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Italian and German Opera Essay

he Italian opera and the German opera are two different fields that both share characteristics, some of which are paralleled, and some of which contrast. Specifically, Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner use motifs such as: redemption through love, patriotism, and sacrifice which run throughout both of their operas. The theme of betrayal also seems to be echoed throughout both operas; yet they are each used to project a different response. The significance of this comparison demonstrates that Verdi and Wagner may allude to the same references, such as Victor Hugo, Shakespeare, and Byron, but the operas The Flying Dutchman (German opera) and that of Nabucco (Italian opera) are completely different in context, and musical style; perhaps even The Flying Dutchman is a musical imitation of Italian opera while still trying to originate his own musical ideas as well.

The Italian opera has three main genres: the Baroque, the Romantic, and the Modern. Italian opera first started to materialize in the seventeenth century, and approximately two hundred years later, the Romantic genre was introduced. Throughout the seventeenth century there were many developments in Italian opera due to Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), who wrote his first opera in 1607 (La Favola d’Orfeo) which to this day, is still performed. He introduced ideas such as the bel canto and buffa styles. Having a strong connection between the instrumental music and words was of major importance to Monteverdi, and this became a major theme for other opera composers to follow.

The Romantic operas started to appear in the early 19th century. Romantic operas stress the world of imagination and emotions and through its music and aria’s was this theme magnified. Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) was one the composers of this era who changed the way composers would forever more look at operatic writing. His first successful opera Nabucco was immediately well received by the public for its amazing choruses, and vigorous music. One of the chorus interpretations Nabucodonosor, or in English, Nebuchadnezzar. This opera has four acts, and to the libretto by Temistocle Solera based on the biblical story of Nebuchadnezzar. In part one the Priest Zaccaria tells the Jews that there still may be peace due to the presence of a hostage, Fenena,(the younger daughter of Nabucco). Zaccaria gives Fenena to Ismaele, (the nephew of the King of Jerusalem). Ismaele tells her to escape even though they love one another. The King (Nabucco) enters and Zaccaria disobeys him, and threatens to kill Fenena with a dagger. Ismaele intervenes to save her. Nabucco responds by ordering the destruction of the temple, and the Jews curse Ismaele as a traitor.

In part two Nabucco is away at war and has appointed Fenena as ruler. Abigaille (Fenena’s older sister) has discovered a document that proves she is not actually Nabucco’s real daughter, but in fact, a slave. The Priest of Baal tries to put Abigaille on the throne by spreading a rumour that Nabucco died in battle. Then Fenena is converted to the Jewish religion. Suddenly Nabucco himself enters which is unexpected because everyone thinks he is dead. He then declares himself God. Zaccaria objects, so then Nabucco orders that the Jews be put to death. Fenena says that she will die as one of them. When Nabucco says he is god again he is hit by a thunderbolt and goes insane. The crown falls and is picked up by Abigaille.

The Priest presents Abigaille the Jews and Fenena’s death sentence. Nabucco walks in looking like a mad man, and claims his throne. Abigaille persuades him to carry out the sentence, but in the end he asks that his daughter, Fenena be spared. Here, Nabucco tells Abigaille that she is not his actual daughter but really a slave. Abigaille then destroys the document with the evidence of her being a slave. He is now a prisoner, and pleads for Fenena’s life. Then we hear the famous chorus Va persiero, chanted by the Jews as they long for their Homeland.

In the final act Nabucco’s health and mentality are fully recovered. He sees Fenena in chains being taken to her death. He then asks God for forgiveness and promises to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, and to follow the “true faith.” He and his loyal soldiers decide to punish the traitors and rescue Fenena. The Jews and Fenena are prepared for death on the sacrificial altar of Baal. Nabucco rushes in with his sword and the Idol of Baal shatters into pieces. Nabucco tells the Jews they are free. Abigaille enters. She poisoned herself. She asks for forgiveness of Fenena, says she’s sorry and dies. Zaccaria (the priest) hails Nabucco as the ‘servant of God and the King of Kings.’ After Nabucco, Verdi based his operas on more standard romantic sources by Victor Hugo, Shakespeare, and Lord Byron.

