Opera in miniature

ABCA dictionary of special terms for opera which will help non-experts to understand the meaning of some of the words used in the texts and presentation films for individual operas.

N.B: the Italian term remains in Italian – only the explanation is in English

Aria: A melodic vocal composition usually consisting of verses with refrains. In contraposition to the recitative the aria is a suspended musical form during the performance of which the character involved expresses his/her feelings about the plot in which he/she is involved. During the sixteenth century two part arias (A-B or A-A) were usual and in the seventeenth century these developed into aria col da capo (aria with a repetition of the first part) (A-B-A) where, after different first and second sections, an “embellished” and “differently developed” third part is performed. Towards the nineteenth century the rather freer comic operas again introduced arias in two movements – often a first very melodic part followed by a brighter second movement, joined together by a short middle section.

Arioso: A brighter and flowery recitative.

Ballo: In Italian opera houses a ballet was usually programmed as a separate performance item or at the end of an opera or between acts. In the Paris Opera House it was customary to include a ballet within the structure of the opera, usually during the third act. When Verdi wrote for that theatre, or adapted his operas for performance in Paris, he had to take into account this request as can be seen from the ballets inserted in Jerusalem (III,1), the French edition of I lombardi alla prima crociata, in Les Vêpres siciliennes (III,5), written for Paris, in Le trouvère (III,1), the French version of Il trovatore, in the French edition of Macbeth (III,1), in the five act version of Don Carlos, composed for Paris (III,2), and in Othello, the French version of Otello (III,6). In Aida the dances were present in the original version and introduced after the Triumphal March.

Cabaletta: A final virtuosistic and brilliant section of an aria, usually in a quick tempo with repetitions of the principal text.

Cadenza: An addition to the final sections of arias where singers could show off their technical and virtuostic abilities.

Cantabile: A somewhat static section in an aria in which the character explains his/her thoughts using a calm, unembellished vocal line, often including strong dramatic tension, or before a Cabaletta in which, due to a change in events, it is necessary to describe a completely different series of emotions.

Cavatina: The first solo aria, often with virtuosistic passages, with which a singer, appearing on stage for the first time, presents his/her vocal and dramatic characteristics.

Coloratura: A series of highly intricate embellishments and variations that decorate the main vocal line of an aria. In the seventeenth century these were the responsibility of the singer his/herself and were, above all, given to castratos when performing an aria with a da capo. In order to avoid the excessive liberty being taken by singers, Rossini began writing in the coloratura that he wanted, and this practice was followed by his successors.

Concertato: Part of a scene or an act where more characters are present on stage, often backed by the chorus. The singers interact with each other generating dramatic emotional tension before ending in a swift final part.

Coro: In the opera house a chorus has a clear dramatic role; sometimes it represents an army, a people or a group of courtiers. It can be a mixed chorus (male and female voices) or only male or only female voices. From the beginning of the eighteenth century choral works became as popular as the arias for soloists – for example «Dal tuo stellato soglio» in Mosè in Egitto by Rossini or «Va pensiero» in Verdi’s Nabucco.

Direttore di scena: The stage director, in Italian eighteenth century theatres, was responsible for the general organisation of the performance and artistic stage direction was normally given to the theatre’s resident poet who worked with performers in a similar way to that undertaken by today’s stage directors. The overall organisation of a performance was very important for Verdi and from the seventies onwards he often undertook the job himself.

Direttore d’orchestra: In the first thirty years of the eighteenth century the musical performance of an opera was in the hands of a harpsichordist who conducted seated at the instrument and was responsible for the preparation of the singers as well as accompanying them for recitatives while the first violinist conducted the orchestra, using his bow as a baton. Composers, according to their contracts, were obliged to be present during opera performances, sitting next to the orchestra which, in that period, was on a level with the audience. The orchestra was not in a “pit” as would become common at the end of the eighteenth century when Italy learned of Wagner’s “mystic gulf” created under the stage so that the audience did not see the orchestral masses. In the 1840’s the autonomous figure of the conductor appeared, leaving his role as an orchestral musician to become a major figure to keep everything going and a musical guide. Verdi undertook this work himself for Macbeth (14th 1847) and I masnadieri (23rd July 1847) standing on a stool with a baton in his hand.

Disposizioni sceniche: This was first adopted in France in about 1840 using the words livrets de mise-en-scène and was then adapted in Italy in the second half of the eighteenth century. The term meant the definition of a series of gestures and movements which could be repeated, without variations, in every theatre in which an opera was produced. The stage directions published, above all in Italy by Casa Ricordi, were based on the idea that the dramatic interpretation of an artistic work would be one only, close to the author’s intentions and that the performer would follow the stage instructions faithfully. The practicality and fortune of Stage Directions declined rapidly in the first ten years of the nineteenth century when new ideas for stage design were introduced and, above all, the idea that a stage production could mean a free adaptation and recreation of an artistic work, far from being a passive reproduction of a pre-formed model.

