An Exhibit of the Diehn Composers Room, Old Dominion University Libraries

The 17th Century: Birth of Opera

In Italy -- In France -- In England

In Italy

While a matter of some contention, the earliest opera to have survived complete into the present is Orfeo, composed in Mantua in 1607 by Claudio Monteverdi (1567 - 1643) and set to a text by Alessandro Striggio. Orfeo belongs stylistically to the dramma per musica developed by Monteverdi and other composers in Venice in the first half of the century. A few of its characteristics are:

  • Small orchestra with doubled roles
  • Sparing use of chorus
  • Standard structure of prologue and 3 acts
  • Interweaving of somewhat more declamatory recitatives and lyric arias
  • Plots focus on noble lovers with comic servants, who are separated and then reunited
  • Plot conventions include sleep scenes with lullabies, mad scenes, incantations, and laments
  • Vocal types include castrato heroes, bass fathers, cross-dressed nurses.

(from: Tim Carter, Grove Music Online Dictionary )


Claudio Monteverdi
Portrait by Bernardo Strozzi, c1640

Claudio Monteverdi. L'incoronazione di Poppea. Prologue.

Orfeo. A scene from Act I.

In France

Italian opera was performed throughout France and remained the dominant style until Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) took over as director of Opera in 1672. Lully had gained popularity as the composer of ballets for court and of ballet segments for Molière's comedies, and as director of the Opera he was able to experiment with form. Lully had already created a fusion of Pierre Corneille's dramatic work (a so-called tragédie à machines ) with his own comédie-ballet in a work entitled Psyché (1671). In Cadmus et Hermione (1673) Lully finally set all dialogue to music, thereby creating a totally French genre known as the tragédie lyrique. Its characteristics:

  • Elaborate ballets and marvelous scenic transformations
  • Luxuriant entertainments of songs and dances
  • Responsive to French dramatic conventions of a 5-act structure; observance of Aristotelian unities of time, space and action; verisimilitude
  • Theme of the amorous aristocratic couple disturbed by rivals
  • Chorus used for commentary, for decoration, and for participation in action
  • Dialogue composed of recitatives and brief airs with continuo. Soliloquies set to larger airs with orchestral accompaniment.

(from: Jérôme de la Gorce, Grove Music Online Dictionary )

In England

Though not generally accepted by the populace, both Italian and French musical dramatic forms were performed in England. The first English opera set completely to music was William Davenant's The Siege of Rhodes (1656), composed by the team of Henry Lawes, Henry Cooke, Matthew Locke (vocals) and Charles Coleman and George Hudson (instrumentals). The best of the all-sung works of the period is probably Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas (1689), "a musical tragedy of unsurpassed pathos and concision." It closely resembled French and Italian operas of the period by use of the compositional unit arietta – chorus – dance and preference for self-contained, modern-style arias.

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Diehn Composers Room

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