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“I have not made my opera unnatural throughout”: The Beggar Skewers Italian Opera February 8, 2009

Posted by jeffclef in Uncategorized.
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Reposted from a blog entry I wrote for an English course that I was TF’ing.

In the introduction to The Beggar’s Opera, a beggar steps forward to say “he has not made my opera throughout unnatural like those in vogue; for I have no recitative.” What does he mean by this?

He’s poking fun at the Italian opera convention of recitative, a form of declamation which is halfway between speaking and singing and is characterized by bare-bones accompaniment. Italian opera composers would use recitative when they wanted to advance the plot, usually by setting dialogue. They would use arias (airs in English) to freeze the action and expand on what the actors were feeling (love, heartbreak, joy, anger), very often through the Petrarchan “similes” mentioned by the beggar: “the swallow, the moth, the bee, the ship, the flower, etc.”

Below is an excerpt from one of the more extreme examples of accompanied recitative, which is half way between recitative and aria, and accompanied by orchestra. It’s taken from Gay’s earlier libretto for Handel, Acis and Galatea.

Handel/Gay: “I rage—I melt—I burn!” (0:25)

And here’s a straighter example of recitative used to set dialogue between two characters, also taken from Acis and Galatea:

Handel/Gay: “Whither fairest, art thou running” (0:20)

How does Handel convey each of the three verbs in the first example? What do you think English audiences might have found “unnatural” about recitative? Feel free to leave a comment.

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