Photo by The Pirates of Penzance, 2017. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Opera Buffa

While, as we have noted, Don Giovanni contains elements of both opera seria and opera buffa, it is essentially a buffa piece. This highly stylized form of comedy apparently arose out of the commedia del arte improvisational comedy groups who traveled through Europe, and many of the stereotypical character types developed in the presentations found their way into opera buffa. The inclusion of music which resembled opera seria in style was not entirely original with Mozart, though he seems to have mixed the two forms more deftly than had his predecessors.

Essentially, light as they often were, these comic works were seen as morality plays, and the typical buffa plot was designed to hold certain forms of human behavior up to ridicule. As morality plays, however, the satire was never political but always general enough as not to offend the audiences.

During the final quarter of the 18th century, opera buffa was extremely popular in Vienna, where a distinction was made between German-language opera, which was considered more serous and philosophical, and comic Italian operas. These works not only were presented in Italian but also followed the conventions of Italian opera; whereas German works used spoken dialogue between the musical numbers. Italian operas linked the arias and ensembles with recitative, a form of sung speech. Opera buffa, in fact, made frequent use of secco (dry) recitative, with only a harpsichord for accompaniment, allowing for rapid-fire dialogue to advance the plot.

The buffa format remained vital for several years after Mozart’s death and it can be seen in the comic works of the great bel canto composers, such as Donizetti and Rossini (as in The Elixir of Love or La Cenerentola). Gradually comic opera in general fell out of favor and was replaced by tragic opera. While Verdi and Puccini each wrote one purely comic opera, their musical idiom was in general best suited to tragedy. Most of the great comedies of the late 19th and 20th centuries were composed as operettas rather than operas and were written not in Italian but in German, French, and English. It was not until the 1920s that Richard Strauss developed an entirely new style of music appropriate for comic opera.

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