Opera was originally a pure art, surviving on subsidies from royalty, nobility, and aristocracy. But with the opening of the first public opera house in Venice in 1637, opera has gradually become a marketable commodity, competing with popular entertainments. Today, this art form carries numerous stereotypes that mildly retard the spreading of its popularity. Younger generations often perceive opera as an activity appreciated by the wealthier and older population. Classical music in general, has somewhat lost its foothold on younger kids, who no longer hold much of an appreciation for the art.
Opera today is facing the problem of continuous change. Historically, opera was physically distinguished as a landmark. Yet today, many of these houses no longer exist. Many have been demolished, while others have been renovated into houses, supermarkets, garages, or office buildings. Another aspect of change involves the content of the opera itself. Originally, opera was serious and grand. It has since evolved, adding new and different elements, to the point that opera now comes in all shapes, sizes, and degrees: seria, semiseria, buffa, grand, comique, Kammer, Singspiel, lyrique, light and intermezzo. Opera is today the generic term used for a variety of different pieces, ranging from: Aida, La Perichole, Night Flight, and West Side Story. With its new face and great variety, opera now has a lot more to offer to a younger, changing audience. Two such pieces are Rappresentatione Di Anima et di Corpo by Cavalieri, and Romeo et Juliette by Gounod.
This first piece, Rappresentatione, is a more contemporary piece, which takes on a philosophical, if not theological theme. In contrast to the traditional opera, where the scene is set at a general time and a geographical location, an Italian village, or perhaps the Spanish court, Rappresentatione takes place anywhere, at any time. Although this may seem ambiguous, the fact is that this drama of the human Body and Soul takes place every day, and inevitably, to everyone. The characters consist of personifications of the intangible elements and ideas that are the basis for human existence: Time, Intellect, Soul, Pleasure. The theme music to each character is carefully devised to enhance the tangible existence of the elements. Time is continuous, flowing and has a constant and repetitive pattern. It is the one absolute, independent and waiting for no one. Pleasure, on the other hand, is unpredictable; explosive and full of grandeur in places, yet capable of mystery and manipulative temptation. The orchestrations are excellent in portraying this with a range of tempos and pitches of voice. The plot involves a series of conflicts between contrasting players. Body and Soul: one cannot exist without the other, yet Body is tempted by Pleasure, while Soul seeks to save Body. Heaven, Guardian Angel and World, Earthly Life: they vie for control over Body and Soul. In the end, Heaven and Guardian Angel reveal that the truth of Earthly Life is in fact, Death. Ultimately, Heaven and Guardian Angel conquer Soul and Intellect, while Death will conquer Body. Through a series of dramatic interludes involving a vast mixture of upbeat, higher-pitched notes, and slower, deeper-pitched notes, the great battle and internal conflict tears up the stage. Although the main theme of the piece is the glorification of God and the victory of virtue, indeed the music glorifies Life as a whole, and something not to be taken for granted.
Though one could argue the latter as another strong theme present in Romeo et Juliette, the main theme is undoubtedly the age-old lesson that love is blind and knows no boundaries. It is the classic tale of forbidden love and desires. Act I draws upon the apparent na ve and blissful existence of the Capulets and the Montagues. Their worlds have coexisted while managing to keep their intimate worlds apart. It is during this merry and festive movement that the young Montague crosses that fine line which stands between the two families. Ultimately, Act I is the last time such positive music is used. Even during Act II, the couple’s young love is tainted by the hopelessness of their situation. From this point on, throughout Acts III and IV, the music takes a turn to dramatic and emotional, morose and despairing tones. The music and drama spin through several climatic events, including their marriage, the duel which leave Mercutio and Tybalt dead, and the exile of Romeo from Verona. Yet the climax of the piece is in the final scene, where the young couple sing a duet, having overcome the blood of Tybalt on Romeos hands, and (temporarily) the conflict which divides their families so deeply. The music once again becomes bright and uplifting with the mesmerizing blend of her soprano and his tenor. The audience is tentatively assured that love will indeed conquer all. Yet it is when Romeo hears the morning lark that the truth brings the audience back
down from the high spirits of their lovely duet. With the morning light, comes the harsh truth of the matter that Romeo has been exiled, and they can no longer stay together. With a sweeping and heart-wrenching duet so strongly contrasted to their blissful song of love, the couple sing their farewell. Musically, this is the most powerful point in the piece. The audience is lifted so high by the joy of their love, then suddenly sinks, then falls, slowly but surely, until you are convinced of their impending doom.
Harries, Susie & Meirion. Opera Today St. Martins Press, New York; 1986.