Not just a pretty farce
For sheer operatic madness there really is nothing to beat opera buffa – or comic opera, as it is known in English. From its roots in early 18th-century Naples when it was developed as an alternative to the neoclassical themes of opera seria (serious opera: considered the highest form of music drama), opera buffa quickly found widespread appeal throughout Italy, particularly with ordinary people.
It's a vivacious and engaging genre with plots that are simpler and more down to earth than those of its aristocratic sibling and which bear a greater resemblance to everyday life, while emphasising its amusing elements. Musically, opera buffa places less emphasis on show-stopping arias and relies on duets, trios and ensembles for its effect. The fusion of music and words results in an exuberant world of confusion, intrigue and madness.
The opera buffa genre is also responsible for one of opera's most lovable vocal types, the basso buffo, who muddles his way through comic operas with a delicious sense of comic swagger. Think no further than Don Pasquale in Donizetti’s opera of the same name, Dr Bartolo in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville or Leporello in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The use of deeper male voices in opera buffa is in stark contrast to opera seria, where the best parts were taken by castrati.
By the time Rossini wrote the first of his three opera buffa masterpieces, The Italian Girl in Algiers, in 1813, the genre was already well developed. Commissioned and written in great haste for the Carnival season in Venice, the opera appealed because of its exotic, semi-oriental subject matter and proved to be an immediate success.
The Italian Girl has all the hallmarks of classic opera buffa: a madcap plot that takes the hero Lindoro and heroine Isabella to the exotic world of Algeria, where misunderstandings, mistaken identities and love intrigues result in a comic romp that sparkles in every scene. And at the heart of The Italian Girl is, of course, the opera buffa favourite, the basso buffo, Mustafa, the Bey of Algiers. He is a figure of power with a penchant for beautiful young Italian women until he meets his match in feisty Isabella. Like most basso buffos he is constantly being ridiculed and although he gets his comeuppance at the end of the opera he nevertheless comes across as a lovable rogue.
Rossini went on to write other opera buffa masterpieces, the best-known being The Barber of Seville (1816) and La Cenerentola (1817), which remain staples in the comic opera repertoire to this day. However, it was to opera seria that Rossini then turned, largely abandoning the comic genre that had made him so popular. In any case, by the middle of the 19th century, opera buffa as a genre was on the wane as composers became more adept at combining comedy and tragedy into a single work. Despite this, opera buffa works are as popular today as they ever were and Rossini’s comic genius continues to delight audiences around the world.
Michael Sinclair is the editor of theoperacritic.com