Baroque Opera

Baroque opera refers to opera composed during the Baroque era, a period in the artistic history of Europe. The Baroque era is usually regarded as encompassing the years between 1600 and 1750, following the previous Renaissance period and eventually giving way to the subsequent Classical period. The emergence of opera as a genre predates the beginning of the Baroque era by only a few years, so Baroque opera encompasses the early evolution of opera and its development into an important form of music.

Like later opera, one of the key features of Baroque opera is monody, music in which a solo vocalist sings the melody of the song while other instruments provide accompaniment. Monody was an important development in Baroque music that distinguishes it from the polyphony-based vocal music of the Renaissance period, in which multiple singers sang different melodic lines simultaneously. The singer's instrumental accompaniment frequently incorporated a form of accompaniment called basso continuo. A low-pitched instrument or instruments, such as a cello, played a bass line while an instrument capable of playing chords, such as a harpsichord, played the notes of the bass line along with adding additional, higher notes to play a complete chord.

Baroque opera composers were also more specific in their compositions than previous creators of vocal music, specifying particular instruments or combinations of instruments intended to suit the emotional tone of each scene in the opera. Instrumentation became more elaborate and complex as a result. The opera of the Baroque period was followed by the opera of the subsequent Classical period, which spanned the years from about 1750 to 1830. In contrast to Baroque music, Classical opera's instrumentation tended to be less complex and ornamented, and music of the Classical period placed more emphasis on dramatic changes and contrasts within a single piece.

Baroque opera developed from a number of influences, both musical and non-musical. Early opera arose in the final years of the 16th century out of an existing tradition of Italian vocal music in which one singer sang the main melody while other singers or musicians provided supporting accompaniment. Multiple songs could be performed in succession with lyrics that told a continuing story. At the same time, the increased interest in Classical Greek and Roman literature during the Renaissance led to an interest in reviving classical Greek drama, which incorporated musical elements. Theatrical performances that included musical performances between the acts of a play were also growing in popularity during the 16th century. The great wealth of the Italian nobleman who funded these events meant that they were often very large, grandiose spectacles.

Many of the forms identified with Baroque music originated in Italy, including the cantata, concerto, sonata, oratorio, and opera. Although Italy played a vital role in the development of these genres, new concepts of what it meant to be a nation increased the imperative of a “national style.”. Opera in the Baroque Era. In 1637, the idea of a “season” (Carnival) of publicly attended operas supported by ticket sales emerged in Venice. Monteverdi had moved to the city from Mantua and composed his last operas, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria and L’incoronazione di Poppea, for the Venetian theatre in the 1640s. BUY TICKETS For Subscribers 20-21 Season Season-at-a-Glance Season Releases Virtual Events Video on Demand About About Us Martin Pearlman Staff & Leadership Orchestra & Chorus The X-tet Classics for Kids Recordings Mission Statement Support Ways to Give Sponsorship Opportunities Opera Guild Corporate Giving Gala Donor Room Donate Now Resource.

The first composition generally agreed to be an opera, entitled Dafne, was composed by Jacopo Peri in 1597, on the cusp of the Baroque era. The first composer of Baroque opera whose work is still commonly performed today was Claudio Monteverdi, who composed his first opera, L'Orfeo, in 1607. As was typical for Italian music of the Renaissance era in which Monteverdi's career had begun, the instrumental parts of the music were partly improvised by the musicians for each performance rather than fully scored in advance, which distinguishes Monteverdi from later Baroque operas. Unlike Peri's operas, which were relatively small-scale performances with only a handful of accompanying instruments, L'Orfeo was intended to be performed by nearly 40 musicians accompanying the vocalists, with particular groups of instruments designated for different characters and scenes. In addition, Monteverdi utilized many musical techniques that would be enormously important for the future development of Baroque opera.

The next few decades saw the new art form grow in popularity until it had spread beyond noble courts and formal public events to become a form of popular entertainment. It also spread beyond Italy, leading to the composition of operas in languages such as French, German, and English. Baroque opera composers whose work is still widely performed today include Antonio Vivaldi, George Frideric Handel, and Jean-Philippe Rameau.

