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9—Gran dicerie e canzonette : Recitative and Aria
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Cicognini's Legacy

For the Arcadian critics bent on the reform of Italian literature at the end of the seventeenth century, Cicognini's Giasone was a crucial work. According to Giovanni Maria Crescimbeni, one of their chief spokesmen, the author of Giasone was worthy of both praise and blame: praise for having created the first and most perfect drama in existence ("il primo, e il più perfetto Dramma, che si trovi"), and blame for having opened the floodgates to all kinds of abuses, the mixing of genres, the abandonment of linguistic elegance and purity, and, through the introduction of arias, the destruction of verisimilitude in drama.

Around the middle of that century, Giacinto Andrea Cicognini. . . introduced drama [as opposed to favole pastorali ] with his Giasone , which, to tell the truth, is the first and the most perfect drama there is; and with it he brought the end of acting, and consequently, of true and good comedy as well as tragedy. Since to stimulate to a greater degree with novelty the jaded taste of the spectators, equally nauseated by the vileness of comic things and the seriousness of tragic ones, the inventor of drama united them, mixing kings and heroes and other illustrious personages with buffoons and servants and the lowest men with unheard of monstrousness. This concoction of characters was the reason for the complete ruin of the rules of poetry, which went so far into disuse that not even locution was considered, which, forced to serve music, lost its purity, and became filled with idiocies. The careful deployment of figures that ennobles oratory was neglected, and language was restricted to terms of common speech, which is more appropriate for music; and finally the series of those short meters, commonly called ariette , which with a generous hand are sprinkled over the scenes, and the overwhelming impropriety of having characters speak in song completely removed from the compositions the power of the affections, and the means of moving them in the listeners. (Appendix II.7)[38]

Although Crescimbeni admits his ignorance of the period immediately preceding Cicognini's work and fails to appreciate Cicognini's connections to an already burgeoning operatic tradition, the focus of his attention on Giasone is symptomatic of its historical position. He was not wrong in ascribing special importance to the work: even from our vantage point it appears to stand at an important crossroads in the history of opera. It is, of course, unlikely that any single work (out of so many) could have had the impact Crescimbeni ascribes to Giasone . But the opera was clearly a symbol of the times; and its extraordinary popularity allowed it to represent those times quite legitimately.[39]


In Giasone the definitive separation of aria and recitative was finally achieved. Cicognini's standard means of distinguishing them persisted until the end of the century: strophicism and/or versi misurati meant aria; versi sciolti , recitative. The distinction was reinforced by clarified dramatic functions for arias: to promote action (the incantation aria; the lullaby), to comment on action and philosophize on life (the comic arias), and to express intense feeling (Giasone's opening love song; Egeo's lament).

Despite these general features, however, Cicognini's arias do not seem predictable either in form or function because they arise so naturally out of the drama. Clear as his signals are, the only formal feature shared by most of his arias is their strophicism. Otherwise, each one of them is unique: in a different meter, with a different rhyme scheme, and an altogether different shape, conferred by highly irregular line lengths. And, clear as their dramatic function is, each emerges from its context in its individual way, for its own purpose, strictly in accordance with verisimilitude. No two characters are presented in the same way. Each scene, each action segment, each act unfolds musically in its own particular fashion.

The special strengths of Giasone , and its significance as a model, lie in the balance it embodies. The clear signals of the librettist are perfectly matched by the composer's response, achieved both without recourse to rigid formula and without excessive strain on verisimilitude. The musical drama is shaped by an appreciation, shared by the poet and composer, of the distinctions between speech and song. Giasone is an ideal dramma per musica , in which both elements of the now-historic compromise have equal weight—mutually justifying each other. Giasone also offered a model for operatic conventions of a more general kind, presenting traditional scene-types with a naturalness rarely matched in its successors. We shall have occasion to consider this aspect of the opera in detail in chapters 11 and 12. Literally, then, Giasone represented a brief moment of equilibrium in the history of opera: at once the endpoint of a process of generic maturation and the beginning of a new stage in which, now fully legitimized, and aided and abetted by the rising influence of the singer, musica would eventually subjugate dramma .

Paradoxically, perhaps, the very inventive freshness of Giasone was both the source of its popular success and the cause of its eventual indictment by the Arcadians. Although it was itself carefully constructed so as not to disrupt verisimilitude, either in the arias or in the mixing of comic and serious elements,


it spawned imitations that were less observant. The decadence deplored by Crescimbeni is in fact much better exemplified by one of those imitations, Alessandro vincitor di se stesso (Venice, 1651), which was specifically modeled on Giasone , by two operatic neophytes, Francesco Sbarra and Antonio Cesti.[40] Often cited by modern historians as marking the definitive breakdown of operatic verisimilitude by having initiated the invasion of the aria, Alessandro is far better known for the preface to its libretto than for anything else. In fact, its score was misattributed to Cavalli until relatively recently.[41] In confronting the crucial issue of verisimilitude in his preface, Sbarra acknowledged that arias are unsuitable for serious characters such as Alessandro and Aristotile, but he justified them on the basis of operatic necessity: "if recitative were not interrupted by such jokes, opera would cause more annoyance than delight" (Appendix I.29f).

But, as the libretto itself illustrates, abuse of verisimilitude runs much deeper than the mere misbehavior of Sbarra's heroes. Admittedly, the distribution of the arias is atypical. Not only does Alessandro sing five "ariette" and Aristotile two—out of a total of some thirty closed forms—but another principal, Efestione, sings seven, while Apelle, a character who could easily—and humorously—have sung more, has only one. By focusing on Aristotile's and Alessandro's few "ariette," however, Sbarra obscured the real abuses of verisimilitude in his work, abuses that reveal his lack of experience as a librettist and his misunderstanding of the model represented by Giasone . Sbarra's misconception has to do with the function of arias in the drama. For it is not so much that Alessandro and Aristotile sing arias, but when they do so, and why . Most of their arias, as well as some sung by other characters, are wholly unjustified dramatically.