Ensemble: The final episode in an act using solo voices singing without orchestral accompaniment.

Finale: The end of an act in the presence of different characters or the entire cast and the choir on stage, depending upon the plot of the opera, each one representing different dramatic situations. Characters may be at odds with each other, in a usually slow concerted movement, when they each reflect upon what has happened, or in a section with a slightly moving tempo which means that a new event has taken place. The ensemble can also end in a section for solo voices, in a somewhat contemplative mood, before a Grand finale with a faster tempo.

Introduzione: The first musical item in an opera, after a prelude or symphony, performed after the raising of the curtain. It normally describes what has happened earlier on and presents at least one of the main characters.

Libretto: A text written in verses and adapted for music. The libretto is divided into musical numbers (arias, duets, trios, concertato) which are linked together with recitative. Most librettos are based on pre-extant literary works and during the eighteenth century authors chose to rework stories from classic theatrical repertoire in French, German or English.

Maestro al cembalo: The Harpsichordist: Until the figure of the conductor arrived in Italian opera houses, this musician was responsible for the preparation of the singers, the organisation of their rehearsals and for the accompaniment during recitatives.

Numero musicale: Italian opera consists of a series of musical works called “numeri” (numbers) which do not coincide with the order of the works in the libretto but are based on the entrances and exits of the characters. Each piece, which could be shorter or longer than a scene in the libretto, usually followed five different canons, even though this methodology is often completely ignored: 1. Scene; 2. tempo of the start of the piece, 2. Adagio or Cantabile, 4. Middle tempo, 5. Cabaletta. Each musical number corresponded to the term “solita forma” (usual form) used by Abrano Basevi in 1859 – following Carlo Return’s idea in 1841 – and defined a standard structure used for all operatic duets in the first sixty to seventy years of the eighteenth century before subsequently being extended to solo arias and to the first Finale.

Partitura scheletro: Skeleton Score: Eighteenth century opera composers usually prepared a draft score with only the vocal parts complete with musical notation, the words, an idea of the bass line and, perhaps, some indication of the parts for the accompanying instruments. This draft, called a “skeleton” was the basis for the subsequent orchestration which would normally be undertaken by the composer during stage rehearsals.

Parola scenica: Scenic word” a term created by Verdi in his exchange of letters with Aida’s librettist, Antonio Ghislanzoni. In his letter of the 17th August 1870 Verdi defines this as being “the word that defines and clarifies the situation”. According to the composer it is necessary, above all in the centre of a dramatic action, to underline and highlight the particular moment in an incisive and singular way even if this means interrupting the rhythm, the rhyme, the verse so that the author creates not poetry and music but theatre.

Pertichino: A word used in operatic jargon to define a character who listens to an aria or an ensemble in total silence (or espresses him/herself in a couple of words) introducing or counterpointing the singing of the leading character.

Pezzi di insieme: Ensemble works which, along with arias and other forms of solo interventions, make up an operatic score. These may be for two or three people and are called duets, trios, quartets etc with or without choir.

Prologo: A prologue is like a very concentrated act in an opera and is used to describe what has happened before the beginning of the plot, or even what may happen on stage successively.

Puntatura: The adaption of a vocal part for a new performer with a different register – when it is necessary to change the tessitura from mezzo to soprano for example.

Raddoppio: A performance with singers in unison on the same melodic line.

Recitativo: This is an essential element in opera and is used to link scenes with dialogue or monologues by using a style of singing similar to the spoken voice. It’s rhythm is defined by words and a regular pulsation. The text may be in free verse or in a mixture of verse and free text. The recitative was accompanied by a solo keyboard instrument – originally a harpsichord – and from the beginning of the eighteenth century even by a fortepiano, sometimes with a violoncello or double bass as basso continuo. Accompanied recitative is the term given to a similar vocal line involving more instruments or all of the orchestra.

Registro: A description for the vocal range and colour of different types of voices from the highest to the lowest which are bass, baritone, tenor, contralto, mezzo-soprano and soprano. In the opera house the dramatic personae of the characters are also described by their secondary characteristics for example a dramatic soprano, a coloratura soprano, a light tenor or a comic bass.

Scena: The articulation of a theatrical work usually dependant upon the metrical structure of the libretto and dramatic necessities. The use of the word “scena/scene” may also indicate the initial preparation for a musical item characterised by recitative, arias, or by the eventual presence of the chorus.

Selva: The reduction of a theatrical test, poem or novel before being transformed into a libretto.

Solita forma: cfr. Numero musicale–musical item

Stretta: The final section of a concerted item in an opera, with strong dramatic overtones, rather like the cabalettas as described earlier.

Tempo d’attacco: A dialogue between characters, usually in opposition to each other, with an orchestral accompaniment. A tempo d’attacco is never used for solo arias.

Tempo di mezzo: This is part of a musical item usually presenting unforeseen dramatic changes, or underlining the change from a melodic passage to a cabaletta.