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7—I compositori scenici : Librettist and Composer
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Collaborative Talents

In Ferrari's tiny troupe, whose Andromeda and La maga fulminata had been the first operas in Venice, librettist, composer, and performers were closely linked—by geographical proximity, background, and common goal. Ferrari, being a musician himself, although he did not actually compose the music for either opera, was certainly sensitive to the requirements of music, and the collaboration between him and Manelli must have been worked out on an intimate, daily basis. Both text and music must also have been precisely fashioned to suit the abilities of the singers in the company. The multiple talents and responsibilities of the various members of the troupe—Ferrari, as we know, played the theorbo in the orchestra, and Manelli sang—bridged the boundaries not only between text and music but between creation and performance as well.

The relationship between librettist and composer was of course closer still in those subsequent operas for which Ferrari served as both: Armida (1639), Il pastor regio (1640), La ninfa avara (1641), and Il principe giardiniere (1644). Unfortunately, we are unable to evaluate the results, since none of these scores have survived.[2] Although a number of composers began their operatic careers as singers, including Manelli, Cesti, and Boretti,[3] few of them combined Ferrari's publicly recognized "multiplici virtù," which suggested comparison to "un mostro diversamente simile alla chimera,"[4] and made him an ideal maker of operas. But he considered himself primarily a musician rather than a poet, claiming that his most important attribute as a writer was knowing what kind of poetry was best suited to musical setting.[5] To the extent that the two can be


separated, then, the composer in Ferrari clearly held sway over the poet. His self-evaluation reveals his attitude toward the relative importance and stature of music and text, at least in his own works. That attitude, the subservience of text to music, or of the librettist to the composer, is reflected more generally, though only fleetingly, in the operas of his time.

Indeed, several early composers of Venetian opera, although they may not have shared Ferrari's poetic skills, exercised control over their poets in various ways. The most striking example, of course, is Monteverdi, whose influence on the texts of his operas was fundamental. His famous lessons to Giulio Strozzi, revealed in letters he wrote concerning their collaboration on La finta pazza Licori , involved dramatic issues as fundamental as plot structure, characterization, and verisimilitude.[6] Monteverdi also instructed his other poets in the art of libretto-writing, although our evidence for this is somewhat more indirect. One of them, the anonymous author of Le nozze d'Enea , confessed to having made a number of changes in his text in order to suit Monteverdi's style: "I have shunned remote thoughts and concepts and rather been attentive to the affections, as Signor Monteverdi wishes, and in order to please him I have also changed and omitted many of the things I had originally included" (Appendix I.9g). Another, Badoaro, gained his education in retrospect, claiming that he hardly recognized his Ritorno d'Ulisse in Monteverdi's setting because of the many changes made by the composer.[7]

To be sure, Monteverdi, like Ferrari, represents a special case, though in a different way. His long experience and many successes had earned him a reputation as the greatest opera composer in Italy. He was credited by at least one seventeenth-century observer as having been the moving force behind the development of opera in Venice, although his participation in the Venetian opera scene was delayed somewhat, as we have already noted.[8] Furthermore, Monteverdi's commitment to the ideals of the seconda prattica placed him in a special position with regard to words. In order to investigate fully the power of his music to communicate feeling through text, Monteverdi essentially had to create the text himself, often using what was provided by the poet as a skeleton to be fleshed out with repetitions, cuts, emphases, and so on (this will be examined further in chapter 9).[9]


Close working relationships seem also to have existed between other early composers and their librettists. Cavalli, for example, exercising his prerogative as impresario in some cases and in others his position as the most important and respected opera composer in Venice after Monteverdi, personally commissioned or arranged for many poets to write for him: these included Persiani, Busenello, Faustini, Melosio, Minato, and Aureli.[10] They, in turn, knowing the composer for whom they were writing, could fashion their texts to suit him. Indeed, the scores of a number of Cavalli's operas reveal that the music actually took shape along with the text—much as we imagine the Ferrari-Manelli creations to have emerged. Several, including Veremonda (1653), Xerse (1654), Statira (1655), and Arternisia (1656), preserve earlier versions of the text than those in the printed librettos, whose development out of those earlier versions can be traced in the scores themselves.[11]

In a more general way, Cavalli's long-term working relationship with Giovanni Faustini, which produced at least ten operas, must have influenced the poet's style. Faustini's lengthy affective monologues in versi sciolti punctuated by refrains may well have been written to suit Cavalli's gifts as a composer of expressive recitative. Furthermore, Faustini's practice (though hardly his alone) of postponing resolution of his complex plots until the final scene, immediately preceded, even triggered, by a protagonist's lament, may have developed in response to Cavalli's skill at composing affective laments in a mixed recitative-aria style.

