Christoph Willibald Gluck’s colourful life spanned much of the eighteenth century. Together with the poet Calzabigi, he moved opera on from being a showplace for singers to display their gifts, to an art form where the drama and story line were of first importance.’ Modest though the changes may seem to us (and I was present at a performance of ‘Iphigenie en Aulide’ by Opera North some years ago and though impressed was not emotionally engaged ) there were quarrels, arguments and even duels amongst his supporters and detractors, sometimes with fateful consequencies.
Joseph Haydn composed many operas which are rarely heard today and are eclipsed by those of his pupil Mozart whose operas, though very much of his own day, introduced a new depth to the genre and gave to the orchestra an eminence it had previously not enjoyed. It has been said of Mozart that all his music is made for singing and the lyrical beauty of so much of his work does indeed seem to belong to the voice.
Nothing could be the same after ‘Don Giovanni’ with its powerful combination of humour and darkness.
Beethoven’s one opera, ‘Fidelio’ was the subject of many revisions; the four overtures are a sign of his commitment and of his desire to get the work as he wished it to be. The first performance in 1805 was a disaster and it was not until eight years later that a final version was widely applauded. A plea for pity and justice, it is a remarkable deeply moving work, it is in the basic repertoire of all major opera houses and there are many recordings available.
Carl Maria Weber(1786-1826) is seen as a further liberator of the operatic form and showed in his operas (still performed – a recent Covent Garden production of ‘Euryanthe’ was conducted by the brilliant Mark Elder), that the shape of folk tunes could be adapted for operatic purposes.
The new flexible and romantic way in which Weber used the orchestra influenced many other composers such as Chopin, Liszt, Berlioz and Debussy who said of his music that it sounded as if he had studied the soul of every instrument. Following a performance of ‘Oberon’ in London, he died from the tuberculosis he had been struggling with. Richard Wagner, whom we shall meet next time and a friend and disciple of Weber, arranged for his coffin to be brought to Dresden where he gave the funeral oration.