738) and La libertà nociva (1740) formed the nucleus of Roman operas that soon began travelling north (one G. Barlocci is credited with having written or adapted their librettos). The composers, it should be noted, were at first all Neapolitans, while the singers tended to be native, often with previous experience as intermezzo specialists.
La finta cameriera travelled by the following route: Naples, 1737; Rome, 1738; Faenza and Modena, 1741; Siena, Florence, Genoa, 1742; Bologna, Venice, Vicenza, 1743; Milan, 1745; Turin, Mantua, Verona, Parma, 1747; and meanwhile, Graz, Leipzig, Hamburg, 1745 (carried there from Venice by the Mingotti troupe). The work’s progress reflects fairly exactly the northward progress of the new opera buffa. There were early excursions outside Italy, and by the 1750s opera buffa was spreading to most of Europe.
4. The later 18th century.
Venice quickly capitulated to the new genre. After the Teatro S Angelo produced La finta cameriera in May 1743, the S Moisè and S Cassiano theatres threw their doors open to opera buffa, remaining its chief purveyors until 1748, when other theatres joined in. The earliest composers were Latilla, Pietro Auletta, Rinaldo di Capua, Antonio Palella and Giuseppe Avossa, all Neapolitan. But in January 1745 they were joined by the Venetian Baldassare Galuppi, whose first opera buffa, La forza d’amore, was produced at the S Cassiano. Other northerners, Giuseppe Scolari and Ferdinando Bertoni, followed the next year; and yet another, Vincenzo Ciampi, made his Venetian opera buffa début in autumn 1748, having enlisted the aid of the then relatively unknown Carlo Goldoni. The Ciampi-Goldoni collaboration extended to two more works, but meanwhile Galuppi and Goldoni produced their first joint effort, L’Arcadia in Brenta (S Angelo, 14 May 1749), thereby initiating a new epoch in the history of the genre.
In a series of highly successful works, Galuppi and Goldoni established a model for the opera buffa just as it was beginning to rival the opera seria in popularity. It was a propitious moment, and several of the brilliant actor-singers at their disposal (e.g. Francesco Baglioni, Francesco Carattoli, Filippo Laschi, Serafina Penni) were to carry the new repertory far and wide, repeating their Venetian successes in other cities and countries. Notable among the new operas were Il mondo della luna (S Moisè, 1750), La calamità de’ cuori (S Samuele, 1752), Il filosofo di campagna (S Samuele, 1754) and La diavolessa (S Samuele, 1755), all of which, but especially Il filosofo di campagna (see illustration), were to enjoy European fame (see LoewenbergA). Goldoni’s spoken comedies were then in the ascendant, and his librettos were merely lucrative by-products; yet they are cleverly wrought, treat a wide variety of subjects from the realistic to the fanciful and (unlike his plays) are always rich in scenic effects. How much their musical component reflects Galuppi’s wishes it is impossible to say, but the composer is given splendid opportunities with such standard features as opening ensembles, metrically varied arias (often departing from the da capo convention), a comic vocabulary designed for musical reiteration and, above all, ‘chain’ finales, of which, according to Gozzi, Goldoni was ‘the first inventor’. A forerunner of this highly important innovation is already present in their L’Arcadia in Brenta; Act 2 ends with a play within the play, most of it set to music. In succeeding librettos, the finales to the first two acts, growing out of the plots themselves, become increasingly long and eventful, and Galuppi set them as a series of separate sections contrasted in key and tempo, assigning to the orchestra the task of continuing the music amid the hectic comings and goings of the actors onstage. The importance of this new feature, which was hugely enjoyed by the public, lies in the fact that here, for the first time in opera, action, not just sentiment, was being set to music. This trend was to gain in importance in later years, affecting even opera seria. Act 3 normally closes with a simpler ensemble or chorus, but in the penultimate scene Goldoni introduces yet another convention: the duet of reconciliation between the two principals, patently a legacy from the now obsolescent intermezzo.
