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8—I più canori cigni e le suavissime sirene : The Singers
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I più canori cigni e le suavissime sirene :
The Singers

An opera did not exist independent of its singers, either at its conception or its performance; they were its spokesmen, its true publicists. The singers mediated between opera and its audience. Transforming a private arrangement into a public spectacle, they transported the operatic product to the consumers.

In companies like Ferrari's or Sacrati's, singers were well known to composer and librettist from the very beginning of a project. Their roles, like costumes, were cut to measure in advance, fitted during rehearsals, and displayed at the performance. Composers themselves even used the tailoring metaphor to characterize their work. "I made the part to his measure" ("Holli fato la parte a suo dosso") was the way Sacrati described his composition of the title role of Bellerofonte , written for Michele Grasseschi. [1] We know too that Monteverdi's conception of the character of Licori in his aborted La finta pazza Licori was very much conditioned by the abilities of the singer he envisioned in the role, Margherita Basile. Whatever adjustments were found necessary during rehearsals took place behind the scenes, quietly, within the close professional family that together produced the work. Most of them would have gone unrecorded in librettos, since the early librettos were usually not issued until after the performance and could thus have incorporated the changes. The other chief documentary evidence of such changes, letters between the makers of operas, were of course unnecessary when a troupe lived and worked in such close proximity. Such alterations moved out into the open, as it were, only when practical conditions of institutionalization forced them there, when the original partnership among the makers of operas had begun to dissolve into the division of labor described in the previous pages.


At the same time as singers became divorced from the original act of composition, they also became the increasing focus of public attention; and this required ever greater efforts on the part of composer and librettist to enhance their stature, to show them off to best advantage, even if it meant compromising their own aesthetic values. From a position of equality (or even less) in the original operatic partnership, singers rose to a position of undisputed preeminence. Once representatives of the art, they became its very embodiment. Paradoxically, the separation of the singers from the actual creation of the work eventually resulted in an increase in their final impact on it—or at least the visibility of their impact. Their growing influence, external as well as internal, can be measured in terms as diverse as salaries, contract negotiations, audience attention, and, of greatest aesthetic significance, changing ratio of aria to recitative.

The Wages of Singing

Some measure of the relative importance of the various contributors to the operatic enterprise is offered by a comparison of their earnings. The figures reflect the hierarchy at any given time, and compared over a substantial period, they reveal significant shifts in that hierarchy as well. The few documents we have for this period—two theater budgets, several contracts, and some references in correspondence—relate especially to composers and singers; information on librettists' earnings, which were based primarily on libretto sales and thus independent of theater budgets, is more difficult to come by.[2] Composers were evidently paid at different rates, depending on their reputation. Thus Cavalli's fee was unusually high. He received 400 ducats from Faustini for Antioco (1658) and Elena (1659), and 450 ten years later for Eliogabalo .[3] To be sure, in 1658 Cavalli was practically at the apex of his career: in addition to holding the prestigious position of organist at San Marco, he was the best-known composer of opera not only in Venice, whose theaters he had supplied regularly for twenty years, but in all of Italy. His Venetian works had been performed throughout the Italian peninsula, and he had fulfilled at least two


"foreign" commissions: Orione for Milan (1653) and Hipermestra (1654, performed 1658) for Florence.

Other composers were paid considerably less. Ziani, for example, earned only 50 ducats for Annibale in Capua in 1660, even though this was his fifth opera for Faustini. And he complained later in a letter to the impresario that it was 70 ducats lower than normal.[4] His fee rose considerably in the following years—to 200 ducats for Amor guerriero in 1663 and Doriclea in 1666—but it remained much lower than Cavalli's usual fee, which he resentfully noted in the same letter as 100 dobles . Granting that Cavalli's fee was justified by his reputation, Ziani nevertheless regarded his own poor salary as an insult. He was even more irritated, however, by the disparity between his salary and those of the singers: "If you pay singers 150 and 100 dobles [=440-660 ducats] apiece, why shouldn't a famous composer, who is the prime vehicle for putting on an opera, be given at least as much or only slightly less?" (Appendix IIIA. 5c).[5] Ziani also complained that he was paid less well than Cesti. As for Cesti, we do not know how much he actually received for his Venetian operas, but he himself noted jealously that he earned less than Cavalli.[6]

High as it may have been for a composer, Cavalli's fee nevertheless compared unfavorably with those of the singers. In 1666 a salary of 300 scudi (or 450 ducats, exactly Cavalli's fee) was considered standard for an average female singer,[7] but most singers' salaries were higher. The best-paid singer in Antioco , for example, "Signora Girolama," received 750 ducats, nearly twice as much as the composer,[8] while several others earned only slightly less than he did (only one earned much less, 50 ducats).[9] Naturally singers were paid according to their rank or importance in the opera, but the wide discrepancies in their earnings also depended in part on geographical considerations. Most were imported from outside Venice, and their fees were calculated to include traveling and living expenses. Thus, Signora Girolama's 750 ducats included round-trip


travel between Rome and Venice; a singer from Turin was paid slightly more than one from Milan; and the singer who earned only 50 ducats was a Venetian. [10]

