I've been told that the language of the libretti penned by Piave (for Verdi) and Illica (for Puccini) are written in some kind of "old" and "dated" language that no Italian of today can easily understand without training. Is this true?

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    Just to be clear: neither Verdi nor Puccini used only one librettist, so I suppose that you want to know in general if opera librettos are understandable for a native speaker. The answer does not change either way. I mention this because one the librettist for Verdi was Arrigo Boito, one of the greatest poets of his generation and a great composer in his own right and it just feels wrong to let him go unmentioned :) – Denis Nardin Nov 8 '15 at 2:23
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    @DenisNardin: Don't get me started, PLEASE. Can we agree for now that the Italians I've spoken to focused only on Piave and Illica? I know nothing at all about Italian poetry: I don't speak Italian. I know large portions of opera libretti by heart, but that means exactly nothing in this context. And I'm not talking about the opinions of opera aficionados, either: I don't trust them. I'm talking about ordinary people: you know: the kind that buy tickets. Some of them wouldn't know verismo from Mother Goose. Which is why some of them might be objective. That's what I'm trying to find out. – Ricky Nov 8 '15 at 9:17

No that is completely false. While the language is clearly poetic (and so a little "harder" than everyday conversation) and from 150 to 100 years old, it is not substantially different from standard Italian and can be understood by any native speaker.

As a proof I bring myself at the age of 13, when I first went to La Traviata and L'Aida without having any problem.

This in my experience is valid for all opera librettos at least from Pergolesi onwards (Baroque opera is a slightly different matter because Baroque poets loved playing with the language a bit too much; it is still understandable with a mild effort though).

Moreover a lot of expressions from the librettos of di Piave actually migrated into sayings, somehow similar to what happened to English with Shakespeare. For example croce e delizia (to mean that something is both a pleasure and a sorrow) and i bollenti spiriti (to mean the impulsiveness, especially of youth), both from the libretto of La Traviata.

EDIT: To answer the criticism in the comments. Of course the language is a little harder than usual spoken Italian: it is poetry. However I think you are underestimating the capability of the average person. In my experience everyone can understand those words and I think it is very dangerous to perpetuate the idea that they need some special training to do so. This myth is in fact part of what pushes people away from even trying. Ok I'll stop here or it becomes a rant; so if you still disagree, downvote away :).

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    I disagree strongly, but the question itself is far too generic to admit a precise answer. I am sure many present-day Italians would have a hard time understanding, for instance: V'entrar con voi pur ora / ed i miei sogni usati / e i bei sogni miei / tosto son dileguati (and I have picked these lines at random). Even some well-known arias such as La donna è mobile can be quite opaque for most people. Try asking someone what muta means in muta d'accento e di pensier and many will answer mute. (to continue) – DaG Nov 8 '15 at 8:15
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    Italian language itself is not that different, but the competing exigences of meaning, metric and adherence to the music (when it predated the libretto) make the libretto texts distant from everyday Italian. – DaG Nov 8 '15 at 8:19
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    There is a well-known essay by Luigi Baldacci, La musica in italiano: Libretti d'opera dell'Ottocento about the XIX century libretti and their language. I don't know if it specifically addresses this problem, but it might well worth looking into. – DaG Nov 8 '15 at 8:27
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    Completely false is quite an exaggeration. A single libretto can have both easy and impossible parts to understand at first hearing, even if the singer has perfect diction. Reading them is another thing. – egreg Nov 8 '15 at 10:50
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    Just to clarify, I wasn't talking about understanding them while being sung. I always read the librettos before going to the opera, it's just good sense. It's really hard to understand a soprano when she sings at high pitch. Here I'm talking mostly about the text of the librettos. That said, I never knew anyone that found the librettos hard to understand (and that includes my grandmother, whose education had been minimal). That said I realize this may be opinion based. – Denis Nardin Nov 8 '15 at 14:10

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