Italian Opera in the Leon Robbin Collection
Italian Opera represented the lingua franca of European stage drama from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. During the “long” eighteenth-century (1690–1790), two genres of opera predominated: the dramma per musica or tragedy (exemplified above all by the dramas of Pietro Metastasio) and opera buffa or comic opera. The former was closely associated with the Ancien Régime or absolutist courts of Europe, while the latter was the province of the public theaters on the Continent. Although not unified as a single nation until the late nineteenth century, the Italian city states and in some cases nations were the unparalleled innovators. The regional centers of this production were the Kingdom of Naples and Republic of Venice.
The manuscripts on display attest to the rich variety within each tradition of opera. By the late eighteenth century, tragedy had given way to new concepts such as the azione sacra or “Lenten tragedy.” The paradigm for this concept was Guglielmi’s Debora e Sisara (1788). The diversification of opera buffa is evident in Cimarosa’s L’Italiana in Londra, written originally for Rome, but significantly altered for performances in Venice and Naples; the latter city required at least one role in the local dialect to meet audience expectations. Both of these works were widely disseminated in European theaters and in the private collections of connoisseurs such as Marie-Louise-Fidèle Baronne de Talleyrand-Périgord.