Salary was obviously a matter of prestige, among singers as well as between singers and composers. Apparently, singers borrowed from certain establishments were paid more than others. In one revealing instance, a singer agreed to take a lower salary as long as he could say that he had earned a higher one, "in deference to the prince he serves" ("in riguardo al principe che serve"). n Singers' fees seem to have varied from theater to theater, too, and were probably inflated as the result of competition among the various houses. S. Salvatore apparently paid more than SS. Giovanni e Paolo and often succeeded thereby in luring singers away from the older establishment. In 1665 a singer at the latter (Cavagna) complained to Faustini that another (Ciecolino) was earning more at S. Salvatore than he was at SS. Giovanni e Paolo; Cavagna was eventually offered even more than that by S. Salvatore, but affirmed his loyalty to Faustini by agreeing to accept the same fee he had earned in 1662.[12]

These figures indicate that in the 1660s singers were generally considered on a par with the most important composer of the time: exceptional ones were paid more, ordinary ones about the same or perhaps slightly less. But this parity did not last. Although the composer's fee—at least Cavalli's—remained fairly constant over the decade 1658-68, those of the singers rose substantially. If Signora Girolama earned almost twice as much as the composer already in 1658, another, Giulia Masotti, one of the most sought-after singers of the period, earned four times as much in 1666 (at SS. Giovanni e Paolo), and nearly six times as much in 1669 (at S. Salvatore).[13] Cavagna, who had earned 350 ducats in 1658,


considered 600 ducats too little in 1665.[14] And Ciecolino, whose salary of 150 doppie (more than 600 ducats) had been considered enviably high in 1665, was offered 250 in 1670, but refused to sing for less than 300, or twice as much as his salary four years before.[15] In addition to increasing in proportion to other expenditures, then, singers' salaries, unlike those of composers, evidently kept rising with their reputations. They must have continued their disproportionate escalation, since twenty years later the prima donna Margherita Salicola earned 500 doppie , or 19,000 lire, for her performance in Penelope la casta (1685).[16] This figure, we should note, equaled the total cost of producing La maga fulminata , the second Venetian opera, in 1638.[17]

Their comparatively high and rapidly rising salaries only confirm what is clear from other evidence—namely, that the singers had come to be regarded as the most important members of the operatic hierarchy. Impresarios devoted a major portion of their energies to securing casts, dispatching agents to attend performances all over Italy to report on particularly outstanding singers. By the late 1660s it was understood that a singer could make or break an entire season, almost regardless of the opera being performed. That point is brought home rather explicitly in a report to Faustini from one of his agents, the librettist Pietro Dolfin, who had attended a performance in Verona by Anna Venturi, a singer Faustini had recently engaged:

The opera pleased me in all its aspects (considering that I was in Verona), but Signora Anna, in the part of Romilda displeased me so greatly that she became insupportable, not only to me but to everyone who was with me, and they encouraged her every time she came on stage with everyone present greeting her every time she came on stage with what one might call a beating with the cackles they made during her trills and cadenze . She is so odious that she alone is enough to cause an opera to fail, and so disgraceful that the other singer from Mantua and [the one called] Or-setta seem like angels. (Appendix IIIA.9)[18]


And he concluded, naturally, by strongly urging Faustini not to hire her. Evidently, it was her trills and cadenzas that bothered Dolfin the most. In the end, Faustini received so many complaints about her that he broke their contract, settling accounts with her in two installments.[19]

Singers were frequently credited with primary responsibility for the outcome of an opera.[20] Poor singing was reportedly responsible for the failure of Domitiano (Noris/Boretti), an opera otherwise praised for the superior quality of its text and music, at SS. Giovanni e Paolo in 1673, while what was considered by some to be an inferior work of the same season at S. Salvatore, Orfeo by Aureli and Sartorio, was apparently rescued by an excellent cast, according to one account:

Last night, the 30th of December, the opera at SS. Giovanni e Paolo, entitled Domitiano by Noris, opened, which was truly staged superbly, in a beautiful production, but so poor in singers that it is pitiful; aside from Signora Giulia [Masotti], no one can sing; to such a sorry state has opera in Venice been reduced. It's true that the S. Lucca [i.e., S. Salvatore] management, despite a ragged opera of Aureli's called Orfeo , because it has better singers, will triumph over the SS. Giovanni-Paolisti. (Appendix IIIB. 13)

The particular stars were Gratianini, who made such a good impression that he was given the title role in the second opera of the season, Massenzio ,[21] and Tonina, "marvelous of voice, exquisite, clever, and attractive for a Roman" ("di voce meravigliosa esquisita, furba, et attrattiva per esser Romana").[22] In fact, the failure of Domitiano , which in addition to its poor cast may have owed something to the death of its composer, Boretti, during the rehearsal period, was catastrophic for SS. Giovanni e Paolo: Grimani reportedly lost 3,000 lire that season. To make matters worse, one of the singers employed by the theater was shot and killed while riding in a gondola with four or five of his fellow singers.[23]

Actually, neither the verdict on the singers of Orfeo nor that on the opera as a whole was unanimous. One report described "Tonina," who played Euridice, as "divina," but the other singers as merely "ascoltabili"; one of them, a certain Pia, had so deteriorated since the previous year, particularly in the "crudeness" of her voice, that she made no impression at all.[24] Another report


noted the unfortunate absence of two singers, Lucretia and the castrato Lassi.[25] And still another (prejudiced) report criticized "the singer of Signor Leonardo Loredano," who replaced Lucretia for the third soprano role (Euridice's maidservant?) as "insoportabile."[26] As far as the opera itself was concerned, several accounts were quite positive, one of them considering it praiseworthy despite the fact that it was written by Aureli.[27]

