top of page

Baroqe Era - The Beginnings of Opera

In a musical context, "Baroque" is a much less precise term, often used to suggest little more than an ornate and rather theatrical style. Composers of. the time, however, were conscious of a break with the past. In 1605, Monteverdi made a firm distinction between a PRIMA PRATTICA and a SECONDA PRATTICA (first and second practice), the former referring to the intricate Renaissance style of composition, the latter to a new emphasis on the clarity of the text. At the heart of the new style was the development of the BASSO CONTINUO (thorough bass), a system of notation for the secondary instruments.


Such innovations bore fruit almost immediately, helping to stimulate the emergence of opera. 

The oldest surviving opera is Jacopo Peri's Euridice, commissioned in 1600 for the festivities celebrating the marriage of Henri IV of France to the Florentine Maria de' Medici. However, the first masterpiece in the new genre was Monteverdi's Orfeo in 1607, which was composed for the Gonzaga family at Mantua. This was produced on an entirely different scale from the earlier experiments. While Pen had made use of just a few lutes and a harpsichord in his operas, keeping them discreetly hidden behind the scenery, Monteverdi employed a full orchestra consisting of some 40 instruments.

The taste for opera spread; Rome and Venice became the new centres of musical excellence. Rome took the lead in the 1620s, largely due to patronage from high-ranking clergymen. Cardinal Barbenni had a well-appointed opera house constructed in his palace in 1623, while one of the most talented librettists of the period, Giulio Rospigliosi, became pope in 1667. 

The first public opera house opened there in 1637, and at least 15 more were built before the end of the century. 

Opera was the most exciting new art form of the age, consolidating the reputation of the Italian regions as the cultural focus of Europe. This fact belies the conception that political and artistic success go hand in hand, for the Italian peninsula then contained little more than a motley assortment of independent princedoms and satellite states. 

In England, in the mid-sixteenth century, the influence of the Puritans ushered in an era of austerity. Ironically, the same period also witnessed the first stirrings of English opera. Plays set to music qualified as "concerts" and thus escaped the ban that affected the stage. Henry Purcell, whose father had been one of the performers in The siege of Rhodes, wrote several semi-operas, among them The fairy queen and King Arthur, and also produced the first English opera of genuine merit with his Dido and Aeneas in 1689.

The career of Handel could hardly have been more different, although he was born in the same year as Bach. Where the latter was content to continue working in provincial seclusion, Handel sought and found the limelight, enjoying a roller-coaster career in London as both composer and impresario. 

The fact that Handel chose to settle in London, which had hitherto been something of a backwater in operatic terms, may well reflect the shift that had taken place in the European balance of power.

In Vienna Christoph Gluck introduced his "reform" operas during the 1760s. He declared that the function of music was to serve the text and the demands of the plot, and sought to eliminate coloratura singing (the florid elaboration of vocal lines, usually by sopranos). He boosted the roles of both the chorus and the orchestra to compensate for this omission.

Title page of a vintage opera program

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi: La Serva Padrona, intermezzo in two parts

Part 1:

02:35 • Aria: Aspettare e non venire ~ Uberto
04:16 • Recitativo: Questa e per me disgrazia! ~ Uberto, Serpina
07:52 • Aria: Sempre in contrasti ~ Uberto
11:27 • Recitativo: In somma delle somme ~ Serpina, Uberto
13:02 • Aria: Stizzoso, mio stizzoso! ~ Serpina
16:29 • Recitativo: Benissimo! ~ Uberto, Serpina
18:38 • Duetto: Lo conosco ~ Serpina, Uberto

Part 2:

23:03 • Recitativo: Or che fatto ~ Serpina, Uberto
26:38 • Aria: A Serpina penserete ~ Serpina
29:50 • Recitativo: Ah, quanto mi fa male ~ Uberto, Serpina
31:52 • Aria: Son imbrogliato io gia ~ Uberto
36:03 • Recitativo: Favorisca, Signor ~ Serpina, Uberto
39:40 • Duetto: Per te io ho nel core ~ Serpina, Uberto
42:35 • Contento tu sarai! ~ Serpina, Uberto

