German Opera: From the Beginnings to Wagner | Cambridge Studies in Opera
The Beginning of German Opera
The oldest operas that are still included in the general standard repertory are those of Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787). He was born on German soil and received his musical education in Bohemia. After leaving Prague he journeyed to Milan where he began composing Italian operas. By the end of his life he had completed one hundred and seven operas, all written in either French or Italian.
In the year 1761, Gluch made the acquaintance of an Italian poet named Calzabigi who had come to Vienna where Gluck was living and writing there for the court. The end result of their collaboration was the great opera, Orfeo, produced in 1762. It would seem that the intended audience was a limited public of intellectuals. There are only three charachters in Orfeo, Orpheus, Eurydice, and Cupid. Both the words and music are intensely concentrated on the relationship between Orpheus, the hero and Eurydice, the heroine.
The general scheme of Orfeo is French, with numerous choruses and ballets, but the words and music were Italian. Perhaps the most satisfactory opera ever composed by Gluck was Armide (Paris, 1777). The literary formality of Armide gives it unity, and it is less experimental and more assured in its technique than earlier works. To stage this opera, however, is a considerable undertaking, demanding much from the singers, choreographers and scenic designers.
Although Gluck operas remain the oldest of those still kept on the regular professional stage, the chance of seeing one is small. It is safe to say though that attendance at one is a remarkable experience. For those who enter the theater hoping to enjoy opera as a work of art, they will not be disappointed. After some two hundred and forty four years, we can say that Christoph Gluck achieved what he set out to do.
That was to make everything in the opera subservient to the drama. Not even the lead singer or conductor were permitted to overshawdow the story. Some of Gluck's better known productions are Orfeo of 1762, Alceste of 1767, Paride ed Elena of 1770, and Iphigenie en Aulide of 1774. He has gone down to posterity as a great reformer of opera and even the great Wagner was happy to claim him as an early forerunner of his own style.
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