The Prima Donna

The most impressive index of the singers' growing stature was their increasing influence on the works they sang. Roles had always had to be adjusted to fit their ranges and to show off their particular vocal strengths. But singers eventually became responsible for more profound changes that involved dramatic structure and even undermined the verisimilar balance and pacing that had been so carefully achieved between action and contemplation, between kinesis and stasis. Their gradual accrual of power is documented in their correspondence with impresarios, in remarks of librettists, and, most important, in the operas themselves.

Although the big jump in their earnings did not occur until the third decade of operatic activity in Venice, singers had manifested their influence on opera much earlier, actually after only the first few seasons. Composers, accustomed from the beginning to altering their scores to suit, seem to have taken their subservience to singers for granted; librettists, apparently, did not. On the contrary, in the absence of more direct documentation, their complaints about having to satisfy singers' whims are one of our chief sources of information on the subject.

A very early indictment of singer-power came from Ferrari on the occasion of a revival of his Il pastor regio in Bologna in 1641:

Having to present my Maga fulminata and Pastor regio at Sig. Guastavillani's theater in Bologna, it was necessary, to please my friends and because of the whims of some of the singers, who are never satisfied, to add and cut some things from the works; thus you should not be surprised if you find them to be quite different from their first printing in Venice. (Appendix I.5b)[28]


Giovanni Faustini, too, we recall, lamented the inordinate influence of singers quite early in his career—in his second libretto, Egisto , of 1643 (Appendix 1.31a). Although Ferrari did not indicate precisely the kinds of changes his singers wanted, beyond the addition and cutting of unnamed passages, Faustini was quite specific. He had to add a mad scene for his protagonist. In his case, the reasons were clear: La finta pazza , the operatic hit of 1641, had made mad scenes de rigueur in any work that wished to compete with it.

The elevation of the mad scene to such importance in the early 1640S was in no small measure owing to the protagonist of the original mad scene, Anna Renzi, the singer who has appropriately been called the first diva of the Italian operatic stage.[29] It exemplifies the impact of the singer beyond the confines of the single work, an impact that extended to the establishment of a convention and, ultimately, to the development of opera itself.

The career of Anna Renzi, while symptomatic of maturing opera in seventeenth-century Venice, was also quite unusual. Although she was but the first of a long line of star singers, she was uniquely implicated in the development of the genre itself. (I have already touched upon her significance in chapter 4.) Renzi was created, in part, by the press; her undoubtedly extraordinary performances were aggrandized by Incognito publicity as part of their general, successful campaign to establish opera as a going concern in Venice. Owing to this, we know exactly which Venetian operas she appeared in and which roles she sang; more significant, we know a good deal about her voice and personality, her art of singing as it was viewed by her contemporaries—and even her appearance (fig. 25).

She began her career in Rome, performing in operas at the house of the French ambassador, and was brought to Venice late in 1640 to create the role of Deidamia in La finta pazza , the inaugural opera at the Novissimo. We first learn about her presence in Venice from the libretto of that opera, an Incognito publication of 1641, whose author, Giulio Strozzi, describes her rather conventionally as "a sweet siren who gently ravishes the souls and pleases the eyes and ears of the listeners" (Appendix I. 16c). The city of Venice, Strozzi continues, should be forever grateful to Francesco Sacrati, composer and musical director of La finta pazza , for having brought Renzi from Rome. Indeed, Sacrati undoubtedly composed the role of Deidamia specifically for Renzi, fitting it to her particular talents as he did for other singers. Renzi's powers were extolled further and somewhat more explicitly in the Cannocchiale per la finta pazza of the same year, in which she was praised for being "as valorous in action as she is


Portrait of Anna Renzi, from  Le glorie della signora Anna Renzi romana  (Venice: 1644). 
Venice, Fondazione Scientifica Querini Stampalia.


excellent in music" (Appendix I. 17e). She starred in subsequent productions at the Novissimo and SS. Giovanni e Paolo, most notably, from our point of view, as Ottavia in L'incoronazione di Poppea in 1643.[30]

We would know very little more about her were it not for a special volume published in her honor in 1644, yet another product of the Incognito press. Le glorie della signora Anna Renzi (fig. 26) is by Giulio Strozzi and is dedicated to Filiberto Laurenzi, Renzi's teacher ("Chirone della Signora Anna").[31] It features a large number of encomiastic poems by various authors, many of them represented only by their initials or academic names, but identifiable as Incogniti. [32] The poems describe her performances in various roles. One of them, an "idilio," much longer than the others, narrates her career, opera by opera, in rich detail, concluding with a vivid description of her portrayal of Ottavia in L'incoronazione di Poppea .[33]

The most revealing part of the book, however, is the lengthy laudatory essay by Strozzi himself that opens the volume. Filled with enthusiasm for her style of singing, Strozzi's observations are extraordinarily informative, especially in comparison to the usually perfunctory remarks about singers found in similar volumes—most of them earlier, such as those dedicated to Isabella Trevisan, Leonora Baroni, and others[34] —and to the comments found in libretto prefaces. Most descriptions of singers involve single adjectives and adverbs, strung together in a variety of lengths. The preface to Andromeda , for example, set a standard for variety of single-adverb description of the singers: they sang "mirabilmente," "divinamente," "s quisitamente," "egregiamente," "gentilissimamente," "celestamente," "gratiosamente," and "soavissimamente."