The librettos of Cavalli's only other steady collaborator, Minato--who may have been coerced by the composer into writing texts for him[12] —were in various respects modeled on those of Faustini; he too punctuated lengthy monologues by refrains and wrote short strophic texts to be set as arias as well as extended lament texts. The composer indicated his appreciation of Minato in his response to Marco Faustini's request for new works in 1662. In a letter to the impresario of 8 August (Appendix IIIA. 3), he explained that he had decided to abandon operatic composition altogether, but that Minato's insistence had persuaded him to change his mind.[13]


While Cavalli's impact on Minato's texts can only be inferred, his specific influence on a third librettist, Aureli, is documented. The young Aureli consciously modeled Erismena (1655), his second libretto, on the style of Cavalli's regular librettist, the recently deceased Faustini, even borrowing a lengthy passage from Faustini's Ormindo . The borrowing, from an opera Cavalli had set to music more than a decade earlier, was certainly the cornposer's idea, since he used his old music, a particularly moving lament dialogue, in the new context. Erismena became one of the most successful operas of the entire century.[14]

Cavalli was the last (possibly the only) composer of the period to wield power as an impresario. The rapidly increasing complexity of the operatic scene must have made that role unbearable to him, for he gave it up quite early in his operatic career, choosing to work under contract, first with Bortolo Castoreo and others at S. Cassiano, then with Giovanni Faustini at S. Apollinare and with Marco Faustini at S. Cassiano and SS. Giovanni e Paolo, and finally with Mi-nato at S. Salvatore.[15] Even after he renounced his managerial responsibilities, his reputation was sufficient to assure his continued aesthetic control over his subsequent works, but his early shift from employer to employee was one sign of more general adjustments in the operatic hierarchy, of the decline in the composer's comparative status with respect to the librettist—and soon the singer.

Three special individuals—Ferrari, the composer-librettist, Monteverdi, the "creator of opera," and Cavalli, the dean of Venetian opera composers and its leading businessman[16] —maintained the power of the composer somewhat artificially. Competing forces gradually undermined that power, however. Perhaps this change was part of what Ferrari had in mind when he complained so poignantly, already in 1643, that he felt obsolete:

Although a veteran of scenic compositions, I am distressed by the refinement of the century, its factions torment me, but virtue, in the end, is a sun that, despite the clouds of passion surrounding it, never ceases to shine. These days musical theaters attract the most melodious swans; and sirens yearn to be angelic instead


of maritime. . . . With your usual kindness, forgive the defects of my Giardiniere , of my music, and of my theorbo. (Appendix I.4)

The death of Monteverdi, Cavalli's withdrawal from managerial duties, and Ferrari's lament about the changing order of things, all of which occurred around the same time, mark a shift. During the course of the 1640s, the various mechanisms of propaganda used to stimulate the growth of opera in Venice, in particular the printing press, focused with increasing exclusivity on the new professional librettist.

As printed scenarios, librettos, and reports of performances make increasingly clear, the librettist was considered "l'auttore." It was his text that was immortalized through print—usually, as we know, at his own expense (Appendix II.6bb)—and his name that was associated with the opera in the mind of the public. He was usually the recipient of any laudatory sonnets printed in the libretto, though an occasional singer or composer might be eulogized in the same way (often by the librettist himself). The librettist's preeminence, even as late as 1671, was recognized in the following praise of Nicolò Beregan:

The opera of Sig. Nicola [i.e., Heraclio ] is so beautiful that it never becomes tedious. So lofty is its governing idea that Sig. Nicola has been deified in that theater [SS. Giovanni e Paolo], where without his say-so no new production will be undertaken, and if he invents new worlds of exquisiteness, everyone will converge to admire him, since there is really no one comparable to him in invention, magnificence, and summit [Piramide ] of imagination. (Appendix IIIB.6)[17]

It was also the poor librettist who had to bear the brunt of the public's fickleness, to respond to the taste for novelty, and to produce a constant stream of texts rapidly, on demand.[18] Librettists often compounded their responsibility and control over operatic productions by assuming the duties of impresario—as both investors and organizers. Indeed, unlike the composers, Cavalli being a temporary exception, most of the early librettists, including Ferrari, Faustini, Minato, Aureli, Beregan, and Pietro Dolfin, were involved in theater management as well.[19]


Obviously, composers did not completely lose their influence on the work, even in the eyes of the public. And their names were often included on the title pages of librettos or mentioned in prefaces, almost always in positive, if rather conventional, terms: the composer, variously called the Apollo (Monteverdi, Cavalli, Sartorio, Boretti) or the Amphion (Cavalli, Ziani) of the century, or else the Sun (Monteverdi and Cavalli) or the Moon (Sacrati), often covered or minimized the imperfections, enlivened the inanimate corpse, or sweetened the bitterness of the libretto;[20] or he may have honored, enriched, ennobled, adorned, illustrated, or otherwise favored it.

Composers, as well as scene designers, costumers, and singers—the most obvious creators of pure spectacle—were presumably mentioned in the hope that their names would attract the crowds and thus guarantee the commercial success of an opera.[21] To that end, various flattering biographical details were occasionally supplied, such as the fact that a composer served one or another princely patron. But in more than half the librettos printed between 1637 and 1675, composers' names did not appear at all. We have seen that Giovanni Faustini completed a number of librettos for which no specific productions had yet been planned. They were written for performances in the indefinite future, in a theater and with a cast and composer as yet unknown. Although Faustini was especially industrious, the dissociation between libretto and eventual setting was becoming increasingly characteristic of opera. Librettists, under pressure to produce works quickly, and assured of a steady market, began to write and print texts ahead of time, often before all of the other arrangements for a production could be concluded.

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