The Handel Institute


By Eric T. Lam

Originally conceived at the University of British Columbia, March 11, 1996.

Eighteenth-century opera is one part of the operatic repertoire that is rarely given a regular staging. Until very recently the earliest operas one could hear were the "reform" operas by Christoph W. Gluck (1714-1787) or the comic operas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). The history of opera is not particularly long but when you consider that the origins of opera date from the early 17th century then one realizes that the "standard" repertoire excludes almost half of operatic history. Of that neglected half, the Italian operas of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries are the most ignored. The 1995 French/Belgium film Farinelli dealt specifically with one of the great castrato singers of Baroque Italian opera and in a way represents a peculiar surge of interest in this once ignored genre of music. What can account for the decline in interest? Opera seria or serious opera was the predominant type of Italian opera and musical form in the 18th century. Other than France, with its own national opera, the Italian one was produced not only in Italy but in England, the German states, Spain, Hapsburg Austria, and other countries. Germain Bazin suggests that "rhetoric was at the centre of baroque thinking and therefore all the arts". (Ref. 1) This claim then makes opera seria a rhetorical genre with a message to send across to the listeners. There is a way of dividing opera into three parts: the text, the music, and the visual. These three components act together to "teach" and edify the audience. Music and text were especially close in the way they meshed to create this. The peak of this serious style was reached with the polished libretti of Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782). It is when the messages were no longer wanted that opera seria began its seemingly terminal decline.

In oratory an argument can be divided in an Aristotelian manner, the three parts being ethos, pathos, and logos. Some Aristotelian influence can be detected at the time opera was being conceived in the late 16th century. Pathos is what Aristotle believed music to possess. Melodies could move the soul the way a great orator could. Music could even heal. Quoted in Hanning, Aristotle says in the Politics (Ref. 2):

    Some persons fall into a religious frenzy, whom we see as a result of the sacred melodies -- when they have used the melodies that excite the soul to mystic frenzy -- restored as though they had found healing and purgation.

Even at this early stage in operatic history connections between rhetoric and music were being made. Music was a part of the Quadrivium of the Seven Liberal Arts and so had an academic history of relations to the artes dicendi (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic). It was not a coincidence that opera developed with a relation to rhetoric since musical rhetorical theories were also being developed at this time. Gallus Dressler adopted a speech-like organization for music in 1563. There had to be an exordium (opening), medium, and finis. Almost two centuries later at the height of opera seria the composer and theorist Johann Mattheson (1681-1764), a good friend of George Frederic Handel (1685-1759), expanded this format to include narratio (statement of facts), propositio (forecast of the main points in the speaker’s favour), confirmatio (proof), confutatio (rebuttal), and conclusio. (Ref. 3) This kind of abstract and rigid structure provided composers with a skeleton to work with. Obviously it could not be applied to every little composition but in large vocal forms such as opera some of these elements are to be found. This large vocal form was a daughter of the Baroque.

If the Baroque period in music can be conveniently dated from 1600 to 1750 then Italian opera can be said to have three 50 year periods. The first phrase included the early operas that had direct humanist and Aristotelian influences from the Renaissance theorists like Dressler and humanist poets like Ottavio Rinuccini. Jacopo Peri’s Euridice, for example, was set to a text of Rinuccini’s. The composers of this period were preoccupied with ancient Greek drama and music. In fact an opera contrary to modern opinion, was viewed as a drama with music on the side or Dramma per musica (drama through music). The words were to be heard clearly and cleanly. The text took precedence over the music as the music had to follow the contours of speech. What resulted was recitative and the results were more like heightened declamation, a kind of musical speech rather than music. Quoted in Chanan, Nietzche wrote in The Birth of Tragedy (Ref. 4) :

    Recitative stood for the rediscovered language of that archetypal man, opera for the rediscovered country [Greece] of that idyllic and heroically pure species...

The development of this declamatory/musical form allowed theorists to make extensive comparisons to rhetoric. The divisions of the parts of a speech as mentioned by Mattheson arose in part because of this development. Extensive musical elaboration, as found in later opera seria was frowned upon. This is similar to good elocution in a speech. The words had to be intelligible.