In terms quite unlike those of conventional flattery, Strozzi describes Renzi's actions on stage, the movements of her body, arms, face, and voice, with the attentiveness of a stage director. Interestingly, he begins by remarking on the passion and verisimilitude of her acting and diction:


Le glorie della signora Anna Renzi romana  (Venice, 1644), title page.
Venice, Fondazione Scientifica Querini Stampalia.


The action that gives soul, spirit, and existence to things must be governed by the movements of the body, by gestures, by the face and by the voice, now raising it, now lowering it, becoming enraged and immediately becoming calm again; at times speaking hurriedly, at others slowly, moving the body now in one, now in another direction, drawing in the arms, and extending them, laughing and crying, now with little, now with much agitation of the hands. Our Signora Anna is endowed with such lifelike expression that her responses and speeches seem not memorized but born at the very moment. In sum, she transforms herself completely into the person she represents, and seems now a Thalia full of comic gaiety, now a Melpomene rich in tragic majesty. (Appendix II.2a)

Only then does Strozzi arrive at her vocal qualities—obviously in service to her acting, a contributory aspect of her theatrical presence. He enriches his description with some rare practical advice on the care of the voice, which reveals the extent of his own experience with singers: "She has a fluent tongue, smooth pronunciation, not affected, not rapid, a full, sonorous voice, not harsh, not hoarse, nor one that offends you with excessive subtlety; which arises from the temperament of the chest and throat, for which good voice much warmth is needed to expand the passages, and enough humidity to soften it and make it tender" (Appendix II.2b).[35] The specifics of her vocal technique come next, along with appreciation of her resilient professionalism, her ability to create her role anew night after night: "She has felicitous passages, a lively trill, both double and rinforzato , and it has befallen her to have to bear the full weight of an opera no fewer than twenty-six times, repeating it virtually every evening, without losing even a single carat of her theatrical and most perfect voice" (Appendix II.2c). Strozzi then moves to a consideration of Renzi's mind, and her off-stage personality:

I have considered, aside from her physiognomy, that in her that maxim holds true according to which for the formation of a sublime spirit these things are needed, namely, great intellect, much imagination, and a good memory, as if these three things were not contradictory and did not stand in natural opposition when found in the same subject: all gifts of generous nature, who only rarely knows how to unite these three qualities, as if in a republic, no one holding the majority. Signora Anna, of melancholy temperament by nature, is a woman of few words, but those are appropriate, sensible, and worthy for her beautiful sayings, of the reward of praise. (Appendix II.2d)

Finally, he describes her way of studying human behavior as a means of understanding and portraying characters: "She silently observes the actions of others, and when she is called upon to represent them, helped by her sanguine temperament and bile, which fires her (without which men cannot undertake great things), shows the spirit and valor learned by studying and observing.


Whence the heavens were propitious in providing her with such an admirable and singular intelligence" (Appendix II.2e).

This description offers a convincing portrait of a consummate singing actress, one who clearly imposed her own personality on the roles she sang. Renzi was the kind of singer who, in addition to realizing Strozzi's model of the ideal performer, almost certainly would have appealed to Monteverdi, notorious for his concern with singers' interpretation of his roles. The chief evidence for that concern is a series of letters of 1627 to Alessandro Striggio the Younger, focused on La finta pazza Licori , a libretto by Giulio Strozzi.[36] Indeed, Strozzi's appreciation of dramatic singing, expressed so eloquently in his encomium to Anna Renzi, may have been part of Monteverdi's legacy to him.

Renzi and the Novissimo flourished together; their successes were closely linked, the one nourishing the other. But her influence lasted well beyond the Novissimo years. She appeared regularly at SS. Giovanni e Paolo until 1649.[37] And after two brief periods in Innsbruck and one in Genoa, she returned to Venice to sing for Marco Faustini at S. Apollinare in 1655 and at S. Cassiano in 1657.[38] At S. Cassiano, as Damira in Aureli's and Ziani's Le fortune di Rodope e Damira , Renzi closed her memorable Venetian career as she had opened it, portraying a "finta pazza."

All of Renzi's roles were clearly tailor-made for her by composers and librettists intimately acquainted with her abilities. Her presence was intrinsic to the works she sang, her special talents part of their conception. She was active at a time when mutuality in operatic creation was still possible, when text, musical setting, and performance were inextricably linked from the start. Renzi's connections with the composers and librettists who wrote for her were unusually close. Sacrati evidently knew her in Rome before he engaged her for the Novissimo; Laurenzi was her teacher well before he composed her role in La finta savia ;[39] Busenello and Fusconi were her friends, the latter even serving as the executor of her will.[40] She was the dedicatee of several publications, including Fusconi's libretto of Argiope ,[41] yet a further affirmation of her close ties with the makers of operas.