Orchestrally, it is scored for strings, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, two flutes, one piccolo, two oboes, one English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four French horns, two trumpets, three trombones, two harps, and one cimbasso. Musically, this opera is very directly vigorous. It sticks to the widely used concepts of arias, duets, finales, and choruses. His fine music often excused the glaring faults in character and plot lines.

Contextually, there are themes of love, betrayal, and patriotism represented. We see love through Kind Nabucco’s love for his daughter Fenena, and his constant want to help and protect her. It is almost through this love that he is redeemed, and made whole again. We also see the love between Ismaele and Fenena as pure and genuine. Although this opera is not directly patriotic to Italy itself, it shows a certain sympathy and connection with the people of Jerusalem and their hardships. Abigaille betrays her ‘family’ and her people. The betrayal of close loved ones seems to be a popular theme for many Italian and German operas.

The German opera can be seen in four main genres: the Baroque, the Classical, the Romantic, and the Modern. German opera first started to materialize in the seventeenth century approximately three decades after the Italians had started composing operas. German composers continuously tried to challenge the Italian dominance for the most part of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, but none were successful until Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart established the tradition of serious German opera in 1781 with the release of Idomeneo. Mozart took the genre of Singspiel and evolved it into something far more sophisticated.

The Classical era emerged in the late 18th century, and at this time, a lot of German composers were still avoiding writing in their own language. This was because the courts of German states favoured Italian operas. In 1730, the Italian librettist and chief of opera seria, Metastasio, took up residence as the imperial poet in Vienna. Opera in German was forced to look to the general public to survive because it had no aristocratic funding. This meant theatrical companies had to tour from town to town. The Singspiel became the most popular form of German opera, especially by the composer Johann Adam Hiller. The Singspiel’s were comedies intertwining spoken language with singing. They often had very simple music; Singspiele were no match for the opera serias in artistic eloquence and sophistication. Yet at the end of the 18th century Mozart changed all this, as mentioned before.

Richard Wagner is one of the most controversial composers throughout history. He changed the way everyone looked at opera not only in Germany and Austria, but all throughout Europe. Wagner gradually evolved a new concept of opera: Gesamtkunstwerk (meaning “complete work of art”), binding music, poetry and painting all together. Wagner believed his career truly began with The Flying Dutchman (Der fliegende Hollander) (1843). Together with the two works which followed, Tannhauser and Lohengrin, this has been described as the “zenith of German Romantic opera” (Parker 220).

The Flying Dutchman was preformed in Dresden at the Semper Oper in 1843. Both the music and libretto is by Wagner himself. This opera has three acts and is based on the legend of the Flying Dutchman who is captain of a ship condemned to sail until Judgement Day. In the first act captain Daland is on his journey home when he is forced to take refuge due to the stormy weather. He leaves the helmsman on watch and he and the sailors stop working. The helmsman falls asleep. A ghostly vessel appears and invisible hands furl the sails. A man dressed in black steps ashore. Having broken his promise, he is cursed to roam the sea forever without rest. An angel says that at the end of every seven years he will be cast upon the shore and if he can find a wife who will be true to him he will be redeemed. Daland meets him. The ghost offers him treasure, and when he hears that Daland has an unmarried daughter, he asks for her as his wife. Tempted by gold Daland consents, and both vessels set sail.

In the second act Senta dreamily gazes upon the picture of the Flying Dutchman, whom she desires to save. Against the will of her nurse she sings the story of the Dutchman, and she says she will save him. Erik (who loves her) arrives and hears her and warns her, telling her of his dream, where Daland returned with a mysterious stranger, who takes her off to sea. Daland finally arrives with the stranger, and he and Senta stand gazing at each other. Senta then swears to be truthful till death.

In the last act the crew of Daland invites the men on the strange vessel to join in the festivities. The girls retire in wonder, and Daland’s men retreat in fear. Senta arrives, followed by Erik, who scolds her for her desertion, as she had loved him before and had vowed her faithfulness to him. When the stranger hears these words, he is overwhelmed with sadness, as now he is forever lost. He tells Senta of the curse and to the dismay of Daland and his crew declares that he is the ‘Flying Dutchman.’ As he begins to leave shore Senta plunges into the sea, proving her loyalty unto death. This is his salvation. The ship then disappears and Senta and the Dutchman are seen going up into heaven. One can suggest that these ideas of live and redemption, betrayal, and sacrifice can be alluded to the works of Victor Hugo, Shakespeare, and Lord Byron; specifically, Ernani (1844), Macbeth (1847), and Il Duo Foscari (1844) respectively.

