Opera in Eight Parts: A Deeper Dive into the Baroque

By: Lyric Opera Staff

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by Dr. Alison DeSimone

I fell in love with Baroque music through Baroque opera. The thrill of the spectacle seduced me early in graduate school, and it has not left. Every time I listen to a Baroque aria, I get chills down my spine—whether it is a virtuosic display of coloratura (as in “Svegliatevi nel core” from Handel’s Giulio Cesare) or a nuanced performance of a lament (such as “Tu se’ morta” from Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo). These extremes of emotions are exactly why Baroque opera continues to touch the hearts and ears of audiences today. It was the entire purpose of Baroque music to move the affections; in other words, music of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had to bring listeners on an emotional journey themselves, moving them to feel the same emotions being expressed by the singer.

Our Opera in Eight Parts brings you a brief history of opera, spanning its creation in the late sixteenth century to its fracturing into a multitude of different styles and approaches in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. But there is a lot that we had to leave out. I want to share with you three of my favorite Baroque operas that don’t often make it into historical overviews; yet they are beautiful works and deserve more attention than they get. All should be easily found on CD.

Giasone had its moment a few years ago, and the opera has never left my ears. Cavalli was a student of Monteverdi’s, in Venice, and his opera features the best that Venetian opera had to offer. From comic subplots, to erotic love songs, to conjuration and mad scenes, this opera (another one based on the Medea myth!) offers something for everyone. There are a number of good recordings, but I like the one featuring René Jacobs and Concerto Vocale.

Charpentier’s Médée may be my favorite Baroque opera. Charpentier composed it in the French tradition of Lully (as they were close contemporaries), but the opera’s musical profile enhances its heroine’s emotional plight through five beautiful airs. From lamenting her husband’s unfaithfulness, to conjuring demons, to expressing regret, Médée garners our sympathies throughout the opera. The recording by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants, starring Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, is well worth a listen.

This was the first opera that Handel composed for London, and it stands out in his oeuvre as one of the most experimental—and the most fun. The plot centers on the Christian crusade attempting to wrest Jerusalem back from the evil Saracens. Handel pulls out all the stops in this opera, showcasing his singers’ virtuosity through extraordinarily difficult arias (such as “Venti turbini,” “Sibillar gli angui d’Aletto,” and “Vo’ far guerra”), beautiful laments (“Lascia ch’io pianga” and “Cara sposa” are its most famous), and instrumental fireworks, including a grand harpsichord solo during an aria (“Vo’ far guerra”) that would have featured Handel as the soloist himself. The original performance included a multitude of scenic special effects, too, including a fire-breathing dragon that descended from the top of the theater to the stage, and live birds released into the theater. I highly recommend Glyndebourne’s 2011 production, available on DVD; the performances are stellar, and the scenic updates bring out the comedy inherent to this opera.

Alisone DeSimone is Associate Professor of Musicology at the University of Kansas. Currently, she serves as an Associate Editor for The Eighteenth Centure: Theory and Interpretation.

Opera in Eight Parts is available for purchase here.