Gluck’s Operatic Ideals
Much of the weakness of the old-time opera libretto was due to the composer and to the singers especially the latter. They insisted on
being afforded every opportunity to display their vocal talents on the stage, whether the occasion was appropriate or not. The dramatic action of the play was liable to come to a standstill at almost any time in order that the prima donna or primo uomo might dazzle the audience with vocal pyrotechnics. Composers were obliged to conform to this custom, and, moreover, they had certain fixed ideas as to the form an opera should take. Each act had to close with a “finale” whether the occasion warranted an elaborate finale or not. Each singer had to sing an aria, and there must be duets, trios, quartets, etc., so that the librettist had a difficult task to please everybody. Naturally the greater poets refused to clip the wings of Pegasus in this way and the opera librettos were compiled by second rate men. At one time it was customary for different composers to set the same libretto over and over again.
The famous contest between Gluck and Puccinni consisted in them both setting the same libretto in phigenie en Tauride and resulted in a crushing defeat of Puccinni.
Gluck was one of the first to institute reforms in opera, and his Alceste contains an exposition of his ideas upon the subject. Among oilier things he says: “When I undertook to set the opera Alceste to music I resolved to avoid all those abuses which had crept into the Italian opera through the mistaken vanity of the singers and the unwise compliance of the composers, and which had rendered it wearisome and ridiculous, instead of being, as it once was, the grandest and most imposing stage of modern times I endeavored to reduce music to
its proper function, that of seconding poetry by enforcing the expression of the sentiment, and the interest of the situations, without
interrupting the action or weakening it by superfluous ornament, I have therefore been very careful never to interrupt a singer in the heat of a dialogue to introduce a tedious ritornelle.”