Fortunately, the music for four of Renzi's roles has survived, representing the work of four different composers: that of Deidamia from Sacrati's La finta pazza , Ottavia from Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea , Aretusa from Laurenzi's La finta savia , and Damira from Ziani's Le fortune di Rodope e Damira .[42] From that music and from Strozzi's description of her singing, it is clear that Renzi's vocal style was not primarily showy or virtuosic—though she certainly possessed flexibility of voice. Her roles called for dramatic intensity above all. Her interpretations, then, would have enhanced the effect of opera as drama; opera was not yet the vehicle of vocal pyrotechnics it was soon to become. And yet, for all that she evidently lived her role, became her character, this first prima donna could not help but focus attention on the performer per se. If, as a public representative of the Novissimo company, she shared the responsibility of having helped to establish opera as a genre, she also shared the responsibility for its subsequent development, in particular the meteoric rise of the virtuoso.

Renzi's career essentially established the model of the prima donna (and primo uomo ), in which the character becomes the vehicle for the singer. As she was with "la finta pazza," so other singers too became associated with particular kinds of roles. The hunchback stutterer featured in several operas between Torilda (1648) and Erginda (1652) may well have been played by the same singer.[43] Carlo Righenzi, a famous "burro" tenor, who sang the role of Gelone in Orontea in Venice in 1666, created similar roles in other operas.[44] And there are many records of librettists as well as composers having conceived of certain roles, even whole operas, with specific singers in mind. Thus in 1673 Dolfin


reported that he had been so impressed by the performance of a particular singer, Gratianini, that he was inspired to write a libretto especially to accommodate him.[45] Singers even took on public associations with their roles, often becoming known by the characters' names (as had, traditionally, commedia dell'arte actors). Anna Maria Sardelli was called Campaspe, the role she played in Alessandro vincitot di se stesso (Venice, 1651); Giulia Masotti was La Dori, after her role in Cesti's eponymous opera (Venice, 1663, 1667, and 1671); and Giovanni Francesco Grossi was regularly called Siface after his appearance in that role in a Roman production of Scipione affricano (Minato/Cavalli) in 1671.[46]

The publicity surrounding Anna Renzi may represent something of a special case, forming part of a more general campaign on the part of the Incogniti, but the kind of singer-worship implicit in Strozzi's Le glorie della Signora Anna Renzi reached exaggerated proportions by the 1670s and 1680s, when "Applausi," usually broadsides containing celebratory poems, were literally showered on the prima donna at curtain calls. This procedure is vividly described by the Parisian diplomat Saint-Disdier, a keen observer of Venetian society: "The partisans of these admirable singers have quantities of sonnets printed in their honor, and during the applause that these singers inspire, they shower thousands of them from the heights of Paradise, filling the loges and parterre."[47]

Like Anna Renzi, subsequent prima donnas enjoyed close relationships with librettists, composers, and impresarios, but they were generally of a more idiosyncratic and personal nature. Such relationships were encouraged by the long-standing practice whereby singers traveling to Venice, along with their entourages—including relatives and servants—were customarily lodged at the house of the impresario or theater owner. Arrangements like these were usually spelled out in singers' contracts, as in that between Faustini and Giulia Masotti in 1666.[48] Such temporary arrangements evolved into more permanent ones, in


which singers actually became part of the households of their aristocratic patrons, who vied with one another for such prized possessions—another phenomenon deemed worthy of mention by Saint-Disdier:

When a new young woman appears in Venice to sing at the opera, the principal noblemen make it a point of honor to become her protector, especially if she sings very well, and they spare nothing to that end. A Cornaro is arguing over one of them with the duke of Mantua, and he finally wins her. Victory belongs to him who offers the richest presents, even though the charms of her voice are not accompanied by those of beauty.[49]

Patrons acted as agents for their charges, negotiating contracts as well as providing for their other immediate needs. In the case of particularly young singers, their protectors sometimes arranged for additional vocal training. Their ties were so close that a singer was often referred to by the name of her patron.

The various ramifications of these relationships are illustrated by the case of Lucretia "Dolfin," a singer who came to live in the house of the librettist/ impresario Pietro Dolfin sometime in the 1669-70 season. Referring to her variously as "my pupil" (mia allieva ), "my new singer" (mia nuova cantatrice ), or even "the child of my house" (la putta di mia casa ), Dolfin took complete charge of her career. He exercised strict control over her contracts, refusing to allow her to sing in one instance because the part offered was smaller than those she was accustomed to, and in another because the other members of the cast were not of sufficient calibre.[50]

That Dolfin's interest in Lucretia exceeded the purely professional is evident from a story involving Nicolò Beregan, another aristocratic librettist and frequent patron of singers. It is told in one of those letters to Duke Johann Friedrich of Brunswick and Lüneburg from which we have been quoting:

This most noble sphere [of women] is admirably adorned by the most beautiful young singer that Signor Pietro [Dolfin] keeps under his wing. She, having achieved excellence from continued study and from her most sonorous voice, is the beloved idol of the same Signor Pietro, whose jealousy is amazing. That lusty old wolf, our own Signor Nicola, has already eyed her, but Signor Pietro, who is nervous, won't have him around. Having become aware of this, Signor Nicola, in order to spite


