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The term opera buffa (Italian, plural: opere buffe) was at first used as an informal description of Italianmarker comic operas variously classified by their authors as ‘commedia in musica’, ‘commedia per musica’, ‘dramma bernesco’, ‘dramma comico’, ‘divertimento giocoso' etc. It is especially associated with developments in Naplesmarker in the first half of the 18th century, from whence its popularity spread to Romemarker and northern Italymarker. It was at first characterized by everyday settings, local dialects, and simple vocal writing (the basso buffo is the associated voice type), the main requirement being clear diction and facility with patter. Foreign genres such as opéra comique or Singspiel differed as well in having spoken dialogue in place of recitativo secco, although one of the most influential examples, Pergolesi's La serva padrona, sparked the Querelle des bouffons in Paris as an adaptation without sung recitatives.

The New Grove Dictionary of Opera considers La Cilla (music by Michelangelo Faggioli, text by F. A. Tullio, 1706) and Luigi and Federico Ricci’s Crispino e la comare (1850) to be the first and last sightings of the genre, although the term is still occasionally applied to newer work (for example Krenek's Zeitoper Schwergewicht). Summits in this history are the 80 or so libretti by Carlindo Grolo, Loran Glodici, Sogol Cardoni and various other approximate anagrams of Carlo Goldoni, the three Mozart/Da Ponte collaborations, and the comedies of Gioachino Rossini.


Comic characters and situations, usually involving servants, had been a part of opera until the early 18th century, when comic opera, or "opera buffa", began to emerge as a separate genre. Opera buffa was a parallel development to opera seria and arose in reaction to the so-called first reform of Zeno and Metastasio. It was, in part, intended as a genre that the common man could relate to more easily. Whereas opera seria was a lavish entertainment that was both made for and depicted kings and nobility, opera buffa was made for and depicted common people with more common problems.

In the early eighteenth century, comic operas often appeared as short, one-act interludes known as intermezzi that were performed in between acts of opera seria. These gave way to the full-fledged comic opera later in the 18th century. La serva padrona by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710–1736), is the one intermezzo still performed with any regularity today, and provides an excellent example of the style.

Apart from Pergolesi, the first major composers of opera buffa were Nicola Logroscino, Baldassare Galuppi and Alessandro Scarlatti, all of them based in Naples or Venicemarker.

Relation to and differences from opera seria

Opera buffa is distinguished from opera seria by its subjects, voice types, aria forms and language. While opera seria deals with mythical subjects such as gods and ancient heroes and only occasionally contained comic scenes, opera buffa involves the predominant use of comic scenes, characters, and plot lines in a contemporary setting. The traditional model for opera seria had three acts , dealt with serious subjects in mythical settings as stated above and used high voices (both sopranos and castrati) for principal characters, often even for monarchs. In contrast, the model that generally held for opera buffa was having two acts , dealing with comic scenes and situations as earlier stated and using the lower male voices to the exclusion of the castrati. This led to the creation of the characteristic "basso buffo", a specialist in patter who was the center of most of the comic action (A well-known basso buffo role is Leporello in Mozart's Don Giovanni). In opere buffe high-flown language was generally avoided in favor of dialog that the lower class would relate to, often in the local dialect, and the stock characters were often those of the Italian commedia dell'arte.

The type of comedy could vary, and the range was great: from Rossini's The Barber of Seville in 1816 which was purely comedic, to Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro in 1786 which added drama and pathos. The genre declined in the late 19th century; it could be claimed that Verdi's Falstaff, in 1893 was the last true opera buffa (although there are 20th century operas that have been characterised as such by their composers).

On an external side, French Encyclopédistes considered opera buffa "à l'Italienne" a positive response to the rigid schemes then used, and made of it a sort of symbol of compositional freedom.


See also


  1. Patrick J. Smith: The Tenth Muse (Schirmer 1970) p103


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