At the origins of Classical opera

Carlo Goldoni and the «dramma giocoso per musica»

by Pervinca Rista (Author)
©2018 Monographs 172 Pages
Open Access
Series: Varia Musicologica, Volume 24


Venetian playwright and pioneer of modern theatre Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793) led a ‘double life’ as a librettist, authoring nearly as many libretti as comedies- libretti which, born from the same mind and the same hand that brought forth his famous, and famously controversial, overhaul of the practices of comic theatre, could not but push the limits of the standing tradition to open a new chapter in opera history. Goldoni became one of the first to give shape to the dramma giocoso per musica, an innovative, realistic, and enduring new genre with intimate connections to prose comedy that met with overwhelming international success, becoming the foundation for the works of future generations, including W. A. Mozart and his Italian librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. Perhaps because of his stature and influence as a comic playwright, Goldoni has rarely been considered as an innovator in the musical sphere. This study aims to shed new light on his primary role in the evolution of Classical opera, and on the legacy of his innovations in the European musical tradition.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • I. The other Goldoni
  • i. “State of the art”
  • II. The foundations of musical comedy
  • i. The limits of opera seria
  • ii. Naples and the commedia per musica
  • iii. Venice and the intermezzo
  • III. New directions
  • i. Goldoni’s apprenticeship with musical texts
  • ii. New directions for comedy
  • iii. A new art for a new society: the dramma giocoso takes shape in Venice
  • IV. A new source for Classical opera: Goldoni’s drammi giocosi
  • i. The real world
  • ii. The mezzo carattere
  • iii. Buffo, serio, and the space between
  • V. How comedy changed opera
  • i. The musical elements of comedy
  • ii. Comedies that became drammi giocosi
  • iii. Goldoni as musical reformer
  • VI. Goldoni’s Musical Legacy
  • i. Globalization? Old news! International drammi giocosi and diffusion of a new genre
  • ii. Mozart and Goldoni
  • iii. Conclusions
  • Series index

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This book explores the origins and evolution of Classical opera, a musical tradition so unique with respect to those that preceded and followed. In particular, we travel to 18th century Venice and into the world of Carlo Goldoni, a Venetian lawyer who, in adolescence, ran away from school to join a troupe of traveling actors. His father held high hopes for his diplomatic career, but his own life and all his hopes lay in theatre. His true calling was comedy.

Goldoni wrote comedies for the musical stage, too. In fact, close to 100 libretti. He became so famous as a playwright that, to this day, the public knows little of his ‘musical’ career, yet it had a tremendous impact on how Classical opera developed. In the past, researchers separated his theatrical texts from his musical texts, but when considered together, new discoveries come to the surface.

We will trace the history of Classical opera and its signature genre, the dramma giocoso per musica, from its early antecedents to its fully evolved form. Traveling from the Neapolitan commedia per musica and the Venetian intermezzo, through Goldoni’s adventures in experimentation, all the way to the Mozart/da Ponte operas, we will uncover how Carlo Goldoni, a pioneer of realist theatre, unified past traditions to sculpt and canonize a new musical art for modern times.

The progressive impulse he gave to opera, transforming musical ‘comedies’ into works of social significance and psychological depth, is intimately connected to his transformation of theatrical comedy. A man of the Enlightenment, Goldoni dedicated his life’s work to restoring theatre, whether musical or prose, to its highest potential, that is as the realistic portrayal of the contemporary world. Classical opera still speaks to us, and still fills theatres in the 21st century, for its ability to shine a critical light on the contradictions of our society, and on the universal human condition. Goldoni was the first to invest opera with this extraordinary potential, and he could not have changed this musical art so completely without his experience and vision for literary innovation ← 7 | 8 → in prose theatre. His life and his legacy are a vibrant testimony to the intimate complementarity of the arts.

Taking example from Goldoni, more broadly this book was born from a desire to connect the world of the humanities to the world of music. Worlds that thrive on one and the same thing: human creativity, which, history has shown us, is limitless.

