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

By Mary Hunter | Go to book overview

Chapter Six
ENSEMBLES

SOME ISSUES

Ensembles are often taken to exemplify the spirit of opera buffa. This is partly because they are more numerous in, and more characteristic of, the genre than opera seria,1 partly because they focus on groups rather than individuals and are thus felt to embody the spirit of comedy more fully than the seriatim statements of personal positions represented by arias, and partly because their flexible forms and various textures allow an apparent “naturalness” of interaction that contrasts with the supposed “stiff artificiality” of opera seria. Ensembles have also traditionally been taken as the element of opera buffa closest to the essence of the “high classical” instrumental style and have been essentially canonized in the context of opera buffa in relation to that. Wolfgang Osthoff, for example, comments that opera buffa's spirit of community is most aptly expressed through resources of polyphony and practices based in instrumental music (emphasis mine) and describes the genre as a whole as being suffused with an Ensemblegeist.2 Reinhard Strohm does not assert the priority of instrumental music but notes that opera buffa's pervasive themes of social differentiation and the relation of the individual to the group are in fact questions of “harmony” and are naturally expressed in ensembles, in which participants are both soloists and members of the group.3 In the following two chapters, I do not address the relation of the opera buffa ensemble to instrumental music of the same period, but I take seriously the notion of the genre's “ensemble spirit” in the sense of its preoccupation with social groups. Unlike arias, which tend to articulate the “fixed” stratification of society by rank and

____________________
1
See, however, Daniel Heartz and Marita McClymonds, s.v. “Opera seria,” NGO, on the increasing seria use of ensembles in the 1780s and 1790s.
2
Wolfgang Osthoff, “Die Opera buffa,” in Wulf Arlt, Ernst Lichtenhahn, and Hans Oesch, eds., Gattungen der Musik in Einzeldarstellungen. Gedenkschrift Leo Schrade, erste Folge (Berlin and Munich: Francke, 1973) pp. 680–84, et passim. Charles Rosen, The Classical Style (London: Faber & Faber, 1971) passim, often comments on the relation between the pacing of instrumental music and that of the buffa ensemble (by which he means Mozart's Da Ponte operas). For a more detailed discussion of one sort of relation between instrumental music and opera buffa, see James Webster, “How ‘Operatic’ are Mozart's Concertos?” in Neal Zaslaw, ed., Mozart's Piano Concertos: Text, Context, Interpretation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996) pp. 107–37.
3
Reinhard Strohm, Die italienische Oper (Wilhelmshaven: Heinrichshofen, 1979) p. 250. This is, to my knowledge, the most insightful (and also the most compact) discussion of the socially embedded nature of opera buffa in the literature.

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