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

By Mary Hunter | Go to book overview

Chapter Five
CLASS AND GENDER IN ARIAS:
FIVE ARIA TYPES

ALTHOUGH this chapter covers the social and dramatic range of arias in this repertory, from the most comic to the most sentimental, from the lowest to the highest, it does justice neither to the incredible variety of arias nor to the virtuosity with which stereotypes and conventions are combined and reconfigured. Rather, it attempts, in examining the most characteristic sorts of utterances for the most conventional sorts of characters, to give a sense of the framework within which authors, singers, and audiences could have worked. This framework is dramatic, in the sense that certain characters tend to function in particular ways in the narrative of the opera; social, in the sense that certain character types tend to embody (whether negatively or positively or ambiguously) some of the ideologies projected by these operas; and, of course, musical and textual, in the sense that it is in the concrete workings-out of vocabularies, themes, and structures that characters most clearly reveal what they are about.


THE BUFFA ARIA

This aria type—the frantic comic piece for the primo buffo singer—is perhaps the paradigmatic aria type for the whole genre of opera buffa. It is most often sung by the one voice type never used in opera seria—the bass1—and it emphasizes the genre's preference for stage gesture and action over sheer vocal skills.2 It clearly demonstrates the formal fluidity of opera buffa arias and is often a moment of hilarity resulting from the character's confusion or ineptitude. As an aria type sung exclusively by men, usually from the middle ranks of society, it also forms part of the genre's ideology about non-noble masculinity.3 Arias of this type are almost with-

____________________
1
Occasionally buffa arias are sung by tenors, as the Contino Belfiore's self-introductory piece “Dal scirocco al tramontano” in La finta giardiniera, or Prince Ali's spectacular “Ecco un splendido banchetto” in Friberth and Haydn's L'incontro improvviso.
2
Platoff, “The Buffa Aria in Mozart's Vienna,” COJ 2 (1990) p. 101, describes this aria type as “afford[ing] a talented singer and actor an extended opportunity for comic expression.”
3
The obvious exception to this is the fairly significant representation of parvenu noblemen who demonstrate the flimsiness of their claims to nobility in part by singing buffa arias; there are also instances where circumstances compel a genuinely noble character to engage in buffa shenanigans (Prince Ali's “Ecco un splendido banchetto,” in Frieberth and Haydn's L'incontro improvviso is a case in point; it is also one of the few buffa arias that is not about pretension); and there is the occasional instance where a noble character—though never a parte seria—engages in a buffa aria for no very clear reason. For example, the marchese's alternative arias in I finti eredi (II, 10): “Nel mirar la bella dama” (by Marcello da Capua, in KT 160), and “Staremo allegramente,” (in the Austrian National Library manuscript Mus. Hs. 17848) both count as buffa pieces.

-110-

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