• Umberto: Furio Zanasi
• Serpina: Sonya Yoncheva
• Vespone: Roberto Carlos Gerboles
• Tafano: Pablo Ariel Bursztin

I Barocchisti
Conducted by Diego Fasolis

Between the acts of those frightfully formalized eighteenth-century entertainments known as opera seria, it was common practice to relieve the monotony of high-mindedness with intermezzi-short, low-comedy musical acts calling for the services of two singers—a soprano and a bass—and often a silent actor. La serva padrona was written to serve as intermezzi for the composer's three-act Il prigionier superbo ("The Proud Prisoner"), a run-of-the-mill opera seria calling for the services of a castrated male soprano in the leading feminine part and a genuine female contralto in the role of the King of the Goths. Like the five other opere serie that Pergolesi composed during his four-year career as opera writer, Il prigionier was a failure. But La serva padrona was a huge success, for the two intermission pieces added up to a neat little story.

They could be-and were later on—played as a one-act comedy; the tunes were simple and gay; the action and characters, while stemming directly from eighteenth-century comedy, were not only understandable but almost realistic. Thus was born the form known as opera buffa, which has had a long and honorable history; and its classic exemplar, La serva padrona, has had a career equally honorable and equally long. 


(The Servant Mistress)


Opera buff a in one act by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi
with libretto in Italian by Gennara Antonio Federico



Uberto, a bachelor   -  bass

Serpina, his maid    -  soprano

Vespone, his valet     -  mute part


Time: 18th century
Place: Naples

First performance at Naples, August 28, 1733



Uberto, a comfortably off Neapolitan bachelor, has two servants, a pretty girl named Serpina and a mute named Vespone. He complains vigorously of the gir's failure to bring him his morning chocolate so that be can go out; and when they come in, he tries reading a lecture to both his servants on theic deliberate inattention. But Serpina will have none of his lip. She gives him back everything she gets. The chocolate hasn't been prepared; he'll just have to do without it. This leads to Uberto's first aria (Sempre in contrasti—"Always at cross-purposes"), in which he continues to complain but in which he already shows some weaknesses of which Serpina is quick to take advantage. She refuses to let him go out, even threatening to lock the door; and when he complains that she is giving him a headache, she delivers herself of an aria (Stizzoso, mio stizzoso - "My own fuss-budgetf") in which she advises him to take her advice. Thereupon Uberto instructs Vespone to go find him a wife just to spite Serpina. A wife, says she, is just what he needs; and who could be a better one than herself? And the first half of the opera ends with a duet in which Serpina assures him that he really means to marry his beautiful and graceful servant even though he says he won't, while Uberto insists that she is perfectly mad to think it.

Catherine Nelidova as Serpina (by Dmitry Levitzky, 1773)


Presumably a short while after, Serpina brings Vespone into the room, dressed as a soldier and wearing a set of horrendous false whiskers. When Uberto enters, she hides her coconspirator outside the door and proceeds to tell her master that as he refuses to marry her and as she must look after her own interests, she has engaged herself to another. His name, she says, is Captain Tempesta, and he has a frightful temper. This softens Uberto somewhat; and when she sings him a sentimental tune about how one day he shall remember her fondly (A Serpina penserte), he begins to feel downright sentimental. He agrees to meet this frightening military man; and while she is gone to fetch him, be admits to the audience that be is more in two minds about this matter than he would like to admit (Son imbrogliato io gia). Vespone, thorougly instructed, plays his part beautifully. He fumes all over the place without ever uttering a word, and lets Uberto know, through Serpina, that he demands a dowry of four thousand crowns. If be doesn't get it, he refuses to many the girl; and, furthermore, Uberto must marry bee. When Vespone makes threatening gestures and begins to attack Uberto, the master finally gives in and does what be obviously wanted to do all along: be offers bis hand both literally and figuratively. Thereupon Vespone doffs his disguise, but Uberto cannot be angry at him very long. Instead, he joins his fiancee in a darling duet about their delighted hearts (which, they say, beat respectively tippiti, tippiti and tappata, tappata) and which ends with two most elegant and eloquent lines:

          Serpina: Oh, caro, caro, caro! (Oh darling, darling, darling!)

          Uberto: Oh gioia, gioia, gioia! (Oh joy, joy, joy!)

bottom of page