“The comely Grilletta would never roar out her lines in a lusty fortissimo. It is entirely out of character.” (Aria to Death, Chapter One)
How did eighteenth-century audiences regard opera? We’re so used to prioritizing the music of an opera, that its other aspects—the plot, the ability, in particular the thespian ability, of the singers, and the scenery—sometimes pale into insignificance. The composer’s name is so inextricably intertwined with an opera that we forget there would be no opera without the plot and characters furnished by the librettist.
That the performance itself would fall flat were it not for the ability of the singers to flesh out the roles. Gesture and expression are as important as voice.
But in the eighteenth-century, opera and the theater in which it was performed was regarded in much the same way as contemporary audiences regard the movies. Entertainment, in which the plot and the acting ability of the singers who brought to life the different characters were of paramount importance.
The average movie-goer isn’t concerned with a movie as high art. Plot, acting, and camera-work are of greater significance. While one might expect a movie theater to be sufficiently quiet for one to attend to the plot and dialogue, few movie-goers are likely to greet a new movie with hushed reverence.
In Vienna’s Burgtheater and in the theaters of the suburbs, the repertory comprised more than one opera and each was performed more than once. How often depended, of course, on the initial reception of the opera. Mozart’s Entführung aus dem Serail, performed in honor of St. Anna’s day in July, was given several times despite the excessive heat. Mozart, in fact, feared that repeat performances might make the opera stale to audiences.
Theaters tended to be fully lit. And since an opera was performed so often and audiences expected to attend more than a single performance, it was quite common for opera-goers to move around, mingling and conversing with each other. Mozart himself was likely to do the same during performances of his own operas. Composers were expected to direct the first few performances, but after that, the house composer, employed by the theater, could reasonably be expected to take over.
An excellent aria or an ensemble might draw the audience’s attention. And, if it delighted them enough, calls for an encore might ensue. This often prolonged the length of an opera. Audience members commented on the ability of the singers and their expressiveness, or lack thereof. Count Zinzendorf, for instance, writes of a performance in October 1788:
“Mme. Ferraresi made her debut in the role of Diana in L’abore di Diana. She sings ravishingly. Her acting was not bad, but she was badly dressed, especially in that the cloak she wore impeded her movement.”
The fact that the music seemed familiar might be loudly noted. Whether the theater had commissioned new sets or was re-using old ones was also commented upon.
Of another performance, Zinzendorf writes: “The music charming, the costumes extraordinary. . .But the plot is without inspiration, without art. No decorations: always the grotto, always the garden, always transformations.”
The effectiveness of the scenery—or lack thereof—was also critiqued. In one case, for instance, the painter, without consulting either the composer or the librettist, added figures here and there to scenic backdrops. That meant that during soliloquies or scenes in which the characters were presumed to be alone, there was actually an audience present!
“The audience, who saw all the painted figures among the shrubbery, not only began to laugh, but laughed louder and louder as they noticed that the singers, who could not guess why the audience was laughing, looked around for some explanation for the interruption. . .” (Ignaz von Mosel, from his biography of Anton Salieri.)
But the composer and his score were of only slightly more importance than the music that accompanies a contemporary movie. True, a particularly effective aria or chorus might be remarked, but the music was simply one aspect of an overall performance. Beautiful music didn’t compensate for the lack of a good plot and dialogue, especially when it came to comic opera.
This was emphasized not only in the opera contracts of the day where the hiring of good singers for the lead role and the sets and costumes were often of greater importance than who exactly composed the music. It was emphasized in the composers’ attitude as well. John Rice comments that Mozart’s letters documenting his first encounters with opera speak excitedly about the singers, the plot, and the sets, but never ever mention the composer. As though that were of no importance at all.
This was not to say that the composer’s role was completely insignificant. And certainly a composer with an understanding of theater could shape the libretto to enhance its dramatic effects. The most effective composers of opera appear to have done just this—from Monteverdi, who frequently dramatically changed the texts he was to set to music, to Mozart.
Haydn, who was fortunate in having his own opera troupe, would have enjoyed an especially close relationship with his librettist and the Esterházy Opera Director. They undoubtedly worked together to ensure the success of each performance, whether the opera was an entirely new one set to music by Haydn or a version of someone else’s opera, edited to suit the tastes of the Esterházy family and the abilities of the troupe.
Although we tend to forget Haydn composed operas as well as symphonies, quartets, and keyboard sonatas, he did in fact compose fifteen operas. The works were well received—well enough, apparently, that the Empress was heard to say that if she ever wanted to hear a good opera, all she had to do was to travel to Eszterháza.