Finding the Right Footing: Dance Music and Signification in Baroque Opera Seria

Greg Decker, Bowling Green University

A fundamental issue in undertaking what is commonly described as "opera analysis" of Baroque opera seria is that this genre of works does not rely on dynamic and fluid musical elements to drive the drama forward. Instead, musical topics -- and dance music in particular -- play an important role in the composition of many arias in opera seria, and the information these topics provide can contribute to semantic interpretation. While a considerable amount of literature has been devoted to the use of dance and other musical topoi in the late eighteenth century, a lacuna still remains to be filled with respect to their use in Baroque music.

In this paper, I examine the types of information that dance topics provide in the Baroque, with special attention to arias in G.F. Handel's Italian-language operas. I first turn to the "denotative" reading of expressive information (Shaftel, 2009); that is, the actual, concrete experiences audience members may have had with the types of dances Handel employed. Establishing the types of relationships to and attitudes towards dance music that the audience members at the time provides interpretive information and lends credibility to the notion that these dances could indeed carry topical significance in the early eighteenth century. Second, I unpack possible "connotative" associations -- assumptions and literarily constructed notions -- of stylistic level and affect for a sample of dance topics (Monelle, 2006). Finally, I apply the resulting information to several arias; I subsequently form interpretations of the characters and dramatic situations based on their accompanying dance topics. Arias will be drawn from Handel's operas Radamisto (1720), Tamerlano (1724), Orlando (1733), and Serse (1738).