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9—Gran dicerie e canzonette : Recitative and Aria
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Monteverdi and His Collaborators

Among the academics, perhaps the most ascetic of all early Venetian librettists when it came to arias was Giacomo Badoaro. His initial entry into the operatic field, Il ritorno d'Ulisse , was written for Monteverdi and performed in 1640.[9] It is cast primarily in versi sciolti and provides few clues as to where a composer might have halted the recitative flow to write an aria. We are at an advantage here, however, with respect to Ferrari's librettos, because we have Monteverdi's score, which, while fundamentally in recitative, is surprisingly rich in lyrical moments—though these do not always qualify as full arias. The inspiration for these moments can usually be traced to subtle formal hints in the libretto, passages of text that are more highly organized than those around them. Quatrains or sestets may be structured by means of regular rhyme or repeated meter: a group of four settenari , perhaps, or a succession of six regularly rhymed alternating settenari and endecasillabi . While such metric organization suggests musical closure, it does not insist upon it—in fact, the rhyme is never that tight; sometimes a group of endecasillabi remains ambiguous because the rhymes are so far apart. Badoaro almost never used versi misurati , which would automatically distinguish themselves from recitative poetry. However subtle the librettist's formal suggestions might have been, Monteverdi nearly always capitalized on them.

Only on three occasions are Badoaro's formal hints unambiguous. His libretto contains three strophic texts, which Monteverdi set as strophic variation arias. Badoaro's conservative use of strophic form, in only these three instances, confirms his belief in the need for verisimilitude. Each of the three texts—and, by extension, Monteverdi's aria settings—is dramatically justified. In each case, the formal structure enhances the drama rather than undermining it. Melanto, a simple servant girl flirting with her lover, sings the first of them; the second is sung by Minerva, a goddess in disguise—and therefore doubly exempt from normal rules of behavior; and Iro, the parasite, a ridiculous comic character whose appetite is as peculiar as his manner of speech, sings the third.

Although Monteverdi's score is filled with lyrical, or arioso, expansions, the composer nevertheless seems to have wanted more structure than the libretto provided, and often edited Badoaro's text accordingly. His intervention is notable in three of the most intensely emotional moments of the drama, all of them marked by the presence of refrains. In one of them, in act 1, scene 9, where Ulisse finally recognizes that he has returned to Ithaca, Monteverdi converted


an exceedingly amorphous text into what almost amounts to a strophic aria, utilizing two irregularly spaced refrain lines (italicized) to mark the opening and closing of each strophe. Badoaro's text reads as follows (example I):


O fortunato Ulisse ,

O happy Ulysses

Fuggi del tuo dolor

Flee from the old error

L'antico error;

Of your sorrow;

Lascia il pianto,

Let be your weeping:

Dolce canto

A sweet song

Dal tuo cor lieto disserra;

Unleash from your glad heart;

Non si disperi più mortale in terra :

Let mortals of this earth cease from despairing .

O fortunato Ulisse .

O happy Ulysses .

Dolce vicenda si può soffrir,

Sweet vicissitudes one may suffer—

Hor diletto, hor martir, hor pace, hor guerra

Now delight, now martyrdom, now peace, now war;

Non si disperi più mortale in terra .[10]

Let mortals of this earth cease from despairing .

Monteverdi expanded the two refrain lines enormously through textual and musical repetition so that they take up most of the aria; then, despite their unequal length, he treated the penultimate line of each "strophe" similarly, using the same extended melisma for "lieto" and "guerra." Inspired by Badoaro's refrain as well as by the expressive content of Ulisse's words, which actually invite song ("dolce canto . . . disserra"), Monteverdi's lyrical setting effectively changes not only the weight but the form of the text.

In another highly dramatic moment toward the end of the opera (3.8), where Ericlea wrestles with herself about revealing Ulisse's identity to Penelope, Monteverdi turned an irregular, 24-line text into a refrain form comprising four unequal sections of nine, four, five, and six lines, each closing with a sententia of self-justification (italicized) (example 2):



Ericlea, che vuoi far,

Ericlea, what will you do,


Vuoi tacer ò parlar?

Will you be silent, or speak?


Se parli tu consoli,

If you speak, you will bring comfort,


Obbedisci se tacci

You obey if you are silent.


Sei tenuta à servir

You are compelled to serve,


Obbligata ad'amar

Obliged to love.


Vuoi tacer, ò parlar?

Will you be silent, or speak?


Ma ceda l'obbedienza alla pietà,[11]

But let obedience yield to pity.


Non si dee sempre dir ciò che si sà .

We must not always tell that which we know .






Medicar chi languisce, o che diletto

To minister to him who languishes, oh, what delight!


Mà che ingiurie, e dispetto

But what injury, what spite,


Scoprir gli altrui pensier

To disclose another's thoughts;


Bella cosa tal volta è un bel tacer .

At times silence is golden .


È ferità crudele

It is ferocious cruelty


Il poter con parole

To be able with words


Consolar chi si duole, e non lo far;

To comfort the grieving, and not do it;


Mà del pentirsi al fin

But repentance, in the end


Assai lunge è il taccer più che il parlar .

