AN ESSAY ON THE OPERA (Saggio sopra l’opera in musica) The editions of 1755 and 1763

by Robin Burgess (Volume editor)
©2022 Prompt XXVI, 150 Pages


This book is the first translation into the English language of a comprehensive study of opera and its constituent parts by an accomplished writer of the eighteenth century. Francesco Algarotti was concerned with developing opera as drama and a move away from the elaborate formality of the Baroque to a more naturalistic style. The Essay in its original Italian had considerable influence on the reform opera of Christoph Willibald Gluck.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editor
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Preface
  • Editor’s Foreword
  • An Essay on the Opera: Edition of 1755
  • An Essay on the Opera: Edition of 1763
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 Of the form, argument or business of an opera
  • Chapter 2 On the musical composition for operas
  • Chapter 3 On the recitative and singing in operas
  • Chapter 4 On the dances
  • Chapter 5 On scenery, dress, etc.
  • Chapter 6 On the structure of theatres
  • Conclusion
  • Aeneas in Troy
  • Iphigenia in Aulis
  • Glossary
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Collection titles

←vi | vii→


Algarotti’s Essay on the Opera played a major part in the movement in mid-eighteenth century artistic thought and endeavour that led to the evolution of a recognisably modern form of opera, best exemplified in the works of Gluck. The devotion of Patricia Howard to the latter’s operas shown in several books over a period of some years has been a source of much inspiration in preparing this edition of the of the essay, as my numerous citations of her work will testify. I am especially grateful to her for providing a preface and for other help generously given in conversation and letters. I also wish to thank in particular Nina Walker, who has given me coaching in singing and whose practical experience in the performance of opera at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden has illuminated various aspects of the essay, and Professor Julian Rushton who has saved me from several errors.

Annalisa Bini’s edition of the original Italian texts and the edition and French translation of Algarotti’s essay in its 1764 version by Jean-Philippe Navarre have been invaluable aids (see bibliography for details of these publications). M. Navarre includes the text of Marcello’s Il teatro alla moda and relevant documents by Angiolini (the choreographer of Gluck’s Orfeo), Metastasio and Calzabigi – Italian originals with French translations – together with an extensive letter on opera as drama by Gluck’s librettist Du Roullet and musical examples by Marcello and Vinci.

Among reference works the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd edition, is, as always, indispensable and has been particularly helpful in tracing many of the references in Algarotti’s essay.

I am grateful to the following publishers for giving permission to include extracts from copyrighted material: Oxford University Press for Patricia Howard, Gluck: an Eighteenth-Century Portrait in Letters and Documents and John D. Drummond, Opera in Perspective; Cambridge University Press for Edward J. Dent, The Rise of Romantic Opera, ed. Winton Dean and John Rosselli, The Opera Industry in Italy from Cimarosa to ←vii | viii→Verdi; University of California Press for Peter Conrad, Romantic Opera and Literary Form; Methuen Publishers for Jean Benedetti, David Garrick and the Rise of Modern Theatre; and Penguin Books for Classical Literary Criticism, ed. and tr. T. S. Dorsch.

Individuals whose help I should wish gratefully to acknowledge include Christelle Serre, Gabriele Damiani, Edward Henley, Alan Howe, Andrea Ibba, David Jonies, Robert Quinney and Antonio Ritaccio.

I would like to dedicate this second edition, which incorporates some corrections and additions, to the memory of Patricia Howard, who died towards the end of 2020. As noted above, I owe her a great debt of gratitude for the help and inspiration she gave in completing this work.


←viii | ix→


The middle decades of the eighteenth century saw a lively debate over the principles and practice of opera. The origins of the debate lay in the recent invention of comic opera, which, in all its national manifestations as opera buffa, opéra comique, Ballad Opera and Singspiel, revealed a new approach to plot, expression and production. Critics began to measure heroic opera (which existed both as opera seria and tragédie lyrique) against the characteristics of the comic genre, and advocated the adoption of a simple narrative, uncluttered by sub-plots and minor characters, a more “natural” vocal expression, that placed more emphasis on communicating the meaning of the words rather than displaying the virtuosity of the singers, and stage movement, both for singers and dancers, that derived from the gestures of everyday life rather than from classical statuary.