The second period was one of gradual development. An opera completely in recitative is musically boring and lacking in melody so eventually short songs were included. These developed in to arias which showcased a singer’s skill. While recitative carried the action of an opera forward, the arias were akin to monologues in a play. As the 17th century progressed, the third period began as the aria crystallized into an A-B-A format with the first section expressing an idea, the second complementary one, and the third a repeat of the first with ornamentation and elaboration of the music by the singer. A typical Italian opera would start with an instrumental overture of three movements (fast-slow-fast) and then a string of recitatives containing dialogue punctuated by arias expressing the emotions of the character.

This went on for three acts before a final "happy" chorus and/or duet as most of these operas ended happily (lieto fine). In addition, after an aria was sung, the character usually had to leave the stage so that he or she could elicit applause from the audience. All these restrictions made writing an effective drama difficult and trying. Pietro Metastasio’s eloquent dramas worked and succeeded with this highly artificial and stylized form.

Metastasio’s dramas were set and reset by composers of all nationalities in the 18th century. More than eighty composers wrote music for Artaserse and Alessandro nell’Indie, including Handel, Hasse, Vinci, J.C. Bach, and countless other forgotten names. He had as his influence the great dramas of the French playwright Racine who relied on the three unities and elegant poetry, quite opposed to the style of Shakespeare. Contained within these dramas are elegant language and classical characters from antiquity that speak of princely values and morality. It has been said that his main characters are mere cardboard figures that do not initiate action but resolve them, again quite unlike Shakespeare. Fucilla writes in an introduction to his works, " becomes obvious early in the plays that Metastasio conceived of them [his characters] more as abstractions than as real flesh-and-blood representations." (Ref. 5) How could Arbaces show his filial loyalty unless his father Artabanes pins a murder he committed on his son? How could Alexander the Great show his clemency until someone tries to harm him so that he could later forgive him? Realistically this is not what the historic Alexander would have done in the situation.

Contained in the dramas, specifically the recitatives, are the princely virtues and values that are presented in a highly rhetorical fashion. In Alessandro nell’Indie, Alexander the Great forgives the Indian king Poro and his wife Cleofide for their intrigues against him. In an elevated tone he says (Ref. 6) :

    And thus it shall be: who can keep
    an unconquered spirit amid so many
    blows by fate is worthy of the Throne: your
    kingdom, your spouse, and your liberty I give you.

In a statement using anaphora Alexander gives back each of the things he lists, which for a time he coveted and desired. (In Italian, "E Regni, e sposa, e Liberta ti Dono"). The theme of the libretto is the overcoming of Alexander’s carnal desires for Cleofide and his hunger for more land and conquests, this is befitting of an enlightened monarch. Quite popular was the use of metaphor in the texts of the arias. Metastasio writes in Demetrio (Ref. 7) :

    The captive lion inured to chains
    appears no longer brave or fierce,
    but if on day he breaks his bonds
    his old ferocity returns.

The character of Olinto compares himself and his situation to that of a captive lion. He is oppressed and will one day triumph. This metaphor can be effective if used sparingly but as the century wore on this became a cliché as every character at one time or another in the opera compares him or herself to a sparrow, a hawk, a tempest-tossed pilot, a stag, a hungry tigress, etc. In the hands of an inexpert composer these texts can lead to shallow music with no substance just like a rhetor might spin out shallow rhetoric by using many rhetorical effects.

With all these conventions modern audiences might approach these actions cynically, wondering how one can give up so much and how realistic are the characters. This was the case in the late 18th century when C.W. Gluck "reformed" opera forsaking many of these conventions. In the early 18th century, however, reform was not a concern. After all this was the beginning of the Enlightenment and moral values were desired if not always practiced. On the practical side, the princes and rulers who sponsored these expensive productions in places like Dresden or Vienna wanted to be identified with the characters.

The musical style of the arias was related to something popularly called the "Doctrine of Affections". This was based on the emphasis in the Baroque period on elocutio. In a typical rhetoric textbook of the time the largest section, the one on elocutio, would list the devices which rhetors would use to delight and stir the audience. Devices listed such as anaphora, parallelism, or metaphor also had their musical counterparts. All this directs attention to the fact that appearances counted as much as substance. John Drummond writes (Ref. 8) :

    It was a time when emphasis was put upon appearances rather than on
    substance, when display and ostentation were to be admired...It is this
    delight in disguise, ostentation, and ornament which is so clearly evident
    in certain aspects of baroque art; it is no coincidence that the theatre
    played an important part in the courtly entertainment of the period.