Far longer from silence than from speaking lasts .





Del secreto tacciuto

A fine secret wrapped in silence


Tosto scoprir si può,

Can always be disclosed later;


Una sol volta detto

Once said,


Celarlo non potrò.

Hide it I can no more.


Ericlea, che farai, taccerai tù

Ericlea, what will you do, will you be silent?


Che in somma un beI tacer scritto non fù .[12]

For, in sum, silence is not a law .




By adding a ritornello after sections 1, 3, and 4, and setting each final sententious line to the same highly expanded music, the composer intensified the formal implications—and the affect—of Ericlea's monologue. The music con-cretely marks her progress from her initial vow of silence (sections 1 and 2), through ambivalence (section 3), to her decision to speak. As in Ulisse's aria, but by different means, Monteverdi superimposed a kind of strophic structure on the text and, far from sacrificing affective intensity, he increased it. The absence of a confirming ritornello after the second "refrain" (line 13) and consequent telescoping of sections 2 and 3 creates a sense of urgency that matches Ericlea's ambivalence.

Monteverdi's most impressive intervention, one that involved extensive text editing as well as reweighting, occurs in the very first scene of the opera, where he completely restructured Penelope's opening lament. He took a diffuse text of no fewer than 125 lines, in four uneven sections, that wandered rather aimlessly from topic to topic, and transformed it into a tripartite recitative of slowly building intensity, utilizing two irregular refrains provided by the librettist as structural pillars of the powerfully dramatic form. Intensified by the composer's restructuring, Penelope's torment resonates throughout the entire opera. [13]

Although written expressly for Monteverdi, Badoaro's libretto clearly did not completely satisfy the composer's lyrical impulse, his yearning for texts to set lyrically. In fact, as we have already noted, Monteverdi's alterations—


which, in addition to those already mentioned, involved a variety of repetitions, single-line expansions, the creation of refrains, cuts, and so on—rendered the text virtually unrecognizable to its original author, or so Badoaro admiringly reported in a letter attached to one of the contemporary manuscript copies of the libretto.

To the Most Illustrious and most Reverend Signor Claudio Monte Verde Great Master of Music: Not in order to compete with those talented men who, in recent years have publicized their compositions in the Venetian theaters, but to stimulate the imagination of Your Lordship to make known to this city that in warming the affections there is a great difference between a real sun and a painted one, I initially dedicated myself to compose the Return of Ulysses . . . . Now, having seen the opera performed ten times, always before the same [large] audience of the city, I can positively and heartily affirm that my Ulysses is more obligated to Your Lordship than the real Ulysses was to the always charming Minerva . . . We admire with the greatest astonishment those rich ideas of yours, not without some perturbation, because I can no longer recognize this work as mine. (Appendix 1.7a, c)

Monteverdi's powerful brand of editing is set into relief by comparison with an opera contemporary with Il ritorno d'Ulisse , Sacrati's setting of Strozzi's La finta pazza . To be sure, of the latter two collaborators, the librettist rather than the composer was the more experienced and more self-confident; certainly La finta pazza is a more effective and skillful text than Il ritorno d'Ulisse . It is also considerably richer in explicit invitations to lyricism, containing eleven formal texts, all but two of them strophic, many utilizing versi misurati , and nearly all of them dramatically explicable as actual songs.[14]

Whatever the reason, Sacrati seems to have accepted Strozzi's text quite willingly, satisfied to follow the libretto's lyrical implications without creating his own closed forms. He did sidestep Strozzi's structural directive in one case, however, setting each of the two quatrains (strophes) of Deidamia's aria "Verga tiranna ignobile" to different music, thereby creating an AB aria instead of a strophic one; and in two other instances (Acchille's aria "Felicissimo giorno" in 1.3 and the Eunuch's "Serva, serva chi vuole" in 2.10) he restructured Strozzi's text slightly by bringing back the opening line (or lines) later in the form, creating a miniature ABA in the first instance and a rondo in the second (the composer's repetitions are in italics):



Felicissimo giorno
Se le nubi squarciate
Di queste spoglie ingrate
Faccia Acchille ad Acchille il suo ritorno.
Felicissimo giorno .

Oh, most happy day,
If the clearing mists
Of these ungrateful clothes
Allow Acchille to return to himself,
Oh, most happy day .


Serva, serva, chi vuole,
Ch'io non hò voglie ignobili,ed ancelle
Fuggono insin le Stelle
Per non servir il Sole.
Serva, serva chi vuole ,
Ch'io non hò voglie ignobili, ed ancelle :
O che gentil solazzo
Haver poco salario, e 'l padron pazzo.
Serva, serva chi vuole ,
Ch'io non hò voglie ignobili, ed ancelle .[15]

Let him who wishes be a servant,
For I have no such ignoble and housemaidenly desires.
Even the stars flee
So as not to serve the sun.
Let him who wishes be a servant ,
For I have no such ignoble and housemaidenly desires .
Oh, what gentle consolation
To have a low salary and a mad master.
Let him who wishes be a servant ,
For I have no such ignoble and housemaidenly desires .