Signor Pietro while he was writing the drama for SS. Giovanni e Paolo, tried to insinuate himself into that theater, and he was so successful that he managed to get himself appointed librettist for this year. Signor Pietro, who had already composed the drama, was stuck, and had to put up with the jest of Signor Nicola, who, working quickly on the Grimani brothers, succeeded in officially obliging Signor Pietro to make available for the season, along with other famous singers, his own sweetheart. Whence Signor Nicola is happy because with this pretext he is obliged to graze with his eyes in the theater, and even to insinuate himself into it, if possible. But the other one saw through this amorous trickery and resolved not to leave his beloved, not even for a moment. Thus, if Your Lordship is in Venice for carnival, you will enjoy watching two dramas at the same time, one in music, the other in prose, one with the actions in silent pantomime, the other with notes and voices. Thus between these two farces you will have double pleasure, seeing feigned passions represented in the one, real love in the other. (Appendix IIIB.3)[51]

Thus were the public and personal dimensions of operatic life in Venice confused, to the amusement of avid observers. Indeed, opera seems to have offered itself as an appropriate model for comprehending reality. This account suggests the degree to which opera had taken hold of the Venetian imagination. In terms of our present discourse, the story illustrates the power of the virtuoso; for in this case, a singer—unwittingly, to be sure—actually determined the choice of a libretto for a particular season.

Primi uomini ed altre

It was more customary for prima donnas (and primi uomini ) to wield their power more directly. Even during Anna Renzi's generation, singers had begun to exert their influence in specific ways that overlapped the responsibilities of their partners in operatic creation. Sometimes this was actually encouraged by the librettist—and condoned by the composer. As early as 1640, a rubric in the margin of Ferrari's libretto for Il pastor regio gave a singer permission to insert an aria "at her pleasure";[52] a singer in Artemisia (Minato/Cavalli, 1656) was directed to change a certain aria every night;[52] and in La costanza di Rosrnonda (Aureli/Rovettino, 1659), a singer was invited to insert "un aria francese."[54]


Since neither text nor music was provided, in all three of these cases the singer was evidently expected to supply the aria from his or her own personal repertoire. This practice of inserting arias ad libitum, sporadic at first, reached a climax toward 1700 with the so-called arie di baule (literally, baggage arias) so ridiculed by Benedetto Marcello in Il teatro alla moda .

On other occasions the impact of the singers extended well beyond the insertion of songs, to impinge upon the turf of composer, librettist, and even impresario. It could influence such matters as the choice of the opera to be performed, the cast, the composer,[55] the dramatic structure of the libretto—length of scenes, proportion of aria to recitative—as well as the size (and shape) of their own individual parts. Evidence of performers' attempts to exert their influence permeates the correspondence between Marco Faustini and the various singers with whom he negotiated contracts. Singers frequently expressed interest in the other members of prospective casts, making suggestions for inclusions as well as exclusions. Sebastiano Cioni, for example, refused to appear with Anna Venturi because she sang out of tune;[56] Giuseppe Donati hoped that Gabrielli had not been engaged, because of personal incompatibility: "his personality doesn't mesh with mine because I want to live in peace and quiet and don't want fights or dissension and that requires agreement and not malice and envy."[57] Another singer would not sign a contract because the rest of the cast was poor;[58] while two others refused to appear together because they shared a protector.[59]

One of Faustini's regular singers, the castrato Antonio Cavagna, was particularly exigent about his participation in the 1666 season. Having looked over the part he was scheduled to sing, possibly that of Artabano in Doriclea , he did not hesitate to request two additional arias. Furthermore, he informed Faustini peremptorily that he expected to sing in Roman pitch (i.e., a whole tone lower than Venetian pitch): "I intend to sing with the instruments tuned to Roman


pitch [al giusto tono di Roma ] and not as I did in Statira , in Teseo , and in other works, because it is better for my voice, and I say it nova so that no one will complain about it later" (Appendix IIIA.6).[60] In a subsequent reference to his role, Cavagna complained about the incoherence of one of the arias, refusing to sing it unless it was reset by the composer: "As for the arietta 'Dolce foco,' it isn't very good to sing because it is very mannered and beggarly, and unless you get him [the composer] to write new music for it I won't sing it at all" (Appendix IIIA. 7). He was concerned , too, about his role in Alciade , originally scheduled for the 1666 season, but postponed until 1667. He objected to his costume and to potential comparison with the stars of the production; he also complained about the range of one of his arias:

Only two things frighten me: one, to have to sing with the mask of a Moor, something I no longer do, and which I didn't understand until after I read the third act; the other, to have to sing between two angels, Signora Antonia and Signora Giulia. The canzonetta that you enclosed, excuse me, but who wrote it? It is for contralto, not for soprano, and is very different from Signor Ziani's style, so I will be content with singing the duet and that Signora Giulia sing her song alone. (Appendix IIIA. 16)[61]

"La Signora Giulia," to whom Cavagna referred, was the same Vincenza Giulia Masotti whose salary was so high in 1669 and who was distinguished as the only competent singer in Domitiano .[62] Praised by another singer, Nicola Coresi, as "the most superb woman in the world,"[63] and much sought after by Faustini and other impresarios, she was constantly wary of her status: her part had to be the largest in the opera, even if there were two major female roles. It was actually written into her contract that she have "la parte prima" and that she be able to examine her parts before agreeing to do them.[64] Because the former stipulation could not be fulfilled in the case of Alciade (another prima donna, Antonia Coresi, having already been engaged for the other major female role), Masotti's agent suggested substituting a different opera!


