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At the origins of Classical opera

Carlo Goldoni and the «dramma giocoso per musica»


Pervinca Rista

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.

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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.