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

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