As for Strozzi's recitative verse, Sacrati emphasized a fair number of lines and couplets by arioso treatment, many of them significant with respect to the meaning of the work. In act 2, scene 2, for example, a particularly pregnant speech within an exchange between Ulisse and Acchille, although formally rather neutral, is nevertheless set lyrically. In response to Acchille's question as to whether he thinks that a young lover can change his affections and his beloved when he wishes, Ulisse responds:


Questo nò, no 'l dirò mai,
In amor io son costante,
Fede eterna le giurai,
E morrò fedele amante.

This, no, I'll never say it,
In love I am constant,
I swore eternal faith
And I'll die a faithful lover.

The exchange involves Ulisse's fidelity, and is probably an allusion to his role in Il ritorno d'Ulisse of the previous season.

In another instance, a six-line passage of Deidamia's in 3.2 that refers pointedly to matters outside the drama itself, namely to the theater management, is also set lyrically:


In vece d'herbe, e fiori, hoggi mi dà
E stecchi, e spine, e lappole[16]
Vostra paternità?
Che padri ingannatori,
Pieni d'insidie, e trappole,
Vivono in quest'età?

In lieu of herbs, and flowers, today
Your paternity vouchsafes me
Sticks and thorns and cockleburs?
What deceiving fathers,
Full of wiles and traps,
Has this age begotten?


Aria style, finally, is used to set a particular passage directed to the audience by the Eunuch in 3.3 (example 3):



Io non son buono
A ricordarlo al padre.

I am not able
To remind her father of it.


Mà s'altri, che mi ascolta,
In sè sperimentato,
O ne congiunti suoi
Havesse alcun segreto
Da sanar la pazzia,
L'impresti à Deidamia.

But if anyone who can hear me
Has himself experienced,
Or has any relatives who have,
Any secret way
To cure madness,
Let him lend it to Deidamia.

Other, briefer passages elicit lyrical treatment because of their emotional content. These include Acchille's plea to Deidamia for forgiveness at the end of a speech in 3.4 ("Perdona, tu, perdona"), and Deidamia's acceptance of his hand later in the same scene ("Caro pegno di fede").

Such passages are neither as elaborate nor as frequent as Monteverdi's arioso expansions in Il ritorno d'Ulisse ; furthermore, Sacrati ignores a number of formal hints—such as the four sestets at the end of act 1, and various rhymed couplets and quatrains, and lengthy sequences of settenari that Monteverdi would have pounced on as excuses for musical elaboration or structure. La finta pazza contains extended passages of straight recitative setting of versi sciolti uninterrupted by lyricism that nevertheless reveal in Sacrati a powerful musical imagination at work. It must be said that poet and composer were more compatible in La finta pazza than in Il ritorno d'Ulisse .

Monteverdi's next librettist, Busenello, less conservative than Badoaro, as well as more experienced in the art of libretto-writing, seems to have produced a more satisfactory text. [17] Although L'incoronazione di Poppea also needed many alterations, to judge from the printed libretto, it seems to have provided Monteverdi with what he lacked in Il ritorno d'Ulissenamely , multiple occasions for lyrical expansion. In addition to thirteen strophic texts, most of them for secondary characters, and all of them arias in Monteverdi's score, the libretto of Poppea contains a large number of prominent couplets and quatrains. Monteverdi almost always set these lyrically, sometimes splitting them line by line, sometimes treating them as a whole ("Poppea sta di buon core," end of 1. 10), and sometimes turning them into miniature ABA arias by repeating the first line at the end as a refrain ("E pur io torno" [1.1]; "O felice Drusilla" [3. 1]). In


L'incoronazione di Poppea , as in Il ritorno d'Ulisse , Monteverdi left almost no suggestion for musical structuring or lyrical expansion unexploited; but in the libretto of Poppea there were more of them.[18]

Poppea , even more than Il ritorno , depends on lyricism; it owes its affective impact to distinctions between speech and song. Whether fleeting emotional outburst or fully considered pleading, song lies at the heart of the work, touching all the characters and all the situations. Nino Pirrotta regards the unusual abundance of song in Poppea as evidence of relaxed standards of verisimilitude, which he ascribes to the fact that the characters are carried away by love.[19] In fact, very little of the lyrical expansion in Poppea is actually formal, and thus "unnatural." Predictably, most of the strophic arias are songs sung by comic characters, the repetition and patterning enhancing the humorous effect; those that are not (and even some of those that are) are treated as quite free strophic variations, which minimizes their repetitiveness. And in most cases, whether comic or serious, the structure contributes to the development of the drama.[20] Monteverdi's song, a correlative of heightened passion, emerges from and fades back into speech quite naturally, feelingly. Poppea is especially lyrical, airy (arioso ), but not especially formal.

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9—Gran dicerie e canzonette : Recitative and Aria
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