As early as 1749 (in Il conte Caramella, another Galuppi opera) Goldoni listed his characters under the headings ‘seri’, ‘buffi’ and ‘mezzi caratteri’, the last denoting something between ‘serious’ and ‘comical’. He was not blazing new trails but merely codifying what doubtless was already theatrical jargon: the same categories would have been applicable to the earliest Neapolitan comic operas. And when he wrote La buona figliuola for the court of Parma in 1756 (the composer was Duni), he dispensed with those headings altogether. Yet this libretto, as reset in 1760 by Piccinni in Rome, is widely quoted by historians as marking a turning-point in the history of opera buffa because of its mixture of comedy with a sentimental, ‘larmoyant’ element. However, the opera’s resounding success in Rome and throughout Europe cannot be ascribed to a formula that was in itself not at all new. Here again, a conjunction of work, place and time must be considered responsible: Piccinni undoubtedly struck just the right note in portraying the sufferings of Cecchina, the innocent heroine (played in Rome of course by a castrato) and Europe must have been ready just then to take such a heroine to its heart, having already embraced the heroines in novels (notably Richardson’s Pamela, Cecchina’s model) and in the French comédie larmoyante.
Despite the great success of La buona figliuola, Italian opera buffa did not develop farther along the lines of sentimentality. The sly observation of human foibles within the context of contemporary society was and remained its main business; and, precisely because of its success in this, opera buffa now became the dominant form, greatly reducing the role of opera seria everywhere. It successfully reflected the Zeitgeist and thus exerted a widespread influence, infusing with its spirit the new instrumental genres of the Classical period as well as the comedies of contemporary authors such as Goldsmith, Sheridan and Beaumarchais. Not the least of its effects was the stimulus it provided for the development of new, national forms of opera in countries other than Italy (e.g. opéra comique, Singspiel, zarzuela etc.).
With the rise in prestige of opera buffa, its history in the later 18th century becomes virtually that of opera in general and its composers. In Italy, the new composers were Anfossi, Francesco Bianchi, Cimarosa, Giuseppe Gazzaniga, P.A. Guglielmi, Paisiello and Sarti among countless others; the new librettists Giovanni Bertati, G.B. Lorenzi, Pasquale Mililotti, Giuseppe Palomba, Giuseppe Petrosellini and others, among whom Bertati stands out as a talented innovatory man of the theatre. Some of the most important operas of this period were first performed in foreign capitals; for example Paisiello’s Il barbiere di Siviglia (librettist unknown; 1782, St Petersburg) and Il re Teodoro in Venezia (G.B. Casti; 1784, Vienna); and Cimarosa’s Il matrimonio segreto (Bertati; 1792, Vienna). Non-Italian composers, from Gassmann to Martín y Soler, became adept practitioners. It was left to one of them to crown the development of opera buffa in the 18th century with three enduring masterpieces. Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (1786, Vienna), Don Giovanni (1787, Prague) and Così fan tutte (1790, Vienna), to librettos by Da Ponte (who, like Casti and some others, never wrote for Italy), may in some respects be regarded as characteristic of their time: their one-movement overture form and two- or four-act division, the proliferation in them of action set to music in numbers other than the finales proper, and the variety of aria forms (including the nascent cantabile-cabaletta type) were not his inventions. In their psychological depth, dramatic timing and technical mastery, however, Mozart’s Italian comic operas stand alone, dwarfing their predecessors and reducing the prior history of the genre, in the perspective of later generations, to a period of preparation for his coming.
5. The 19th century.
In the Romantic age the importance of opera buffa became vastly diminished. Here the forms are generally freer and less extended than in the serious genre and the set numbers are linked by recitativo secco, except in the solitary case of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale (1843). With Rossini a standard distribution of four characters is reached: a prima donna soubrette (soprano or mezzo); a light, amorous tenor; a basso cantante or baritone capable of lyrical, mostly ironical expression; and a basso buffo whose vocal skills, largely confined to clear articulation and the ability to ‘patter’, must also extend to the baritone for the purposes of comic duets. The classic opera buffa of the early 19th century is Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia (1816, Rome), that of the Romantic age Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore (1832), in which the hero’s silliness is tinged with pathos. Sometimes there is a second basso buffo and even a sub-heroine, as in Verdi’s Un giorno di regno (1840). The last example of the genre to survive is Luigi and Federico Ricci’s Crispino e la comare (1850), a morality which breaks with the Italian tradition by admitting an element of the supernatural (hence its description as ‘opera comico-fantastica’). Backstage comedy persisted well into the 19th century, notable examples being Grecco’s La prova d’un opera seria (1803), Donizetti’s Le convenienze teatrali (1827) and Pedrotti’s Tutti in maschera (1856). After 1860 recitativo secco was dropped from comic opera and with it the title of opera buffa, to be replaced by dramma comico.
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