The Culture of Opera Buffa in Mozart's Vienna: A Poetics of Entertainment

By Mary Hunter | Go to book overview
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Chapter Four

THERE ARE several reasons for looking closely at arias in the course of a study of opera buffa as entertainment. The crudest is that the aria is by far the most common closed musical number in opera buffa, and any consideration of how the genre presents its meanings has to take the aria—the basis of the dramaturgy—into account. Every character with any part in the plot gets at least one aria, and anyone of significance gets two or three or more. The numbers of arias in individual operas decrease somewhat between 1770 and 1790, partly because of the lengthening of arias, partly because of increasing numbers of ensembles, and occasionally as a result of more fluid relations between recitative and aria or between aria and ensemble, such that “aria” is no longer such an unambiguous category.1 Nevertheless, even by the end of the period, most operas include between fourteen and eighteen arias, and even those with fewer typically include more arias than ensembles. More important than sheer weight of numbers, however, is the aria's function as the chief carrier of meaning about individual characters. To be sure, ensembles (especially the larger ones) can create a pressure to act which reveals aspects of characters inaccessible to solo numbers, but on the whole the “essence” of a character is most clearly expressed in the series of arias he or she sings in the course of an opera. Arias, then, are among the most important clues to “character type,” a concept of primary importance in understanding the social profile of this repertory.


The main vehicle for these meanings is the “aria type,” a concept much in use since the eighteenth century but quite variable in meaning. In the late eighteenth century, the concept of aria type (derived more from opera seria than opera buffa) was most closely related to generally expressive qualities manifested primarily in the melodic and declamatory qualities of the vocal line. John Brown, for example, in his Letters upon the Poetry and Music of the Italian Opera (1789), lists five basic types: the aria cantabile, the aria di portamento, the aria di mezzo carattere, the aria parlante, and the aria

Trofonio's big aria “Spirti invisibili,” in Salieri's La grotta di Trofonio, I, 10, for example, segues directly into a chorus, while Plistene's exit from the grotto in II, 6 is set as a scena. The influence of Salieri's “French connection” on these pieces is obvious.


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