Although the three forms of opera, oratorio and cantata all include the human voice, they are substantially different in their concept and subject matter. The Baroque period saw the evolution of these three styles with opera also developing substantially. The oratorio was largely developed by Handel and the main difference between it and opera was that it usually treated a sacred subject rather than a secular one which was always opera’s remit. The cantata was also usually with a sacred theme although there are several cantatas by Scarlatti which have a secular theme to them.
The baroque opera began with some representations by Monteverdi but it was largely popularised by Georg Frederick Handel. One of the most important baroque operas is ‘Rinaldo’ where one can view the dramatic intricacy of all the characters whilst the music also gives a clearer indication of the plot. Handel wrote several other operas such as Xerxes where the genre of the operatic bravura aria came to the fore. In fact, one of the most popular arias which is still sung today is ‘Ombra mai fu’ from ‘Xerxes’ where the soprano delves into some beautiful lyrical tessitura. Other baroque operas which are worthy of mention were composed by Mozart and these include Bastian und Bastienne and ‘Lucio Silla’ where the vocal technique is of the highest order.
Handel was also an important exponent of the oratorio since he composed over twenty works in this genre, some of which have remained very famous. Probably the greatest of these works is the oratorio, ‘The Messiah’, which deals with the story of the Bible culminating in Jesus’ resurrection. However Handel also composed other oratorios of note and which also deal with biblical subjects, these include ‘Judas Maccabeus’, ‘Esther’ and ‘Solomon’ where the frequency of choruses and other vocal numbers is extremely pronounced. One can observe the main difference between an oratorio and an opera with the former usually containing more choruses while the latter includes more arias and duets. There are some operas which do not even include a chorus in their entirety.
The cantata can be described as being a cross between an opera and an oratorio. The subject matter is usually religious such as the Ode to St Cecilia’s Day by Handel or Purcell’s Anthems (which can be classified as cantatas), but there are instances when cantatas may treat a secular subject. Several of Scarlatti’s works are in this genre and they treat themes such as love, human emotion and nature. There are also cantatas which have been composed to specific commissions although these are mostly of a sacred nature.
Although baroque opera was not so popular, the development of this genre fast made it the most popular form of artistic entertainment by the end of the 18th century. The oratorio continued to be popular but by the middle of the 19th century there were few examples of this genre, perhaps culminating in Mendelssohn’s great oratorios, ‘Elijah’ and St Paul’. By that time, opera had established itself as the most important and most successful form of entertainment on an immensely large scale. The cantata had also disappeared from public consumption although the sacred work was still popular in some churches and communities.
Jean Ferris with Larry Worster; Music The art of Listening, 8th edition, McGraw-Hill, 2009, Print