There were many notable contributors to the debate. Some of these were philosophers of the arts: Antonio Planelli1 and Esteban de Arteaga2 in Italy, John Brown3 and James Beattie4 in England, and Charles de Blainville5 and Denis Diderot6 in France. Others were creative artists, able to put theory into practice: the librettists Ranieri de’ Calzabigi7 and François Louis du Roullet,8 the choreographer Gasparo Angiolini,9 the stage designer Fabrizio Galliari,10 and a succession of bold and innovative composers, ←ix | x→including Tommaso Traetta,11 Christoph Gluck12 and Mozart.13 Algarotti’s Saggio is central to the debate: it deals with all the major issues; it was the most widely quoted of all the texts; and it addresses opera both as a philosophical conundrum and as a living theatrical experience. Although he was concerned with the theory of each constituent part of opera, Algarotti’s writing reveals much practical experience in the opera house. He is knowledgeable about voices and orchestras. His advice on theatre construction from the point of view of design, acoustics and sight-lines is still valid. And he supports his criticism of contemporary librettos by offering two models (neither of which was ever set): a detailed scenario for Enea in Troia and a complete libretto (in French) for Iphigénie en Aulide.

At the heart of the debate on opera was the often expressed desire to return opera to its inspirational origins – the simplicity and power of ancient Greek drama. Algarotti in particular was seized by this neo-classical agenda. It must, of course, be pure coincidence that the first edition of the Saggio was published in the same year that the pioneer of neo-classicism, the art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, undertook his momentous journey to Rome. Algarotti’s essay is, however, infused by the same passionate rediscovery of the noble simplicity, balance and order of classical art. Like Winckelmann, Algarotti might well have said that it was only after contemplating examples of classical beauty that he learned what it was to be alive.

Although the various editions of Algarotti’s essay in the original Italian have recently been published in facsimile (see bibliography) the English translation of the 1763 edition has never been reprinted, and copies are rare outside the big research libraries. It deserves to be better known. It is essential reading for anyone investigating currents in Enlightenment philosophy that relate to opera, and moreover the translation, tantalisingly anonymous, is an especially engaging one, evoking at times the vigorous expression of a Fielding or a Smollett, at others the appealing directness of a Goldsmith (whom the editor cautiously proposes as the identity of the ←x | xi→translator). I particularly welcome this carefully edited edition. Algarotti peopled his text with many references to eighteenth century personalities, some celebrated, some obscure: it is good to have these explained in the editorial footnotes, together with the additional resource of Algarotti’s footnotes from the edition of 1764. Heroic opera is still a misunderstood genre. Commentaries such as Algarotti’s can only deepen our knowledge of its reception in its own time and our understanding of how one acutely sensitive contemporary enthusiast could find in it that ‘combination of a thousand pleasures … so extraordinary <that> our world has nothing to equal it’ [from the Conclusion to the Essay].

Dr Patricia Howard
(formerly Lecturer and Tutor in Music
at the Open University, Milton Keynes, U.K.)

1Dell’ opere in musica, 1772.

2Le rivoluzioni del teatro musicale italiano dalla sua origine fine al presente, 1783.

3A Dissertation on the Rise, Union and Power, the Progressions, Separations and Corruptions of Poetry and Music, 1763.

4Essay on Poetry and Music as They Affect the Mind, 1778.

5L’esprit de l’art musical, 1754.

6De la poésie dramatique, 1773.

7Alceste, 1767.

8Iphigénie en Aulide, 1774.

9Don Juan, 1761.

10Alceste, 1767.

11Ifigenia in Tauride, 1763.

12Alceste, 1767.

13Idomeneo, 1781.

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←xii | xiii→

Editor’s Foreword

And what is worse than all, now that the Manager has monopolized the Opera House, haven’t we the Signors and Signioras calling here, sliding their smooth semibreves, and gargling glib divisions in their outlandish throats – with foreign emissaries and French spies, for aught I know, disguised like fiddles and figure dancers!


XXVI, 150
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (November)
Baroque to classical Opera music drama Francesco Algarotti: An Essay on the Opera Robin Burgess
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2022. XXVI, 150 pp., 1 b/w table.

Biographical notes

Robin Burgess (Volume editor)

Robin Burgess is by profession a Catholic priest with degrees in Classics and Theology, who has had training in singing and taken part in recitals and concerts. He has a special devotion to opera in the Eighteenth Century, and in particular the works of Gluck.


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178 pages