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7—I compositori scenici : Librettist and Composer
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Librettists' Tribulations

Geographical separation, difficulties with last-minute arrangements—the hiring of singers, the completion of the score—all this placed a severe strain on everyone concerned in operatic production. If in many cases librettos were written before composers had been engaged to set them, in others librettists had to write their texts with composers breathing down their necks. Both situations were symptoms of the same disease: the lack of coordination between supply and demand that resulted from the institutionalization of opera.


Time was sometimes so short that composers were forced to begin setting librettos before they had been completed, presumably without even having read the whole text. A number of librettists remarked defensively on the conditions that forced such piecemeal settings. One (Francesco Sbarra) complained publicly to a friend that because of illness and the pressures of a deadline for performance, he had to send his text off immediately to be set (by Cesti):

Because I didn't have even the minimum time necessary to check it over, I had to allow it to be placed under the notes in the very same form in which I sketched it. Furthermore, since it ended up being too long for the music, it had to be shortened, and consequently it can only have been mangled; and they tell me that they had to print it in that form. (Appendix I.29c)

And he begged his friend to see to it that the libretto was corrected before being printed:

I appeal to Your Lordship to do me the favor of checking this work and altering it as you see fit before it is printed. . . . You will find many errors of language, numerous weaknesses and harshnesses in the poetry, and in the humor an infinity of our local idioms that are unsuitable elsewhere, in addition to many dissonances caused by the shortening of the work. (Appendix I.29d)[22]

Perhaps the most vivid description of piecemeal composition was that by the librettist of Hipsicratea (1660), Giovanni Maria Milcetti:

This work was written in Badia delle Carceri and from there sent, page by page, to Murano, whereupon it was immediately structured into scenes. Anyone who knows the distances between the two places will not be surprised by the differences in poetic structure and words between the printed libretto and the opera performed in the theater, because, in effect, even before the poetry was finished and organized it was already being set to music, and the sinfonie were already being sung. (Appendix I.53a)[23]

As usual, rhetoric mixes with reality in these complaints. Like the librettists' common disavowal of serious commitment to writing, the excuse of "l'angustia del tempo" was part of their characteristically apologetic preemptive strategy. In an amusing variation on this approach, a few authors admitted to inordinately long gestation periods for their librettos. Matteo Noris's first libretto, Zenobia (1666), for example, took him four years to write, while Be-


regan claimed that his second libretto, Tito (1666), took five.[24] The seriousness of long-term commitment was evidently deemed as admirable as the sprezzatura of speedy composition.

Whether or not they wrote under pressure of time, librettists had to be ready to make changes in their texts, either at the request of the composer or in response to the requirements of a particular performance. It is quite clear from a variety of evidence that it was only during the rehearsal period that an opera took its final (though not necessarily permanent) shape. The librettist as well as the composer was expected to attend rehearsals in order to accommodate these alterations. In one instance the author of Adone (1639), Paolo Vendramin, wrote to the composer, Manelli, explaining that he could not be present for the rehearsals, and charged him with the responsibility of overseeing the production: "It will be up to you to lend it that study and that diligence that I could not, and which is required when producing an opera in Venice."[25] In another instance, the librettist Francesco Piccoli "being unable to assist in the completion . . . nor in the alterations, indeed changes, required by the staging" of his L'incostanza trionfante overo il Theseo (1658), it was necessary to engage another librettist for the final changes.[26]

In a note at the end of his Hipsicratea (1660), the author Milcetti asked the composer Don Pietro Molinari to add some arias to his text because he was unavailable for final alterations:

Since distance does not allow me to be around to see to the needs of my drama, I am happy that Your Lordship will insert the songs [canzonette ] that you describe. I beg you to mark them in the margins with a star or with double commas, as is the custom. I say this because I do not like to dress what is mine in others' ornaments; thus I will be extremely glad if the difference is clear. (Appendix I. 53b)[27]


Composers must often have been required to add text, particularly for arias. In sending his libretto Lismaco to its composer, Giovanni Maria Pagliardi, Ivanovich encouraged him to make whatever changes he thought necessary:

If you find some emotion [affetto ] in the recitative that can be reduced to a cavata , don't hesitate to do so, since anything that stands out unexpectedly is pleasing. As far as the number of ariette is concerned, to be arranged with their sinfonie , use your discretion, with due attention to the brevity that is so important here [in Venice]. (Appendix II.5b)

The numerous textual alterations that occurred either at the time of setting to music or during rehearsals created a special problem at the publication stage. If printed librettos, like their less expensive predecessors the scenarios, were to be of use to the audience in the theater, they had to correspond to tire work being performed on stage. This was rendered difficult by the length of librettos—too long to be printed in the period, at most a matter of a few days, between rehearsals and premiere. As it was, librettos often did not come off the press until the very last minute.[28] Printers compensated for this difficulty by devising various methods of incorporating last-minute alterations. In fact, the frequency and extent of such changes is confirmed by the development of standard techniques for indicating them: the use of virgolette , which could be added on the printer's copy of the manuscript even at the last minute before typesetting, and brief stop-press additions, which could be set at the bottom of pages that had already been printed.