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No composer nor librettist in Western music has left to posterity the impression that his works were created in leisure, and without immense effort. Opera had scarcely been born that Monteverdi wrote of his second work, “Io mi riducessi quasi alla morte nel scrivere l’Arianna.”1 Even so, the age of Enlightenment consumed theatre like no other moment in history, as what was once the privilege of few and noble patrons was becoming public domain for the first time. Venice like no other European city desired and cultivated theater of all types, both on the stage and in the presses, which consolidated and exported novelties in entertainment at all levels. It is no coincidence that Europe’s first public theatre was Venetian, and quite ahead of the times. Not to mention, the Teatro San Cassiano to which we refer, which opened its doors to ticket-bearing spectators from all walks of society in 1636, was born as an opera house. To put things in perspective, Paris in the 18th century, while reputed of the most cultured cities in Europe, housed three principal theatres: the Opéra Comique, the famous Comédie Française (La maison de Molière, as it was known), and the Comédie Italienne, of which Goldoni would later take charge. Venice, during the same years, housed no less than thirteen, all in competition for the newest exclusive texts and largest crowds. It is an understatement to say new works were desired and sought by impresari and by popular and refined audiences alike. They were a necessity.

If today, after Verdi, Puccini, and Wagner, we are well accustomed to supposing a text created only for- and according to- the specific requirements of a single musical rendition, returning to the early 1700s and to Goldoni, we encounter a radically different practice. Goldoni’s texts belong to a period in history, and a concept of opera theatre, that neither required nor sought shared work on a text ← 9 | 10 → and a score. The real requirements were versatility and quickness of preparation to meet overwhelming demand. This is not to say that Goldoni never made adjustments, and most importantly, in keeping with his realist inclinations, he fashioned his characters according to the strengths of his performers, when he knew them. It is important to understand, however, that the mode of work and the intention behind his texts for music was altogether different from what later tradition has dictated.

To this we must add Goldoni, who was not a man to refuse any challenge. Still today scholars wonder at the famous, or better infamous, “anno delle sedici commedie” (year of the sixteen comedies), that is the 1750–51 season in which he surpassed all conceivable expectations. The Teatro Sant’Angelo habitually put on eight new works from late summer to Carnevale, but in the face of raging competition, Goldoni struck a wager with its impresario Girolamo Medebach (who was renting it from a society of aristocratic proprietors, and could more willingly make room for Goldoni’s experimental new comedies), to supply exactly twice as many- a bet that paid off with his employer and his audiences. The comedies Goldoni wrote during that ambitious season turned out to be some of his most enduring works, and he still managed to create more than one dramma giocoso on the side.

Musical scores that use Goldoni’s texts are so many as to still be uncounted, dispersed in libraries all over the world. This corpus is simply too vast, too varied, and too subjective to receive just treatment within a single book. Far more important, a text-based approach is mandated by the inherent nature of Goldoni’s work and times. For these reasons, this volume is not intended to supply full analysis of musical scores (which have, however, been reviewed and on occasion transcribed). In this historical period it is text alone that supplies form, subdivision, meter, content, and all of those elements that music relies on to shape its rhythms, harmonic discourse, and color. Moreover, text alone assures continuity amidst the changeability of musical permutations. It is the foundation for all that follows, and the most direct conduit for innovation. The composers who set Goldoni’s texts to music, will, however, be key to understanding the dissemination of the dramma giocoso and its canonization across Europe. Among them we find Franz Joseph Haydn ← 10 | 11 → and even the young W. A. Mozart, whose very first opera was drawn from Goldoni’s La finta semplice (1764).2

We can now venture to revisit Goldoni’s Venice and cast a light on his texts for music, in relation to the musical tradition that preceded and followed, as well as to his controversial techniques a playwright. Instead of separating libretti and comedies as has most often been done, it is most fruitful, and philologically reasonable, to consider them in close comparison. Plays and libretti, after all, came from the same mind, were written contemporaneously, and not rarely for the same audience. Some even share plots, characters, and verses. Their close connection can uncover the influence- vast and enduring- of one man’s pen. ← 11 | 12 →

1 Cited in Enrico Fubini, Musica e Pubblico dal Rinascimento al Barocco (Torino: Einaudi, 1984); 97. I reduced myself to near death in writing Arianna.

2 In a version revised by Marco Coltellini (1724–1777), successor to Pietro Metastasio as Imperial poet at the Viennese court.


ISBN (Softcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2018 (July)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018., 172 pp.

Biographical notes

Pervinca Rista (Author)


Title: At the origins of Classical opera
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174 pages