A note on Metastasio

The 18th century has been called the age of Metastasio.

The Roman poet’s 27 libretti were set more than 800 times, and used as late as the 19th century, including by Meyerbeer (Semiramide riconosciuta, 1819) and Mercadante (Didone abbandonata, 1823).  The most famous Metastasian opera today is Mozart’s Clemenza di Tito.

Born Pietro Trapassi, 1698–1782; adopted by Giovanni Vincenzo Gravina, wealthy founder of the Academia degli Arcadi.  Translated the Iliad at the age of 12 (!); composed his first tragedy at 14.  Studied for the law, but after the success of his first libretto – for Porpora’s cantata Gli orti Esperidi, sung by the castrato Farinelli– the soprano Marianna Bulgarelli became his protectress.  Started writing opera libretti, beginning with Siface rè di Numidia (1723), set by Francesco Feo.  Later became court composer to Charles VI in 1729/30, on recommendation of librettist Apostolo Zeno; stayed in Vienna for half a century until his death.

Thomas Bauman: “In the mellifluousness of his verses, the stylized decorum of his poetic lexicon, and the finesse of his emotional palette Metastasio has ever had his equal in the history of opera”

Key features of Metastasian opera:

  • Story based on Classical mythology or history
  • Plot is complex, but (unlike 17th century opera) avoids sub-plots or comic episodes
  • Six (sometimes seven) characters, with two female parts
  • “Drama is a conflict between love and duty, often resolved by triumph of conscience over heart [reason over sentiment], thereby averting tragedy – often this dénouement is achieved with the help of a magnanimous tyrant  …  The libretto is “a pure and elevated expression of Enlightenment ideals, while remaining true to some fundamental Baroque procedures” (Warrack & West)
  • Highly formalized arias, in two stanzas, representing contrasting or complementary sentiments (hence the A-A-B or A-B-A format of da capo arias).  Most are exit arias, sung by a character before they walk offstage.
    • Bauman praises their dramatic insight: “The two-stanza aria provided a perfect forum for the inner psychological struggles between duty and inclination, between reason and desire, that constitute the central moral conflict in nearly all his libretti”
    • And their aesthetic value: “Elegant, concise, and uncluttered, a new kind of musical texture reduced and simplified harmonic motion so that emphasis fell more fully on the voice than it had in the works of Scarlatti and Pollarolo.  Carefully wrought melodies develop clear, long-range trajectories out of short, suave phrases in perfect syntactic and expressive harmony with each line.”
    • Warrack & West more muted: “The utterances of the stage figures were dependent on situation and effect, rather than character, permitting an interchangeability of arias between operas which was anathema to later generations of composers. But as vehicles for effective vocal display pieces, Metastasio’s texts were unsurpassed.”

Works consulted

  • Thomas Bauman, “The Eighteenth Century: Serious Opera”, The Oxford History of Opera, ed. Roger Parker, 1994
  • John Warrack & Ewan West, The Oxford Dictionary of Opera, 1997)
  • “Pietro Metastasio”, Wikipedia

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