Both oratorio and opera can be considered as a primary genre of performances in traditional western musical performances. Opera possesses a multitude of theatrical elements, which allow it to combine deliberate storytelling techniques with musical elements. However, oratorio does not involve scenery, acts, costumes, and thus, it solely focuses on the musical component of the performance. Therefore, the key difference between oratorio and opera is the fact that the latter uses dramatic acts, sets, and costumes, whereas the former dismissed these elements. It also can be stated that opera is a musical theatre and oratorio is a musical concert performance.
Opera originated in Italy and became an essential part of classical music tradition. In the given format, the dramatic aspect of a work is demonstrated by instrumentalists and singers, who perform their pieces either as arias or recitations. Opera can also involve conversational elements, such as props, sets, acting, and even dancing. The main subjects revolve around ancient mythology or historical events. Oratorio mainly uses soloists, ensembles, choir, certain characters, and arias. This format mainly does involve interactions among its characters, and it lacks action or scenery. In addition, sophisticated costumes and props are not used in oratorio.
Oratorios often deal with sacred topics, which makes them suitable for performing in church. An oratorio is a large, usually multi-part piece of music for soloists, choir, and orchestra, which usually treats a dramatic plot, but not for the stage, but concert performance. The oratorio is close to a cantata, from which it differs on a large scale and the presence of a certain plot. This performance format differs from the opera in the absence of stage action.
The ancient oratorio was divided into two parts, in contrast to the opera, divided into three acts. Unlike opera in an oratorio, the action itself is not more important, but the story about it. Compared to the cantata, the oratorio is larger in scale and has a more developed plot. Handel’s oratorios, such as Messiah, are distinguished by their highest achievements, which are characterized by an exceptional breadth of figurative and semantic content, and a wealth of compositional and genre solutions. It is important to note that Handel develops a large-scale three-part structure of the oratorio.
Messiah is Handel’s most famous work, which remains unusually popular among classical music lovers. Although the oratorio was conceived and was first performed at Easter, after the death of Handel, it became traditional to perform Messiah during Advent and Christmas fasting. Christmas concerts usually include only the first segment of the oratorio and choir, but some orchestras perform the entire oratorio. The oratorio consists of three parts, and most of the libretto is taken from the Old Testament. The primary element of the first part of the oratorio is the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, which predicts the coming of the Messiah.
There are several quotes from the Gospels at the end of the first and beginning of the second part, such as the angel who appeared to the shepherds from the Gospel of Luke, two mysterious quotes from the Gospel of Matthew, and one of the Gospel of John. In the second part, the texts of Isaiah’s prophecies and quotes from the Psalms are used. The third part includes one quotation from the Book of Job, and then the text of the First Epistle to the Corinthians of the Holy Apostle Paul is mainly used.
In addition, the soloists lack personification and narrative logic, and the distribution of solo fragments according to the timbre of the voice – soprano, tenor, instrumental episode subtitles help to understand on behalf of whom and in connection with what events the arias arise.
The most important is the meditative space of prayer and ritual, periodically torn by events of the plot and recitations. Reading the Bible and the choir and soloists commenting on it model a cult action in the spirit of preaching. The principle of synthesis is multilevel, for the psalms characterize both the external genre feature of the composition and the internal component of the number structure.
It is important to note that both genres were highly important for Hendel due to the significance of Jesus Christ in Christianity. Oratorio is an essential format for religious performances because it allows a viewer and listener to focus on the beauty and meaning of sacred texts fully. However, opera is also vital for the given performance because it possesses a number of tools and instruments through storytelling. Christ is a messiah figure for Christians, and the stories revolving around this important figure need to be expressed fully. Hendel understood that oratorio or opera on its own would not be sufficient to demonstrate the richness and significance of Christ’s influence.
On the one hand, oratorio does not involve scenery or acts and solely focuses on the musical component, which gives a performer an opportunity to concentrate on the texts and musical elements. On the other hand, opera allows performers to combine the beauty of the musical aspect with storytelling techniques and acts because the story of Christ has specific actions and sceneries.