How does one define a top ten of Handel operas? Thanks to German musicologist Manfred Rätzer, who has tracked productions of Handel’s operas since their first performances in the 18th century, up to 2016, we can document their popularity down the centuries. There is a good margin between numbers 11 (Semele) and 12 (Radamisto), so that is where I draw a line.

George Frideric Handel, by Thomas Hudson, 1756

1Giulio Cesare in Egitto, HWV17 (1724)

It will come as no surprise to Handel aficionados to hear that number one is Giulio Cesare in Egitto. Premiered in 1725 in London, it has something in common with other operas in the top ten: a libretto by Nicola Haym and an original cast featuring two of the greatest singers of the day, soprano Francesca Cuzzoni (Cleopatra) and alto castrato ‘Senesino’, the nickname for Francesco Bernadi (Giulio Cesare, or Julius Caesar).

Based on classical Roman history, it tells a version of Caesar’s conquest of Egypt and his confrontations with the Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII (Tolomeo), and his romantic interactions with the latter’s sister Cleopatra VII. As most will know, Caesar and Cleopatra fall in love, and the opera ends happily before the death of Caesar and the advent of Marc Antony (so nothing to do with the Shakespeare version). This opera demonstrates the full flowering of Handel’s ability to blend perfectly text and music, create believable characters bodied forth in their arias, and create a fully-thought through dramatic arc. Prior to Handel’s advent, Italian opera (particularly as performed in London) had consisted of collections of arias which showed off the singers’ voices and little in the way of dramatic integration. With Handel, we enter an operatic world of meaning, feeling, and enthralling story-telling.

Giulio Cesare contains a number of dramatically compelling and vocally virtuosic arias; when Cesare declares “Non ha in cielo il Tonante melodia che pareggi un sì bel canto”, Handel produces an aria for Cleopatra that is indeed a melody fit for the gods, sumptuously scored. Cesare is convincingly depicted as a commanding but just and empathetic leader, but the development of Cleopatra’s character is one of the most finely drawn in opera. The mother and son combination of Cornelia and Sesto is also movingly depicted, particularly their famous duet “Son nata a lagrimar” at the end of Act I.

Baroque opera examples

2Serse, HWV 40 (1738)

Serse, Handel’s third last opera, is a more playful affair, also drawn from classical history. It retells not exactly a history of Xerxes I, king of Persia, but includes a couple of anecdotes from his life, which would have been well known to the 18th century audience, intertwined with a more imaginative love story. Serse begins with one of Handel’s Greatest Hits, the poignant melody known as Handel’s largo which often features in weddings, gangster funerals (if The Sopranos is to be believed) and tv commercials for just about anything. Most people in those contexts would be surprised to know that it is a love song sung by Serse to a tree (“Ombra mai fu”), this particular affection being one of those tropes the audience all knew in the 18th century; the other depicted in the opera is his penchant for building bridges. What the opera is about, however, is a young king yearning to be in love, and learning that you can’t just force yourself on anyone, especially if they are betrothed to your brother, but you must wait for the right person, to whom you are actually betrothed, even if you can’t recognise them when they are disguised as a man.

There is a lot of disguising in Baroque opera; in Giulio Cesare, Cleopatra meets Cesare disguised as a lower class person called Lydia. Since he’s never met her, this is not difficult. There are also a lot of examples of people being betrothed to each other without ever actually seeming to have met – not only in the case of Serse’s fiancée Amastre, but in several others, including Tamerlano’s Irene. It is also quite common to find women disguised as men, as in Serse and Alcina and, less commonly, vice versa.

Baroque Opera House

Another characteristic of 18th century opera is that high voices were regarded as heroic, and these roles were generally sung by castrati, who were highly skilled virtuosi. I have mentioned one of the most famous, Senesino. Giulio Cesare, Serse, Orlando, Rinaldo, Ariodante and Tamerlano are all roles written for castrati, although Handel was often just as happy to see female altos in those roles.