She told me that an excellent solution would be to present Argia or Alessandro instead, and that when it was resolved to present Argia, Signora Giulia would agree that Apolloni, the author of the opera, could add and cut all the scenes that he wished. . . . I say only that changing the opera would dispel all doubts about the part, all the more since Signora Giulia is very inclined toward it, having the example of what happened in Rosilena. (Appendix IIIA. 13)[65]

In the end, of course, she got more than she asked for, when the opera in which she had achieved her greatest success, Dori —rather than either Argia or Alessandro , which she had suggested—was revived at the last minute. [66] She must have repeated her earlier success in Dori since the opera was revived for her yet again, in 1671.[67]

Not all singers wanted large parts, however. Giuseppe Donati agreed to sing the title role in Meraspe , but asked that it not be too difficult. He also suggested as a possible substitute for Meraspe , in case Faustini was looking for one, Cesti's Semiramide .[68] When his role arrived, he found it too high and asked permission to have it adjusted, though in a faintly apologetic tone, repeatedly assuring Faustini that he would do nothing without the composer's permission:

It has to be altered in some places so as not to spoil the composition; without [the original composer's] agreement, I will not touch it; but since it is a thing of little importance, I believe he will be satisfied, it being necessary only at cadences that I make sure the voice part remains fixed and, even without moving the basso continuo, that it does not relinquish its normal harmony. But without his approval I don't intend to put my hands where they don't belong. (Appendix IIIA. 18)

Of all the operas cast by Faustini, Meraspe seems to have caused the most trouble. Donati was not the only one who tried to discourage Faustini from producing it.[69] The tenor Nicola Coresi, husband of the much more sought-


after Roman singer Antonia Coresi, also attempted to talk Faustini into a substitution. When Faustini refused, he suggested alterations in the structure of the libretto, specifically the shortening of some scenes: "And if you are absolutely resolved to do Meraspe , at least let it be altered, as you once promised me, so that those scenes are cut which are so long that the same characters remain on stage forever."[70]

Coresi continued his criticism of the libretto in a subsequent letter, invoking the concept of "Venetian brevity": "It seems to me that to begin with there are long dull speeches [gran dicerie ], as in the fourth scene of the second act where it says 'Piange Olinda,' which is the kind of boring speech that can never sound beautiful, and that, as you know, must be shunned in Venice" (Appendix IIIA. 17a).[71] He then proceeded to attack the music:

In the second scene of act three there is a song [canzona ] that begins "Ride il core," which is worthless, having already been seen by the best musicians of Rome. Your Lordship should have it changed or else I will, my chief purpose being that my wife bring herself honor this year; however, she must be satisfied that the part is altered where necessary, and thus Your Lordship will be well served and we satisfied. (Appendix IIIA. 17b)

He concluded by asking Faustini to have Cavalli alter one of his wife's arias to the specifications of her range: "Please do me the favor of presenting the enclosed to Sig. Francesco Cavalli, to whom I indicate my wife's range so that he can accommodate her" (Appendix IIIA. 17c) [72]

In a subsequent letter, Coresi again asked to have the aria "Ride il core" rewritten (by Pallavicino this time), preferring, he said, to have all the music by the same composer rather than having it done in Rome. [73] But this time Faustini responded that Pallavicino was out of town and asked Coresi to have a new piece supplied of his own choice.[74] Finally, in another letter, Coresi questioned rather unsubtly the completeness--that is, the size—of his wife's part: "In act 3 she has nothing but the second and third scenes, so that it seems impossible to me that there is nothing more. You should check to see if you haven't left out a scene, because she ends with that duet that says 'Vincerai, vincerò,' and then the canzonetta that concludes the opera" (Appendix IIIA.21).


The comments of the solicitous husband were not always negative, however. He was apparently quite taken with the first act of his wife's part in Massenzio in 1673, according to a report by Dolfin (Appendix IIIB. 11c). Nor was Coresi's concern unselfishly limited to his wife's roles. Indeed, he continually complained about the size and content of his own, clearly secondary, parts as well. When Faustini attempted to alleviate one complaint by adding the prologue to his role in Meraspe , Coresi refused it: "Regarding the prologue that Your Excellency sends me, there are four short words; however, I pray you with all my heart not to make me do it, because, not having ever done a prologue, I don't want to start now, and besides, this is a part that anyone can do" (Appendix IIIA. 15).[75] He was thoroughly insulted by the part Faustini sent him the following year, and promptly returned it with a petulant note, explaining that he never would have accepted it had he known how small it was going to be:

I received the part of Caristo, which I send back to Your Excellency because it is not a part to send someone like me . . . and if I accepted the part last year it was because you showed me only a single scene, but now that I have seen the whole thing, I have discovered how little you esteem me. If you show this part around Venice, you will see that it is a part to be given to the lowest of musicians. (Appendix IIIA. 19)

