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The Eighteenth-century Opera and the Search for a Meeting Point between Music and Declamation


The article is the result of some researches about the ideas on the operatic reform appeared in Italy and France from 1740s onwards. On the basis of acting, some treatises written by actors, philosophers and musicographers claim the dramatic superiority of recitativo secco or obbligato, and the beauty of aria parlante. (e.g., L. Riccoboni, Dell’arte rappresentativa, 1728, G. Manfredi, L’attore in scena, 1734, G. R. Carli, L’indole del teatro tragico, 1746, and Osservazioni sulla musica antica e moderna, 1744-1786, G. Tartini, Trattato di musica secondo la vera scienza dell’armonia, 1754, F. Algarotti, Saggio sopra l’opera in musica, 1755). Owing to its particular speaking tone linked to declamation, the aria parlante was the preferred tool by philosophers, like Rousseau, Diderot, Milizia, and Planelli. In addiction, this kind of aria is described in detail by the painter and music amateur John Brown in his book Letters upon the Poetry and Music of the Italian Opera (1789).  The last step of this intriguing story is represented by the writings of Ranieri de’ Calzabigi. A well-known letter on his Orfeo ed Euridice (1762) and Ipermestra (1784), published in the periodical Mercure de France (1784), describes a series of symbols suitable to composers. The signs recorded by Calzabigi, which are not retraceable, could be comparable to the notation created by Joshua Steele in his meaningful Essays Towards Establishing the Melody and Measure of Speech to be Expressed and Perpetuated by Peculiar Symbols (1775), and by the theorist John Walker, who edited in 1787 the book "Melody of Speaking Delineated, or Elocution Taught like Music by Visible Signs.