3Alcina, HWV 34 (1735)

Alcina concerns a predatory sorceress ruling over an enchanted island. The libretto, along with those of Orlando and Ariodante, is taken from Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1516). This epic Italian poem coalesces a number of medieval traditions about Charlemagne and his knights. The three stories used by Handel concern Alcina the sorceress who holds the knight Ruggiero captive on her magic island, Orlando driven mad by love for Angelica, princess of Cathay, and Ariodante, a noble knight in love with Ginevra (or Guinevere), the princess of Scotland. The anti-heroine Alcina is depicted as a wilful determined woman for whom nonetheless the music expresses some sympathy.

5Orlando, HWV 31 (1733)

Orlando is a rather Siegfried-like hero, in being handsome, brave and not very bright; the sorcerer Zoroastro (derived from a single sentence in Ariosto) chides him for wasting his time on love when he should be concentrating on heroic deeds.

9Ariodante, HWV 33 (1735)

Ariodante is also a bit thick, in being easily deceived about the constancy of his beloved Ginevra, in a plot twist recalling Much Ado About Nothing; but he has some amazing arias.

These three operas were composed within a brief period of time 1733-1735, and see Handel at the height of his operatic powers. They do, however, signal something of an upheaval. Orlando was Senesino’s last Handel role. In 1734 Handel was forced out of the King’s Theatre in Haymarket, and moved his base of operatic operations to the Covent Garden Theatre. The latter came with a resident ballet troupe led by French dancer Marie Sallé, and both Alcina and Ariodante feature sumptuous dance suites.

Baroque opera definition

4Acis and Galatea, HWV 49 (1718)

Two of the works on our list, Semele and Acis and Galatea, are not really operas, but they are regularly staged as such. One major difference between these and the other nine is that they are sung in English. Acis and Galatea is one of Handel’s most popular works in any genre, uniquely maintaining a performance record through the 19th century. It was composed by Handel in 1718 when he was a guest at Cannons, the stately home of the Duke of Chandos, who maintained a small domestic orchestra. The work is usually referred to as a masque, a small-scale aristocratic entertainment originally involving masked performers. It is thought to be based on a libretto by John Gay (of Beggar's Opera fame), Alexander Pope and John Hughes, and the story derives from Roman mythology via Ovid. In the first Act, the shepherd Acis is in gentle pursuit of the nymph Galatea, and at its conclusion they join in the duet “Happy we”. Act 2 starts threateningly with the chorus “Wretched lovers!”, followed by the crashing entrance of the giant Polyphemus, although what he sings – “Ruddier than the cherry” – is charming, with a tweeting piccolo line, but he is malevolent, and ends up killing Acis with a rock. In a happy ending of sorts, Galatea uses her semi-divine powers to turn the dead Acis into a bubbling spring.

6Rinaldo, HWV 7 (1711)

Orlando and Alcina are also alike in featuring scenes of magic and supernatural forces at work, a quality also seen in Handel’s first opera for the London stage, Rinaldo, in 1711. The libretto derives from another 16th century Italian epic poem, Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemma liberate, a very fanciful version of the first Crusade. Goffredo (Godfrey of Bouillon) is assisted by the noble knight Rindaldo – another hero easily distracted, in this case by Almirena, a model of innocent purity, and her famous aria “Lascia ch’io pianga”. Not only do they have to fight the Saracens, they must contend with an evil sorceress, Armida. She arrives on a dragon, emitting melodic fury, and at one point disguises herself as Almirena to lead the poor hero astray. In the end, as we know, the Crusaders take Jerusalem, and – less well known –Armida and her Saracen sidekick Argante convert to Christianity. While some find Rinaldo less polished than some of Handel’s later works, it was a smash hit in the day, with a performance enhanced by a flock of tiny birds let loose on the stage.