With the "Doctrine of the Affections" the composer tried to arouse particular types of emotions in the audiences, e.g., hate, love, anger, joy, etc. He used particular musical methods as a rhetor would use particular devices. Each aria would therefore have its own affection, usually unchanging for its whole duration (although in an A-B-A format the B section could be contrasting rather than complementary). Take for example Handel’s aria "Empio, dirò, tu sei" from his opera Giulio Cesare (1724) (Ref. 9) :

    Empio, dirò, tu sei;
    togliti agli occhi miei,
    sei tutto crudeltà.
    Non è di re quel cor,
    che donasi al rigor,
    che in sen non ha pietà.

    (I say that you are a villain,
    Remove yourself from my sight,
    You are cruelty itself.
    This is not the heart of a king
    That abandons itself to such harshness,
    That contains no pity.)

It expresses Caesar’s rage so the tempo is marked allegro; there are plenty of rushing scales, arpeggios, and jagged figures; the vocal part contains plenty of coloratura (singing elaborately with many notes to one syllable, like the "ta" in crudelta [cruel one]); and it is in a minor key. These qualities are only for a "rage" aria, each type of aria would be stylized according to the proper convention(s) associated with each emotion(s).

While Metastasio’s works are considered the pinnacle of Baroque Dramma per musica there are arguments as to whose music fitted his words best. Handel wrote many operas but only three on the libretti of Metastasio. These are Siroe, Alessandro nell’Indie (Handel entitled it Poro), and Ezio; all three shortened considerably for the London audience. He evidently preferred less severe dramas than those of Metastasio; witness Orlando, Ariodante, or Alcina. Metastasio’s own personal favourite was his near contemporary Johann Adolf Hasse (1699-1783). He worked very closely with this Italian-trained German composer often advising him on the choice of styles and effects. Hasse is little known today but in his day he was the outstanding composer of opera serie, his posthumous reputation suffering when the genre fell out of favour.

His Cleofide is an adaptation of one of Metastasio’s most popular libretti Alessandro nell’Indie. An examination of some of the arias will display the rhetorical/musical devices of pathos used in its construction. His music displays the trends of the late 1720s and the early 1730s. The vocal part became even more elaborate, tailored to the demands of the prima donnas and the castrati. The harmonies and melodies became simpler, more clear-cut, and the bass became static and iterated. This "pre-classical" style subsequently became the connection between the High Baroque of Bach and Handel and the Classical of Mozart and Haydn. Hasse’s aria Se possono tanto is sung by Poro in Act I bewailing Cleofide’s supposed infidelity. His suspicion is a theme for most of the opera. The text of the A section is as follows (Ref. 10) :

    Se possono tanto
    Due luci vezzose:
    Son degne de pianto
    Le furie gelose
    D’un alma infelice
    D’un povero cor.

    (If such is the power
    that two pretty eyes wield:
    there’s good reason to moan
    for the jealous passion
    of an unhappy soul,
    of a helpless heart.)

It begins with an instrumental opening as common in most arias. When this fast moving song gets to "D’un alma infelice" it slows down slightly and reminds one of sighing and when it hits "D’un povero cor" the coloratura reminds one of sobbing. The character is breaking down as he moves along in his speech. This is using musical figures to imitate the feelings of the words. This formulaic method of reading the text of the libretto and then applying the correct musical figures is a lot like composing a speech by using a particular phrase for a particular occasion. Witness Erasmus’ De Copia written not many years before the first musical/rhetorical theorists began to write.

Later in Act III of the opera the same theme of supposed spousal infidelity occurs in the aria "D’ove si affretti". Poro, ever jealous, sings even more desperately and frantically. The text of the A section is as follows (Ref. 11) :

    D’ove si affretti
    Per me la morte:
    Poveri affetti
    Barbaro sorte!
    Perchè tradirmi
    Sposa infedel

    (Where is he? Come, hurry,
    death, hurry to me!
    O miserable love,
    O barbarous fate!
    Why did you betray me,
    my faithless spouse?)

This one is a perfect example of a "despair" aria as the frantic text is matched by the music. The notes in the bass and the treble are rapid and quick and the phrases are sung in short episodes. Extreme stress is placed on the last four lines, especially "Poveri affetti" and "Barbaro sorte!" as the orchestra plays forte. Poro blurts out these short lines in an exclamation. Again, as before, Hasse takes the text and uses particular conventions associated with the emotions expressed in the words.

