The term Italian term opera buffa (comic opera) is one used to describe a comedy or humorous opera. Comic characters have appeared in opera since the early 18th century, and they were often short operatic scenes of usually one-act, performed in between acts of the main opera. The first Italian composers who used this genre were Alessandro Scarlatti in 1718 and Nicola Logroscino in 1747. However, there were later well-known composers such as Verdi who used elements of opera buffa such as when he composed Falstaff in 1893.
Notably, the term opera buffa is a contrast from opera seria, otherwise known as a ‘serious’ opera. An opera seria could include the occasional comic scenes, but with ancient heroes and gods involved, and consist of three main acts dealing with more serious mythical subjects. To differ from this, opera buffa usually contained two main acts with predominant use of comic themes and plots were in much more contemporary settings.
During the Romantic period, the popularity of opera buffa declined, despite a number of humorous operas being composed around this time. One of which is the infamous The Barber of Seville by Rossini, which is purely comedic, based on its sharp wit, delightful tricks and mischief. It is known as one of opera’s greatest musical comedy works, described as the ‘opera buffa of all buffas’.
Inspiring the theme of opera buffa Rossini’s masterpiece was intended to provide entertainment to common people, as opera was often interpreted as dark or associated with death in the storylines which would only appeal to the elite. In opera buffa the language is often simple, to be easily understood by mass audiences and is usually broad-themed with light-hearted comedy. Another exception during the Romantic period of a comic opera composed during this time is Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. Performed by Welsh National Opera in several of our Seasons, most recently in Daisy Evan’s hilarious Cardiff kebab-van set production, this opera is bright and lively with percussion and brass prominent in the orchestra, contributing to an up-beat effect on the performance.
We can also relate the term to another of WNO’s past productions, La Cenerentola by Rossini. The Italian composer wrote this opera following the success of The Barber of Seville a year beforehand and based it on the popular fairy tale Cinderella. His rationalist take on the classic Cinderella story includes music that is full of subtle humour, gentle comedy and spikey melodies to convey the opera buffa mood. We can also see this being displayed by the frequent use of coloraturas (elaborate ornamentation of the singing) in the melodies, while staccato (each note made sharply distinct) in the music implies playfulness and humour in the opera
WNO have also performed Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, another familiar comic opera described by BBC News magazine in 2017 as ‘one of the supreme masterpieces of operatic comedy, whose rich sense of humanity shines out of Mozart’s miraculous score’. Mozart himself uses memorable musical touches to convey this humour, with the introductory overture of the opera setting a mischievous tone with its presto tempo marking the piece busy and rapid, while the bustling orchestral writing suggesting an exciting sense of whispering, which is very intriguing for the audience. The Marriage of Figaro is full of wit, comedy, intrigue, misunderstanding and forgiveness, and Mozart delivers what is considered to be one of the greatest operas of all time.