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

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