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9—Gran dicerie e canzonette : Recitative and Aria
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Busenello and Cavalli

Busenello's distinctions between aria and recitative are not totally unambiguous; but Monteverdi could read them, or at least he did read them, the way he wanted to. Beyond the arias, Busenello's text provided Monteverdi with the kind of structure and imagery that stimulated his musical imagination. Given what we know of the composer, and in the context of the deficiencies of Il ritorno d'Ulisse , it is likely that the text of Poppea was constructed to Montever-


di's specifications, or at least with his tendency toward mimetic musical expansion in mind. This is particularly clear from a comparison with Busenello's two previous librettos, written for Cavalli, Gli amori d'Apollo e di Dafne (1640) and, especially, Didone (1641). The feature that chiefly distinguishes Didone from Poppea is its many strophic texts and few independent quatrains. In practically every scene of the earlier libretto, the free succession of versi sciolti yields to organization in the form of strophes, usually three or four, but sometimes as many as eight (eleven in one case!), comprising from three to eight lines each, which are set off from the surrounding text by their more regular meter and/or rhyme scheme.

In Didone , then, Busenello established strophicism as the clearest and most frequent closed form for opera. But its musical implications remained ambiguous for a number of years. The distinctions between the strophic forms and the surrounding poetry are not all equally sharp. While a number of strophes utilize meters that contrast strongly with the predominant versi sciolti , such as quinari or ottonariversi misuratiothers are cast in the characteristic meters of recitative—settenario and endecasillabo —though in more structured patterns: typically a quatrain of settenari followed by a hendecasyllabic couplet. In some cases the strophes fail to create a strong metrical effect because their rhymes lack prominence. They may be too far apart, as in a succession of rhyming hendecasyllabic verses, or they may be counteracted by an opposing or simply non-confirming metrical structure; or else the rhyme may be restricted to the closing couplet, with the remaining text unrhymed, much like the standard recitative verse.

The formal units created by these strophes, some of them more insistent than others, always suggested some change in musical language, a closed rather than open-ended setting that would reflect, through musical repetition, the specially structured text. But since such musical repetition, whether in aria, recitative, or mixed style, generally threatened the illusion of dramatic continuity and verisimilitude, it could be used only rarely, and in specific circumstances.

Busenello's sensitivity to the implications of strophic form is revealed by the occasions on which he employed it. Nearly all of the twenty-six strophic texts in Didone are dramatically justified in one of the standard ways. A number of them are for gods, traditionally exempted from the laws governing human behavior; several others are for essentially comic or ironic characters (Sinon Greco, the ladies-in-waiting), who speak in clichés, and whose unwanted advice falls quite naturally into rhyme; and three of them are for the boy Ascanio, who may be thought of as not yet having learned the rules of adult behavior or whose youth is projected in his rhythmic, singsong speech. Busenello's serious


characters fall into patterned rhythm and rhyme only in spite of themselves, when self-control has failed owing to some kind of extraordinary pressure: fear of death, abandonment, or madness. In general, then, the librettist is quite conservative in his demands on the composer. His strophic forms suggest some special musical structuring, but not indiscriminately, and not necessarily in the form of an aria, as we can see from Cavalli's score.

If Busenello is conservative, Cavalli is downright reactionary in his respect for verisimilitude. To compensate, however, he penetrates more deeply into the drama, finding justification for musical expansion on psychological grounds. Of the twenty-six strophic texts in Busenello's libretto, Cavalli set only twelve as strophic arias; he set eight as strophic recitative, four with mixed treatment—part recitative, part aria—and ignored or changed the strophic form altogether in two. The libretto has only one non-strophic closed form, a series of quinari sdruccioli for Ecuba's invocation, which Cavalli set as an aria.[21] With his thirteen arias in the whole opera, Cavalli exploited fewer than half of the opportunities provided in the libretto for formal music.

Perhaps the most eloquent illustration of Cavalli's attitude toward verisimilitude and toward Busenello's textual directives—his basic disinclination to confirm strophic structure in music—is provided by an example in which he changed compositional styles, from recitative to aria, within the same strophic form. In act 3, scene 6, the gods have just informed Enea that he must leave Carthage. He knows that he is obliged to obey them, although he is reluctant to abandon his beloved Didone. Busenello provides him with a text consisting of seven strophes of six hendecasyllabic lines each, with the rhyme scheme abbacc , in which Enea expresses his bitter conflict between his love for Didone and the realization that the gods' command is law (example 4). He articulates that conflict most explicitly in the third strophe:


Fierissimo contrasto, aspro conflitto;
Amor m'induce ai pianti a viva forza,
Honor trova le lagrime, e le sforza
A' soffocarsi in mezo il core afflitto.
Son pianta combattuta da due venti,
E vengon da due inferni i miei tormenti.

