Italian and French Opera Between 1670 and 1750
The Baroque era heralded several major changes to opera as a genre in both French and Italian culture. The Italian opera demonstrated a clear case of style dominating over substance. For instance, the number of voices used in arias was increased significantly to 4–8, as in Giovanni Gabrielli’s In Ecclesiis. The number of instruments used in the opera was reduced, however; for example, the organ was removed, as in Bach’s Cantata BWV 147.
The French opera, in its turn, displayed the tendency to incorporate various “vocal elements” into a single entity, therefore, creating an ode to harmony, as Lully’s Armada shows. In addition, the French opera was growing at a much steadier pace, with a “more balanced” progress. As a result, both the text and the music developed in a harmonic manner. The addition of female voices, which could be traced clearly in the operas such as Giacomo Carissimi’s Jepthe, can also be viewed as a huge step in the right direction.
Recitative and Arias
A stronger emphasis on the recitatives as one of the key elements of oratories, such as recitatives in Lully’s Armide, can also be considered the staple of the era. At this point, one must mention that the introduction of recitatives into operas occurred due to the influence of the Italian tradition (recitative secco, to be more specific). As a result, the innovation had to undergo a major change in order to become a part and parcel of the French opera. In Italy, in its turn, laments became an integral part of opera, as Dorinda’s lamenting in Handel’s Orlando shows.
The same could be said about the evolution of arias in the French and the Italian opera; despite minor discrepancies in the process of introduction of the general audience to the phenomenon of arias, the common features, such as the strong influence of the United Kingdom and its culture could be traced rather easily. However, a very clear line still could be drawn between the French and the Italian arias, the latter bearing distinct dryness. Bach’s Cantata BWV 127 had an obvious impact on both the French and the Italian operas’ evolution.
The Italian opera demonstrated a change in the harmonies over the bass line, which Handel proves rather clearly with his Orlando. In addition, the Italian composers were among the first ones to introduce the opera to the idea of mixing the choir and the instruments. In addition, the Italian opera featured a variety of instruments, therefore, opening new opportunities for experimenting with the style; specifically, violins, organs continuo, cornets, trombones, etc., as in In Ecclesiis by Gabrieli. The French opera, on the opposite, seemed to be reserved in its expressivity and the array of instruments included in the music pieces. Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes is a prime example of this innovation, with its chamber orchestra consisting mainly of string players, and with the simple melody of the refrain.