Opera buffa is an Italian term meaning “comic opera”. It is mainly used for 18th century Italian comic operas. Opera buffa contrasts with opera seria (“serious opera”) in which the story was a tragedy. Opera seria was supposed to be “serious”, while opera buffa was an entertaining musical comedy. Like the opera seria, everything was sung, there was no spoken dialogue. This was different from comic opera in other countries. The story in opera buffa is told in recitative and then there were arias for the characters to show their feelings and show off their voices.
Although we use the term “opera buffa” today, in the 18th century they called such operas by other names, e.g. “commedia in musica”, “dramma giocosa”, “operetta”, “burlesca” etc. An opera buffa was usually a full length work: one which would fill a whole evening’s entertainment. It was different from an “intermezzo” or “farsa” which was a short musical comedy that was performed during the intervals of a musical tragedy, although the difference between the two is not always obvious. The intermezzo became longer and longer during the 18th century and gradually developed into opera buffa. Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrone was an intermezzo which became very famous after Pergolesi’s death. It influenced opera buffa.
Opera buffa always included a lot of caricature. The characters showed human weaknesses such as stupidity, vanity, greed and affectation (people who were pretending to be wise and important). They often poked fun at the ruling classes.
In opera buffa the acting was always very important. It was a very lively show, with a lot happening very quickly. At the end of each act all the main characters sang together: this is called an “ensemble” (the French word for “together”).
Opera buffa started in Naples and gradually spread to other parts of Italy. It was particularly popular at carnival time. Important composers of opera buffa include Carlo Goldoni and Baldassare Galuppi.
By the end of the 18th century it was not always possible to tell the difference between an opera buffa and an opera seria. Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, for example, has a lot of comedy, but there is also a serious side.