7Rodelinda, regina de' Langobardi

Baroque Opera Music

Based on a very obscure historical incident from 8th century Italy, Rodelinda, regina de' Langobardi, is sometimes described as Handel’s feminist opera. It concerns the supposedly widowed Queen of the Lombards who is being courted by the usurper Grimoaldo, but in fact her husband Bertarido is still alive. She must face off the actually rather weak and not that bad Grimoaldo and his much nastier adviser Garibaldo, and does so with steadfast determination to protect her young son and keep the faith with her husband. Her arias “Morai si” and “Spietati” are models of bravura conviction, and all ends happily, but with Garibaldo being killed by Bertarido, rather than staging a last-minute conversion to niceness.

8Agrippina, HWV 6 (1709)

Handel’s first real masterpiece before his move to England was performed in Venice in 1709, and maintains sufficient popularity to be number eight on our list. Agrippina is based on another classical Roman historical narrative, which still has currency (see I, Claudius). It is often referred to as a prequel to Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea. In this part of the story, the wife of emperor Claudius is determined to get her son Nerone (Nero) on the throne and uses every wily move to get him there she can muster. As in L’incoronazione, hardly anyone else in the opera has much in the way of redeeming features, except perhaps Ottone, the future emperor Otto. While Monteverdi portrays a seriously corrupt regime, Agrippina is played more for laughs, but with some seriously moving arias.

10Tamerlano, HWV18 (1724)

Tamerlano was composed the year after Giulio Cesare, and was followed in 1725 by Rodelinda. These three comprise a dazzling trio, sharing not only a great composer, but also the accomplished librettist Nicola Haym and, on their London debuts, Senesino and Cuzzoni. Like Giulio Cesare, both Tamerlano and Rodelinda derive from historical narratives and maintain a more or less realist tone, all featuring love stories set against a political world with evil but mortal villains. The title role in Tamerlano is extremely villainous, until renouncing his wicked ways at the very end; he is in fact the Mongol conqueror Timur or Tamerlane who also features in Christopher Marlowe’s play Tamburlaine the Great. The Handel version concerns his desire for Asteria, daughter of his captive, the Ottoman emperor Bajazet, despite being engaged to Irene, who naturally turns up in disguise to make a fuss (“Dal crudel”). One of the unusual aspects of this opera in terms of 18th century conventions is the on-stage suicide of Bajazet.

Famous Baroque Operas

11Semele, HWV58 (1744)

Like Acis and Galatea, Semele is an oratorio in English derived from classical mythology. It comes from the other end of Handel’s career, composed in 1744 after he had abandoned formal Italian opera. It has a witty libretto by William Congreve with some input from Pope, and is also sourced ultimately from Ovid. Semele’s genre is elusive; it has many attributes of opera, but its English language and choruses align with Handel’s own genre, the English Oratorio. It does not seem to have been staged before 1925, but has become a favourite in the operatic repertoire. The heroine, a sparkling soprano, has caught the eye of Jupiter, a suave tenor, much to the annoyance of his wife Juno, a grumpy mezzo, who disguises herself as Semele’s sister Ino. In that guise, she persuades Semele to ask the god to show himself in his full splendour, and when he does, naturally she is burned to a crisp. But from her ashes Bacchus arises, a happy ending for us all!

Baroque Opera Aria


Reference: Manfred Rätzer 2000 Szenische Aufführungen von Werken Georg Friedrich Händels vom 18. Bis 20. Jahrhundert, Händel-Haus, Halle, and subsequent updatings in the Händel-Jahrbuch 2001-2016

Editor's note: since Bachtrack started keeping records in 2008, our top ten are the same as these (although not in the same order). Our nos 11 and 12, however, are Radamisto and Partenope.

Sandra Bowdler was born and educated in Sydney, and has pursued a career as an archaeologist since graduating from the University of Sydney in 1970. She is now Emeritus Professor of Archaeology and a Senior Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Western Australia in the School of Social Sciences and the School of Music. Since attending a production of Handel’s opera Alcina at the Sydney Opera House in 1982, she has become a devotee of the works of GF Handel, and Baroque music generally. In 1996 she began writing opera reviews for online outlets, graduating to more professional sources by 2000. In 2007, she inaugurated Festival Baroque Australia in Perth, Western Australia, Australia’s first Baroque music festival. Under that banner, she curated two festivals and several concerts in Perth.
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