Most savage contention, bitter conflict!
Love leads me with brute force to weep,
Honor meets the tears and compels them
To be stifled within the afflicted heart.
I am a plant shaken by opposing winds,
And from opposing hells come all my torments.

Cavalli set the first four strophes, in which Enea gives voice to his torment, in expressive recitative style. Although they share general harmonic shape, the four strophes vary in length, are supported by different bass lines, move to different internal cadential goals, and exhibit remarkably different rhythmic and melodic profiles.[22] The most abrupt change, however, occurs at the fifth stro-


phe, where recitative yields to aria. It is at this point that Enea's thoughts shift from himself and his own conflict to his beloved Didone, whom he addresses gently:


Dormi, cara Didone, il Ciel cortese
Non ti faccia sognar l'andata mia,
II corpo in Nave, e l'alma à te s'invia,

Non sien mai spente le mie voglie accese,
Ite sotto al guancial del mio tesoro,
O miei sospiri, e dite, ch'io mi moro.

Sleep, dear Dido; may kind Heaven
Keep you from dreaming of my going.
Though my body be embarked, my soul makes its
   way to you.
My kindled desires will never be extinguished.
Go beneath the pillow of my treasure,
O my sighs, and proclaim that I am dying!

Cavalli set this strophe and the next as a kind of lullaby in lyrical aria style; clearly responding to a change in the mood of Busenello's text, he himself supplies, through music, an emotional climax to the turmoil expressed in the previous recitative strophes. Even the two aria strophes are not treated in a strictly strophic manner, however, although they share many features. Nor is aria style maintained consistently throughout them; the penultimate line of each is set as recitative, which overflows into the final lyrical line. In fact, the second strophe builds on the first in many ways, but its whole structure is more continuous and its phrases are more closely related, producing a greater sense of growth from one to the next. This second strophe is also more final than the first, containing a lengthy ritardando and cadence in the subdominant just before the recitative line. Melodic restraint and balance in the first strophe rather fittingly convey Enea's feelings, his tender sorrow, his hesitancy, his fear of disturbing Didone's repose and of her awakening, perhaps to thwart his resolution. Full of self-doubt, he is most concerned with reassuring her. He speaks louder and more forcefully in the next strophe as he becomes stronger in his resolve. Now he is more passionately concerned with himself, with expressing his own suffering. The more sustained buildup of musical tension and affect of the second strophe heightens the opposition between desire and destiny. [23] In the final strophe, he returns once more to the basic conflict—and to recitative style—as he bids his beloved addio .

The form of Busenello's text alone, then, does not allow us to predict Cavalli's response. Indeed, text meaning—or, rather, dramatic context—far outweighs rhyme scheme, meter, or any other formal device as the chief determinant of his style. Nowhere is this clearer than in the recitative itself, from which Cavalli occasionally extracted lines for lyrical setting purely on the basis of their meaning: emotional outbursts, resolute conclusions or summaries, statements of intention could all incite his lyrical imagination. In many cases


these passages take on a culminative structural function when they occur at the ends of scenes or action segments. Unlike Monteverdi, however, Cavalli does not seem to have been seeking excuses for lyricism; he flatly rejected some obvious opportunities, maintaining a powerful commitment to recitative even within closed forms.

Indeed, despite Didone's much larger number of strophic texts, its center of gravity—unlike that of Poppea —lies not in the arias or in arioso but in the recitative. The first act in particular, arguably the highpoint of Cavalli's accomplishments in this style, provides a lesson in recitative expression that other composers, even Monteverdi, rarely matched.[24] Only infrequently interrupted by arias—and then less interrupted than intensified—the dramatic thread is sustained essentially by recitative, now narrative, now heightened by feeling, which even intrudes, as we have seen, into the arias themselves. The mutuality of text and music in the recitative of Didone is almost matched in the arias, which rarely move beyond straightforward text presentation into musical elaboration. Typically, the setting is line for line, with any repetition or musical expansion saved for the end. In fact, there is often more "music" in the recitative than in the arias, more of the composer's art.

The small proportion of Busenello's strophic texts set completely as arias is a reflection of Cavalli's attitude toward verisimilitude. It also confirms the fact that, in 1641, strophic texts did not necessarily require aria setting. Indeed, aside from distinctions in meter and rhyme, librettists had not yet developed specific, unambiguous poetic signs for arias—as opposed to strophic recitative or mixed style; nor were such signs yet necessary. In opera of the early 1640s, strophic recitative or a mixed recitative-aria style was still a viable response to a strophic text, as it had been since the beginning of the century—a strategy designed to limit or minimize undramatic stasis. The choice was still primarily the composer's. It was only with the increased emphasis on the singer—and the aria— that the librettist's language gradually acquired greater specificity.

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