Attractive music this may be, but there seems not to be any pathos. Poro’s passionate appeal seems if anything quaint. The effect if flowery, but is that all there is? To an 18th-century audience these conventions were more convincing and real than to the modern listener. In fact some of these strict conventions still remain with us as it is hard to conceive of a sad and moving song that is not slow or a joyous song that is not in a major key. Musical conventions may not have originated in the Baroque period but it was the first time that whole theories were seriously devoted to rhetoric and its applications in music.

A discussion on the rhetoric of opera seria cannot omit the mention of the castrati. These castrated male singers who sung in the soprano and alto ranges were the adored superstars of the 18th century. Their existence had to do with the idea of representation. Just as an emotion expressed through the text had a musical realization, roles were cast according to conventions. In order for a role to be convincing to the audience their expectations had to be fulfilled. The role of the hero was almost invariably taken by the castrati, e.g., Poro. The role of a villain or an old man was taken by a tenor or a bass. The heroines were sopranos and the matrons altos. These singers were accompanied by elaborate costumes and stage-sets to add to the effect. To the modern audience the association of a sexless male with a romantic hero may seem odd but to the 18th century the high male voice represented boyish youth combined with virtuosity. This hierarchy of voices added to the rhetorical effect of the opera. The voice type is a type of ethos. A convincing aria had to be sung by a convincing voice.

Opera seria is a complex and at times mystifying form of art. So many conventions within it are foreign to us. Yet these conventions act together to say something. There is definitely a rhetorical nature to the form especially if you accept Bazin’s theory that "all baroque art is rhetorical". The music composed using standard musical/rhetorical devices and natural talent appealed to the audience by way of pathos. The text with its elegant poetry and messages of the divine right of kings, glory, virtue, and honour contained arguments of logos. The association of certain types of characters with certain types of singers works on the principle of ethos. This Aristotelian view of opera was one that was also current with the first opera composers and librettists of the late 16th century. These characteristics clearly establish opera seria as a rhetorical genre. It is a wondrous thing that a once neglected genre of opera is now being re-investigated. Before long all the operas of Handel will be recorded. Let us hope that his contemporaries will follow suit. It has so many facets to it that are intriguing that it matters little that we do not share many of its messages. Who would have thought 50 years ago that it was so influential on the classical style of Mozart and Haydn? (Ref. 12) Along with the whole early music movement it rises like a phoenix out of its own ashes.



(1) John D. Drummond, Opera in Perspective (London: Dent, 1980) page 140.

(2) Barbara Russano Hanning, Of Poetry and Music’s Power: Humanism and the Creation of Opera (Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1980) page 21.

(3) Stanley Sadie ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (London: Macmillan, 1980) Vol. 15, page 794

(4) Michael Chanan, Musica Practica: The Social Practice of Western Music from Gregorian Chant to Postmodernism (London: Verso, 1994) page 46.

(5) Pietro Metastasio, Three Melodramas by Pietro Metastasio, translated by Joseph G. Fucilla (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1981) page 6.

(6) Johann Adolf Hasse, Cleofide: Opera in 3 Acts, libretto trans. by Liesel B. Sayre (Konigsdorf: Delta-Music GmbH D-5020, 1987) CD on the Capriccio label, page 32 of the booklet.

(7) Metastasio, op. cit., page 104.

(8) Drummond, op. cit., page 141.

(9) George Frederic Handel, Giulio Cesare in Full Score (New York: Dover, 1986) page 13.

(10) Hasse, op. cit., page 11.

(11) Ibid., page 30.

(12) Eric Weimer, Opera Seria and the Evolution of Classical Style: 1755- 1772 (Michigan, UMI Research Press, 1984) pages 1-5.



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Drummond, John D. Opera in Perspective. London: Dent, 1980.

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Hasse, Johann Adolf. Cleofide: Opera in 3 Acts. libretto trans. by Liesel B. Sayre. Konigsdorf: Delta-Music GmbH D-5020, 1987.

Metastasio, Pietro. Three Melodramas by Pietro Metastasio. trans. by Joseph G. Fucilla. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1981.

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Sadie, Stanley. ed. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. London: Macmillan, 1980. vol. 15, pp. 793-802.

Weimer, Eric. Opera Seria and the Evolution of the Classical Style: 1755-1772. Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1984.


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