The rise of the opera may, perhaps, be considered as the only literary event of the seventeenth century of which Italy can justly boast, and this is so intimately associated with the drama proper that a brief account of its earlier development will be here in place. With the decline of literature, the triumph of the various arts of design had also ceased. Michael Angelo had been the contemporary of Ariosto; his pupils and successors flourished in the time of Tasso; and thenceforward the flashes of true genius no longer animated the canvas or the poet's page. The astonishing progress of musical science, however, succeeded to that of the sister arts, as if the intellectual energies of man sought development in the only career left open to them; and those who felt within themselves the impulse of a creative faculty, had recourse, as a last resort, to harmony, in which they might give full and uncontrolled expression to their genius, without encountering the wrath of the Inquisition. Nor were the Italians, from their organization, less susceptible to the charms of music than of poetry and painting. A fine natural taste led them at once to appreciate, with little effort or reflection, whatever was most pure and beautiful of its kind. The increasing progress and importance of music, at a time when poetry was on the decline, gave the former such a superiority that poetry became a mere accessory and ornament to it, and was rendered subservient to the merest trifles, and to all the variations and fashions of the day; while the sister art approached nearer and nearer to perfection, in proportion to its established importance, and to the influence which it exerted over the other arts.
In imitation of the Greeks, the chorus had been introduced into Italian tragedy, and it was invariably sung. Pastoral dramas were likewise interspersed with songs and accompanied with instruments. But music had been only accessory in such compositions, intended to give zest and perfection to the entertainment, but not to constitute its essence. The first occasion on which this order was reversed was in the year 1594, when Ottavio Rinuccini, a Florentine poet, with little originality, but with a fine musical ear, united his efforts with those of three musicians--Peri, Corsi and Caccini. Together they produced a mythological drama, in which they intended to reveal the united excellence of their productions in the most splendid dress. Rinuccini appeared to care less for his reputation as a poet than for displaying the art of his associates to the greatest advantage. He neglected nothing which might increase the attraction in the way of decorations and machinery, and surprise or captivate the senses of the audience. Men of letters had, at least, preserved the memory of the musical declamation of the Greeks, but Peri or Caccini imagined he had discovered that this consisted in the recitative, which was blended so intimately with the poetry that there was nothing to be merely spoken throughout the whole of the opera. Thus poetry, written only with a view to being sung, very soon assumed a different character; and the development of scenes, already too extended, was no longer admissible. The poet's object was to produce effect, and to this he readily sacrificed the conduct of the piece, hastening or retarding the course of events as he thought best adapted to musical exhibition, rather than to the natural expression of the passions.
Rinuccini's first attempt consisted of little more than one of Ovid's metamorphoses thrown into dialogue. Apollo is exhibited in the act of wounding the serpent Python, while the nymphs and shepherds are seen in flight. Scornful in his victory, he ventures to taunt the god of love, who takes his usual revenge. Smitten with Daphne's beauty, Apollo pursues her; she flies, and a shepherd soon after appears, who tells the story of her metamorphosis. From these scant materials was evolved the entire operetta, with its four choruses, divided into as many short acts, and barely containing altogether 450 verses. The choruses are given in very easy couplets, which seem to be admirably adapted for music. The remaining portion was probably altogether recitative, as we find no detached airs, duets or pieces by several voices. Such was the lowly origin of what Voltaire calls "that beautiful monster, the opera," which threatened for a time to supersede the regular drama. The Euridice of Rinuccini followed his Daphne, and was produced, likewise, in unison with the same musicians. It was first represented in 1600, on the occasion of the nuptials of Mary de' Medici and Henry IV of France. Shortly afterward appeared his Ariana, the reception of which was no less brilliant. The success of the opera was thus assured, and soon every court eagerly followed the example held out by Florence. Improvements followed rapidly. More lively action was given to the dramatic portions and greater variety to the music, in which the airs were agreeably blended with the recitative. Duets and other harmonized pieces were also added; and, later, Apostolo Zeno carried it to the highest development attained, until the spirit of Metastasio breathed a soul of fire into the ingenious creations of others.