At first, at least, virgolette gave the clearest message: they indicated text that was not sung. I have already mentioned one of the earliest uses, that in the 1640 print of Rinuccini's Arianna , which followed the revival of Monteverdi's opera in that year. Although they were unexplained, the virgolette were placed next to passages that were obviously cut in the revival (nearly all of the choruses, as well as some of the dialogue)—those passages, in fact, that would have been anachronistic in Venice. The printer—and probably Monteverdi too—had edited the text according to Venetian usage ("secondo l'uso di Venezia"), without acknowledging as much.[29] At first it was usually recitative that was cut, but as the century wore on virgolette tended to appear next to second strophes of arias as well.[30] Although they retained their original function throughout the cen-


tury, virgolette were also increasingly used to distinguish material added to a libretto by another hand.[31]

For more complicated situations, and when time did not allow for virgolette , librettists used the preface to explain discrepancies or else resorted to stop-press additions. Since these affected only a single page of type, they could presumably be produced at the very last minute, conceivably even on the day of the performance, even though librettos were stitched (though not bound). A note in the preface to Aureli's Gl'amori infrutuosi di Pirro (1661), for example, explained that the libretto had been printed too soon to incorporate virgolette .[32] The tightness of schedule is nicely illustrated by another Aureli libretto, La costanza di Rosmonda (1659), in which virgotette appear in the second and third acts only. A last-minute postscript explains the discrepancy: the first act had been printed before cuts were made so it appeared without virgolette , whereas the other two acts had been printed late enough to incorporate them (Appendix I.44a). Of course, we have no idea which lines of act I were affected; we know only that some were cut.

What postscripts lacked in specificity, however, they made up in flexibility, for they could convey many different kinds of information about a variety of last-minute changes, and not just cuts. Most important, they often justified such changes, thus providing valuable insight into aesthetic and practical considerations affecting opera production. At the end of his Delia (1639), for example, Strozzi informs the reader that his text has been altered by the composer, Manelli: "So that your eyes will agree with your ears, know, exquisite reader, that in representing the work more than three hundred lines have been omitted, in order not to abuse your courtesy" (Appendix I.15i). And then he proceeds to justify the cuts: "It is necessary that the poet abandon his ornaments, that is, his digressions and episodes, to make way for the singers' ornaments. Do not, therefore, fault the performers for doing what they have done the better to serve you" (Appendix I.15j). In one of his later librettos, La finta savia (1643), Strozzi again explains that the unusually lengthy text has been cut because it was too long for musical setting, having been written to be performed without music as well (Appendix I.18a).[33]


Although some changes clearly occurred when the composer initially set the text to music and may have been justified by aesthetic considerations, many more must have been made at the last minute in response to specific performance conditions. In Veremonda (1653), for instance, several lines were added in a scene of the second act: "Since, owing to the distance of the Fort of Calpe, Zelamina and Zaida couldn't be understood, they have been made to come outside to speak, and then, having seen Delio, in respect for Giacutte, to go back in until he leaves. As a consequence, the following lines in the middle of act 2, scene 8, must be altered and added."[34]

Whereas librettist and composer had to make these small adjustments on the spot, some changes were effected simply by a new direction to the singer (with perhaps a record of it left in the libretto), as in La costanza di Rosmonda (1659): "In act 1, scene 14, where it says 'Clitennestra recites in a balcony,' it was thought better to have her appear on the stage in order to make her visible to the eyes of everyone, especially those seated in the boxes" (Appendix I.44b).

The preface to Aureli's Claudio Cesare (1672), finally, summarizes quite effectively the kinds of changes that took place during rehearsals and the typical librettist's attitude toward them:

After the libretto was printed and the opera rehearsed on stage, it was decided to cut various superfluous parts of it; therefore, you are urged kindly to pass over various lines and certain scenes, which for greater brevity have been cut, since we did not have the opportunity of doing so, the libretto already having been printed. Below you will also find three aria texts that have been changed; all of this information is given so that only what is read will be sung, thus bringing greater delight to the audience. You will appreciate the difficulties that composers [compositori , meaning composers and librettists] face today in satisfying not only the strange tastes of this city, but also the extravagant whims of the performers [i Signori Musici recitanti ]. (Appendix I.50b-c)

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7—I compositori scenici : Librettist and Composer
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