What is Opera buffa? The new genre of comic opera in the first half of the 18th century
When thinking about lyric opera, the classic image of the comedy and tragedy masks often comes to mind. Many early operas and musical plays told tragic or sacred stories and these performances eventually developed into a codified genre called opera seria. Comic characters had been a part of opera until the early 18th century, when opera buffa began to emerge as a separate genre.
In the early 18th century, comic operas often appeared as short, one-act interludes known as “intermezzi” between the acts of the grand tragic opera seria. Soon audiences wanted more of the comedy to the point where these comedic intermezzi were performed on their own. These plot elements will appear in opera buffa throughout the centuries.
Unlike opera seria, which told stories of gods and ancient heroes, intermezzi and opera buffa involved the predominant use of comic scenes, characters, and plot lines about domestic life.
One of the first intermezzi to stand on its own, and to stand the test of time, is Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s La serva padrona (The Maid Turned Mistress). This one-act is still performed regularly, especially by companies that specialize in early opera.
The plot and musical elements used to characterize each role trace a clear lineage from La serva padrona to later works within the opera buffa genre like Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (1786), Rossini’s The Barber of Seville (1816), to Donizetti’s Elixir of Love (1832), and even to Donizetti’s Don Pasquale (1843). The genre declined in the mid-19th century, despite Giuseppe Verdi's Falstaff staged in 1893.
While the genre held less prominence as we moved into the Romantic period, the operas composed within the opera buffa style continue to be some of the most loved and performed operas to this day. Audiences have always loved the joy found in a farce full of mistaken identities, all ending happily ever after.