Orchestrally, it is scored forContextually, there are themes of redemption through love, betrayal, and sacrifice represented. There is not an overwhelming presence of family love between Senta and her father. However, we see the undying love Erik has for Senta, and the intense love Senta has for the Flying Dutchman. This love is what ultimately redeems the Flying Dutchman, and only because of this is he free. Senta ends up betraying Erik and his love for her, as she had previously already confirmed her faithfulness to him. Daland sacrifices his daughter, although he gets treasure in return, but we see how Erik has the sacrifice of letting Senta go to the Dutchman willingly.

Musically, The Flying Dutchman is very different than the opera Nabucco. Wagner did not entirely abandon the traditional forms of the Italian singing-opera. For there are solos, duets, choruses, etc. just as in other operas of the time. However, he made the characters move, act, and sing in a way that suited the situation, according to the laws of ordinary common-sense. Not yet was he entirely possessed by the leitmotiv system which later became the characteristic feature of his works, although the characteristics of the system are certainly embedded in the score. A leitmotiv is a “short theme or passage in a composition, repeated throughout the work and associated with a certain person, situation, or idea.” (Oxford Dictionary 660). In The Flying Dutchman Wagner is only evolving his way towards this essential and most principle aspect of his music. Hence the work is based half on old style, half new, overall with the balance in favour of the old.

In the Overture one can only briefly note the general musical characteristics of the opera itself. There are some conventionalities in it but the score contains many passages of beauty and of vital dramatic force. The music of the First Act could not be more charmingly sea-like. No one can fail to be struck with the ghostly music which accompanies the various entries of the demon ship.

The Spinning Song, one of the most popular tunes, is a lyric composition. Its dozy hum is exactly what is required to put the listener in the mood for sympathizing with Senta and her dreams. The Sailors’ Choruses are all bright and tuneful. Senta’s ballad in the second act is written in plain song form, yet is immensely dramatic in its expression. As mentioned before, The Flying Dutchman contains only small traces of the leitmotiv system.

With this evidence provided it is quite clear that both Verdi and Wagner have produced two very different operas both getting inspiration from major traumatic events in history-whether it is fact or legend. Recurring themes seem to be echoed in both operas such as redemption through love, betrayal, and sacrifice. Wagner demonstrates how he is moving into his own musical style through The Flying Dutchman however originally using the more traditional forms that Verdi implements in Nabucco; suggesting that perhaps The Flying Dutchman in a way is a musical imitation of Italian opera whilst in the same way trying to develop German opera as its own independent genre which is what German composers were trying to do throughout the entire seventeenth and eighteenth century.

Works Cited:

1. Balthazar, Scott Leslie. Evolving conventions in Italian serious opera: scene structure in the works of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi. University of Pennsylvania, 1985.

2. Gentry, Theodore L. Emblems of love and death in Italian realist opera. 1992.

4. Doerner, Mark Frederick. The influence of the “Kunstmärchen” on German romantic opera. 1990.

5. Smart, Mary Ann. Mimomania : music and gesture in nineteenth-century opera. Berkeley : University of California Press, 2004.

6.Brauner, Charles Samuel. “Vincenzo Bellini and the aesthetics of opera seria in the first third ofthe nineteenth century.” Doctor of Philosophy diss, Music History: Yale U., 1972.

7.Swales, Martin. “Schiller, Verdi, Wagner: Opera and the tragic mode in the nineteenth century” In: Vermittlungen: German studies at the turn of the century–Festschrift for Nigel B.R. Reeves Munchen: Iudicium, 1999.

8.Hall, Frederick Albert; Chapple, Gerald; Schulte, Hans. “The Romantic tradition: German literature and music in the nineteenth century” Series: McMaster colloquium on German studies no: 4. 1992.

9.Koury, Daniel. “The orchestra in the nineteenth century: physical aspects of its performance practice” PhD diss., Musicology: Boston U., 1981.

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