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The Opera Repertory

Beverly Sills, Vincenzo Bellini, coloratura, Barber of Seville, Romanticism

Today’s typical opera repertory mainly comprises works from the 19th century, plus a few from the late 18th and early 20th centuries. Romanticism, with its passion for noble deeds and faraway places, stimulated opera composition all over Europe throughout the 19th century. The plots, which usually revolved around romantic love thwarted by social or political forces, promoted a message of human equality in an era when rule by monarchs and aristocrats was giving way to revolutionary movements and a growing merchant class. The rise of the middle class guaranteed opera a vast, ready-made audience.

The conventional operatic repertory tends to reduce the many classifications of the past to two broad areas: tragedy and comedy. Composers have written considerably more tragic operas than comedic operas, and there are more operas, both tragic and comic, in Italian and German than in other languages. The French-language share of the repertory is comparatively small. A growing number of operas in the Russian and Czech languages have entered the repertory; once invariably performed in translation, they are sung more and more in their original tongue.

For the most part, fashion determines repertory. The prevalence or cultivation of certain voice types also has considerable influence, although opera companies regularly perform certain operas—such as Verdi’s Aida (1871)—whether the proper voices are available or not. During an era when operas with coloratura (highly ornamented singing) or allegorical plots fell out of fashion, few people bothered to learn how to present them. The operas of German-born composer George Frideric Handel, for example, were neglected until Australian singer Joan Sutherland, Americans Marilyn Horne and Beverly Sills, and others began to perform them. Not only did the public rediscover the beauties of Handel’s operas, but also eventually vocal culture produced more singers able to cope with his florid compositions. The same phenomenon occurred with Rossini. The rediscovery of his vast output drastically altered the modern perception of a composer once thought of only in terms of The Barber of Seville. Indeed, by the late 20th century, when the composition of new operas had dwindled, much of the “new” ground being broken was that of the neglected past.

Similarly, brilliant performances of operas by Italians Luigi Cherubini and Vincenzo Bellini stimulated revivals of their works. As interest in discovering authentic historical performance practice rose during the late 20th century, performances of the operas of formerly neglected composers such as Cavalli, Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi, and French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier became more frequent. All such revivals require scrupulous musical attention and editing, especially the works of 17th-century composers, whose dynamics (loudness and softness) and instrumentation can only be guessed at because surviving documentation is often either fragmentary or contradictory. The seemingly endless repeats in the arias of Handel and of Neapolitan composers of the early 18th century can prove trying for modern audiences; audiences of Handel’s time commonly left their seats during the performance, either to socialize or to eat. All too often, the obscurity and expansiveness of a score have tempted a conductor or director today to abridge, rearrange, interpolate, or even rewrite the opera, often to the extent that the audience hears a distant relative of the opera listed in the program.

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