Two weeks later, having cooled off slightly, Coresi explained further some of his objections to the part. As it turned out, it was not so much its small size as the fact that it lacked an aria: "I have always told you that I don't care to perform if I do not have a part worthy of me, and for a part to be worthy it is not enough that it have poetry of high quality, since even a thousand lines of brilliant repartee would not make a good part, something you either don't know or don't care to know, if they didn't include a bit of song."[76]

In 1667 it was predictable that any role without an aria, even a minor role, would be difficult to cast. Ever since the beginning of opera in Venice, but especially after 1650, the value of arias—and their proportion with respect to recitative—had been rising steadily. As early as 1645, Faustini had added arias (among other things) to his Doriclea , and every new version of an old opera had to display at least some new arias.[77]


Librettists deplored this increase because it tended to trivialize their poetry and undermine the integrity of their dramas; and they were quick to place the blame on a combination of public taste and singers' whim. Aureli summed it up with a characteristic pun in the preface to his Le fatiche d'Ercole per Deianira of 1662: "I know I have expended more than one breath in claiming that I write out of mere whim, and to obey him who commands me, and not out of ambition to immortalize myself with those works, which, in being composed entirely in music, have no foundation other than air [l'aria ]" (Appendix 1.46a). The public is the scapegoat in Aureli's more explicit preface to Claudio Cesare ten years later: "I present to you my Claudio, richer in songs and ariette than in incident. It is enough to say that it is a dramma per musica . What can be done? If these days the whim of Venice wishes it thus, I shall try to satisfy their taste" (Appendix 1.50a). But Aureli as well as other librettists regularly blamed the singers too, as in this epilogue to the same libretto: "Have sympathy for the difficulty composers face these days in being able to satisfy not only the numerous strange whims of this city, but also the moods of the singers" (Appendix I. 50c).

Singing and/or Acting

Aureli's complaints were symptomatic of criticism of the time; by the late seventeenth century, opera was generally regarded as having drowned in a flood of canzonette . But it was a flood that had begun much earlier, whose origins were in a sense implicit in the genre from the very beginning. The development of opera in Venice relied on the approval of an unusually heterogeneous audience; it was easy for such an audience to focus on the singers as the most obvious representatives of the genre—which had been encouraged by the early publicity surrounding Anna Renzi. And focus on the singers was guaranteed by arias that served as a kind of musical spotlight, as show-stoppers that allowed singers to stand still and demonstrate their vocal prowess to an admiring, responsive audience.

I am speaking here about a different kind of singer from Anna Renzi, one defined essentially by voice rather than by acting abilities. During the earlier history of opera, a dichotomy was recognized between singers who acted and actors who sang. The first Orfeos, Jacopo Peri and Francesco Rasi, were of the former type. The first Arianna, Virginia Andrea Ramponi, was of the latter. The dichotomy—and the possibility of interchange—is explicit in the case of Monteverdi's Arianna : although eventually performed by an actress, the title role had been conceived for a singer. The anonymous author of Il corago , writing probably in the 1630s, confronted the issue directly:


Above all, to be a good staging actor, one must also be a good speaking actor, from which we have seen that some who had particular grace in reciting were marvelous when they also knew how to sing. On this subject, some question whether one should choose a not bad musician who is a perfect actor or an excellent musician who has little or no talent for acting, the case being that excellent singers, no matter how cold their acting, gave greater pleasure to those few who know a great deal about music, whereas the normal theater audience received greater satisfaction from perfect actors with mediocre voices and musical ability. Therefore, since the composer has to distribute the parts appropriately and use everyone to perfection, he will try to imitate as far as possible the excellent singers, but putting those who are bloodless and stiff at reciting in parts that are not very active and surrounding them by many stage props, as in clouds and other machines in the air, where not much expressive movement or acting ability is required. (Appendix II. 1e)

Once again, Anna Renzi offers a standard of measurement. Although she had effectively initiated the age of the prima donna, appreciation of her performances had emphasized her abilities as an actress. She was a singer who found most vivid expression in the stile recitativo . Her style—recitando rather than cantando —was predicated on the centrality of recitative, of dramatic verisimilitude. It is difficult to think of her having demanded more arias; indeed, she established her reputation in operas that had relatively few of them. But operatic style changed around her. After the middle of the century she was undoubtedly still making the same impression, but she was singing more arias. Her younger contemporaries and successors benefitted from her achievement and stature, though they did not share her background and training. Whereas she had put herself at the service of the drama, they were more self-centered, exigent, and ornamental. Their arias resembled the scenic distraction that the author of Il corago had recommended as compensation for poor or unconvincing actors. Arias focused the audience's attention on the singers—attention stimulated by, and in turn causing, a variety of off-stage intrigues.

The rapid increase in the number and size of arias—which began to gather momentum during the course of the 1650s, accelerated during the 1660s, and culminated in the following two decades—is the most obvious sign of the ascent of the singer, qua singer, to first place in the operatic hierarchy. Originally merely the mouthpiece of the librettist and composer, the singer gradually wrested control of opera from their hands. In order to satisfy performers' demands for arias, librettists were forced to rewrite their dramas. Composers had to accommodate to these demands either by writing extra arias or by seeing other composers called in to do so, their music being cut and replaced to satisfy the whims of the singers. By the end of the century, the original relationship among the makers of opera had been thoroughly transformed. For their adoring audience, the singers had grown to personify opera itself.


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