Why it's Time to Reclaim the Overture

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It is opening night at the Metropolitan Opera, the overture of a new season. Many operas, including Monday night’s L’Elisir d’Amore, have instrumental music at the start of the opera, whether that music is called an overture, a sinfonia or, as in the case of Donizetti’s bittersweet comedy, a prelude.

There are subtle differences in terminology. The prelude, as a form, dates back to the 16th century and initially was played on a lute. It was a piece played before other music and might introduce a theme that follows. The origin of the word is the Latin praeludere (to play beforehand). The concept evolved to mean a freestanding, often brief, piece of music, so that Chopin could compose 24 works all called preludes for piano that were not necessarily introductory in nature. 

In opera, a prelude is the music that comes before an opera or a later act. Lohengrin and La Traviata have preludes before acts one and three. I find that preludes at the start of an opera often have a hushed, otherworldly flavor such as those that come at the start of Lohengrin and La Traviata as well as Mussorgsky’s Khovanschina.

The sinfonia is an Italian term whose usage is found as far back as 1589, when it implied an introductory work before a larger piece that might or might not include vocal music. Within two decades, the earliest operas were being written, including Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607), and the music that preceded the singing was called the sinfonia avanti opera (introductory music before the opera). The one for Orfeo certainly has the flavor of presenting a great night in the theater.

The sinfonia remained an introductory piece to an opera well into the early 19th century and the operas of Rossini. But, with the rise of the classical symphony under Haydn and then Mozart, the word came to connote a full work for orchestra in three or four movements. By 1827, with the death of Beethoven and Rossini nearing retirement, the word almost always meant “symphony.”

With sinfonia being eclipsed as a term for the music played before an opera, it was necessary to find a different word. Outside of Italy, that word was often the French ouverture, or opening, although in German it was a Vorspiel (“that which is played before”). There were two types of ouvertures. The French one was codified by Jean-Baptiste Lully (who really was a Tuscan named Giovanni Battista Lulli, but never mind) that had two or three sections. The first was slow and then the second and third would have several more lively tunes that were danceable. In fact, most of the earliest ouvertures were for performances in which dance was prominent.

The ouverture italiana was Neapolitan in origin and came at a time, in the early 18th century, when Naples was the most important musical city in Italy. The Italian overture had three sections. The first was a lively allegro, followed by one with a more moderate tempo, then concluding with upbeat music that created a proper mood to enjoy the opera that would follow. The ouverture italiana—as opposed to the prelude—became the template for opera overtures in most countries by the year 1800. Mozart’s overtures often were in this vein, with an important addition. 

In thinking of the three Mozart/da Ponte operas, the overtures to Le Nozze di Figaro (1786) and, for the most part, Don Giovanni (1787) were mood-setting but contained little hint of the music that would follow, but with Cosí fan tutte (1790), the overture practically screams the cynical Don Alfonso’s belief that all women are a certain way (Co-sí fan tu-tte!) within the first 40 seconds and then playfully insinuates the idea into your ears for three more minutes and then restating it, taking the music to a spirited conclusion before the curtain goes up.

These Mozart overtures were also among the last to be written at a time when audiences were not necessarily seated to hear them. They would mill about, talk and eat. It was with Beethoven and certain other 19th-century composers that the overture was meant to fully heard by a seated and attentive audience. It meant too that the overture was considered a part of the opera and, as such, the music became longer and more consequential. It also meant that the conductor (who became more important in the new century) might turn to the audience for a bow before picking up his baton and starting the staged part of the opera. 

Beethoven only wrote one complete opera, Fidelio (1805), on which he labored mightily, often feeling that the overture was inadequate. You can listen to the evolution of his thought as you listen to the Leonore Overture No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and then the piece that is actually used, the Fidelio Overture

Rossini wrote some of the most brilliant opera overtures of all. There are many recordings that only contain his overtures, without the operas that follow, from seldom-seen works such as La Gazza Ladra, Semiramide and William Tell, the most famous opera overture of all. Because his overtures are better-known than his operas, Rossini's worth is often dismissed by people who claim to be knowledgeable. They further complain that Rossini reworked some of his music, so that the overture for a serious opera, Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra (1815) about Queen Elizabeth I, was used the following year for Il Barbiere di Siviglia. How, it was asked, could the same overture be used for such disparate stories? The answer is that Rossini’s overtures were often meant to beguile rather than be used to prepare the audience for the narrative to follow.

It was Bellini and Donizetti and, especially, Wagner and Verdi who used the overture to create a specific mood and, sometimes, to give a preview of some of the best melodies in that opera. The most exciting examples of this are the overtures to Der fliegende Holländer and La Forza del Destino, both of which sound like a collection of highlights to the operas. To me, this makes Rossini’s highly original creations seem like greater achievements than they are usually thought to be.

Is it Curtains for Overtures?

I have a complaint to make about a trend I see in many opera houses for the past couple of decades. More than a few stage directors seem to think that the overture is theirs to play with, creating stage business that happens while the overture is being performed. While the overture once was a valuable chance for audience members to separate from the thoughts and cares of the outside world, now it is used as a background music for insignificant or confusing action. 

Franco Zeffirelli, who directs films as well as opera productions, did a 1983 movie of La Traviata. He created a whole narrative during the prelude that had the dying Violetta, at the end of the opera, recall her life and then enter the Act One party. It worked on film, but then Zeffirelli adapted the idea for his 1989 Met production as the dying Violetta suddenly throws off her bedcovers and appears, in full ball gown, ready to party. During the prelude, audiences kept watching and waiting for something to happen and never fully heard the music.

This concept was used in a recent Covent Garden production in which the febrile Violetta (Renée Fleming) is at the side of the stage, dressed for the party scene in Act One. The 2005 Willy Decker production in Salzburg (which later came to the Met with different leads) had no curtain and required full acting by Violetta (Anna Netrebko) from the very beginning. Again, Violetta is ill but perks up once the party starts.

Directors of comedies seem unable to resist lots of action during overtures, especially Rossini masterpieces. It has been years since I have been able to simply listen to the overture of Il Barbiere di Siviglia.

A recent production of Khovanschina in Munich got off to a very bad start when the gorgeous prelude was destroyed by so much stage action, including what seems like the removal of corpses, that one really cannot hear the music.

Why can’t we just enter an opera through its sound world, really listening and focusing, instead of having to already use our eyes and minds in literal ways? I think it is time to reclaim the overture as a purely musical experience rather than as a soundtrack. What do you think?