Opera is dramatic narrative in music. A story is being told, and thus the role of the recitative in opera is crucial. Without it, we miss a fundamental part of the narrative, yet few listeners of opera truly appreciate its importance. Opera lovers can readily identify, even sing arias from the standard operas, yet most would be hard pressed to name one recitative. Vocal recitals commonly feature aria excerpts from operas, yet I have yet to know of a recital that has featured recitatives, the exception being a recitative that precedes the featured aria. Singers may feel that recitatives are inadequate means for exhibiting their skills, despite the fact that a recitative can be as musically and technically demanding as an aria.
Ultimately, recitatives have never enjoyed the popularity of arias, and this is most likely because their function demands a unique musical design. Arias are melodic, “tuneful,” and memorable. They are varied and diverse from a musical standpoint and often feature passages that showcase a singer’s abilities. Recitatives, whose main function is storytelling, place less emphasis on musical interest. The music is often speech-like, neither tuneful, nor melodic, and thus far less memorable. The words are generally prosaic, conversational or even colloquial, lacking a poetic meter or a rhyme scheme. The accompaniment tends to be keyboard alone (harpsichord, organ or piano) and thus from a timbral standpoint lacks the diversity of color that is so characteristic of many an aria. In certain instances, especially in the interests of meeting pressing deadlines, recitatives have been composed by a composer’s assistants, as was the case with Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia.
Nonetheless, some especially sensitive composers have been attentive to providing as much musical worth in their recitatives as in their arias. Johann Sebastian Bach, for example, exquisitely painted the horrors of Jesus’ crucifixion in the recitative “Ach, Golgotha, unsel’ges Golgotha” (“O Golgotha, unhappy Golgotha”) from the St. Matthew Passion by means of a fluctuating tonality. The unstable tonality, wandering from A-flat major through D-flat, G-flat, C-flat and finally back to A-flat major, vividly portrays how “the Lord of majesty must scornfully perish here.” This recitative also features an unusual accompaniment of two oboes d’caccia as well as continuo:
All of Mozart’s operas adopt the number-opera format, although Mozart’s heightened sensitivity to dramatic and musical flow could not ignore the significance of recitatives. His recitatives often feature harmonic progressions whose bass lines move in semitones or a circle of fifths. Non-functional harmonic progressions are common, and the harmonic rhythms tend to be quite slow. Harmony and harmonic changes in the accompaniment can be agents for underscoring a significant word or phrase in the vocal part, as in Don Octavio’s recitative from Act 1 of Don Giovanni (notes marked with an encircled “X” represent instances in which appoggiaturas would be added by the singer):
By the nineteenth century, composers (and presumably listeners as well) grew tired of the centuries-old format of the number opera, and thus sought ways to build a seamless, continuous flow into the drama’s music. Wagner, we know, was instrumental and highly influential in blurring the boundaries between aria and recitative, yet he could not completely disregard the significance of recitatives in providing vital information. Act 2, Scene 2 of Die Walkyrie, for example, features a lengthy recitative between Wotan and Brunnhilde (accompanied by the orchestra), in which Wotan explains to her (and thus the audience) the origins of the gods' afflictions. Examples may also be found in twentieth-century opera. Strauss prefaced the 1916 version of Ariadne auf Naxos with an extensive recitative (“Mein Herr Haushofmeister!”), which is instrumental in explaining the opera’s intricate plot, and Debussy brilliantly recaptured the stile rappresentativo in Pelléas et Mélisande, whose five acts are predominantly recitative-like. Even Alban Berg could not dispense with an occasional recitative in his 1922 opera Wozzeck. The opening scene of Act 2 is one example, in which Wozzeck submissively surrenders his hard-earned money to his common-law wife Marie:
George Bernard Shaw, certainly no stranger to the world of opera, once dismissed the recitative passages of a Handel opera as “unnecessary tedium.” In certain instances, Shaw’s criticisms are justified. However, there are many other instances in which recitatives not only relay critical information, but also capture and project a character’s emotional condition. Perhaps one day, a bold singer will program a recital with some of these extraordinary recitatives. I look forward to that.