IT has often been said, and notably, by J. J. Rousseau, and after him, with characteristic exaggeration, by R. Wagner, that Opera does not mean so much a musical work, as a musical, poetical, and spectacular work all at once- that Opera in fact,MoreIT has often been said, and notably, by J. J. Rousseau, and after him, with characteristic exaggeration, by R. Wagner, that Opera does not mean so much a musical work, as a musical, poetical, and spectacular work all at once- that Opera in fact, is the work, par excellence, to the production of which all the arts are necessary. The very titles of the earliest operas prove this notion to be incorrect.
The earliest Italian plays of a mixed character, not being constructed according to the ancient rules of tragedy and comedy, were called by the general name of Opera, the nature of the work being more particularly indicated by some such epithet or epithets as regia, comica, tragica, scenica, sacra, esemplare, regia ed esemplare, &-c.- and in the case of a lyrical drama, the words per musica, scenica per musica, regia ed esemplare per musica, were added, or the production was styled opera musicale alone.
In time the mixed plays (which were imitated from the Spanish) fell into disrepute in Italy, while the title of Opera was still applied to lyrical dramas, but not without musicale, or in musica after it. This was sufficiently vague, but people soon found it troublesome, or thought it useless, to say opera musicale, when opera by itself conveyed, if it did not express, their meaning, and thus dramatic works in music came to be called Operas.
Algarottes work on the Opera (translated into French, and entitled Essai sur lOpéra) is called in the original Saggio sopra lOpera in musica. Opera in music would in the present day sound like a pleonasm, but it is as well to consider the true meaning of words, when we find them not merely perverted, but in their perverted sense made the foundation of ridiculous theories.
THE FIRST OPERA The Opera proceeds from the sacred musical plays of the 15th century as the modern drama proceeds from the mediæval mysteries. Ménestrier, however, the Jesuit father, assigns to it a far greater antiquity, and considers the Song of Solomon to be the earliest Opera on record, founding his opinion on these words of St. Jérôme, translated from Origen:—Epithalamium, libellus, id est nuptiale carmen, in modum mihi videtur dramatis a Solomone conscriptus quem cecinit instar nubentis sponsæ.[2