Alessandro bears signs of inconsistency, both in the librettist's method of signaling closed forms and in the composer's response, an inconsistency born of confusion over the purpose of such forms. Indeed, it is that confusion, dressed as purposeful, that is described in Sbarra's preface. Although it has a somewhat greater number of arias than other operas of the same time (some thirty-odd), many more of their texts are formally ambiguous. Only eight—fewer than one-fourth—are strophic, a much smaller proportion than in Cicognini's librettos, and the others fall into surprisingly many patterns, hardly any two of them alike. They range from as few as four to as many as thirteen lines in a variety of meters and rhyme schemes, and only a few of them utilize


refrains. Particularly in the case of the shorter texts, it is often difficult to know whether to regard them as aria signals at all, although the composer obviously took them that way.

The dramatic function of these texts does little to reinforce their formal significance or clarify their message to the composer. Indeed, they often seem to contradict the implicit conventions of verisimilitude altogether. Invitations to lyrical expansion are reserved for neither commentary, contemplation, nor highly emotional expression, but occur almost indiscriminately, even in the midst of conversations.

For example, the dialogue between Efestione and Alessandro in act 1, scene 5, is cast in a succession of tightly rhymed, highly metrical passages; the text form suggests aria setting but the dramatic situation does not.



Godo che la fortuna
Emula di me stesso a' merti tuoi
Voti gli Erarii suoi.
Mà dove, dov'è
La gemma si bella,
Che provida stella
In dono ti diè?
Mà dove, dov'è?

I am happy that Fortune,
Emulating me, has to your merits
Devoted her treasures.
But where, where is
The lovely gem
That a provident star
Gifted you with?
But where, where is it?



Sù presti
Conducasi quà.
Sua rara beltà.

Come, quick,
Let it be readied,
Let it be led here.
Let the rare beauty
Of this work
Be revealed.

And then later in the same scene:



Di Gemma così grande,
Di cui maggior non è
Da l'Occaso agli Eoi.
Solo degni ne son gli Erarij tuoi.
Deh mi conceda la tua bontà,
Ch'io depositi là
Questa mia ricca preda.

Of so great a gem
That none greater exists
From West to East.
Only your treasures are worthy.
Pray let your kindness grant
That I deposit there
My rich booty.



Tua virtù
Non hà più,
Che bramare
Tutto può,
Quanto chiede Efestion negar non sò.

Your virtue
Needs only
To desire,
To beseech.
It is all-powerful,
What Efestion requests I cannot deny.

Cesti set the first dialogue and the last passage in aria style in response to clear signals from the poet. But such treatment renders the interaction between the


characters extremely unnatural and stilted. Sbarra's lack of discrimination here is exacerbated by Cesti's faithful setting (example 15). The libretto contains a number of other instances of one character addressing another in aria. They include Cina's midscene strophic address to Alessandro in 1.3; Aristotile's, also strophic, to Alessandro in 1.4; and his non-strophic closing address at the end of the same scene, which, although it might have served to mark his exit, fails to do so because he remains on stage.

Sbarra's blurring of textual-formal distinctions between action and contemplation licensed Cesti to exploit the slightest formal cue to justify lyrical expansion, regardless of the dramatic situation. In act 1, scene 6, for example, the inappropriateness of Alessandro's aria is more the fault of the composer than the librettist. The text is a quatrain addressed to Campaspe:

Tua bellezza è celeste,
Caduca esser non può, non può morire;
Che della morte il gelo
Trionfa della Terra, e non del Cielo.

Your beauty is celestial,
It cannot be ephemeral, cannot die.
For the ice of death
Prevails on Earth, not in Heaven.

Although this is not as unequivocally formal as the previously quoted text—its only regularity is a rhyming final couplet—Cesti confirms closure by setting it as an elaborate, florid, and highly expanded aria (example 16).

Cesti set most of Sbarra's metrical texts lyrically, no matter how short, but he weighted some more heavily than others through the use of string accompaniment, instrumental ritornellos, and repetition of music and text, thereby emphasizing their separation from the recitative context, their "aria" character. In other instances, however, the lyricism is more fleeting—and more acceptable from the point of view of verisimilitude. Emerging suddenly from the recitative context, it disappears back into it with minimum impact; the composer runs straight through the text, only once, as if it were recitative, with no musical elaboration at all.

Even when separation from the dramatic context is specifically legitimized, both by the particular situation and the text form, as in most of the strophic arias, Cesti adhered closely to the structure of the poetry. Such adherence often yields an effective mixing and juxtaposition of styles, "alla Cavalli." In Fidalpa's aria in act 2, scene 7, for instance, the composer breaks the nine-line text into three sections—aria-recitative-aria—thereby retaining flexibility of text portrayal, even within an aria. The variety of Cesti's responses to Sbarra's signals for closure would seem to require a richer descriptive terminology; aria alone does not suffice. Such terms as arioso, mezz'aria , and arietta are useful here to distinguish between lyrical passages that are integrated within recitative, short


arias that are musically undeveloped, and light "singsong" arias that are based on strongly metrical texts.[42]

Sbarra's numerous metrically distinct texts, almost all of which Cesti set lyrically, may have assured sufficient relief from musical tedium, but at great cost to the drama. By depriving arias of their traditional—and purposely limited—functions as songs or as vehicles of emotional release, and thus flattening the distinctions between them and recitative, Sbarra and Cesti actually deprived dramma per musica of one of the chief sources of its strength. Aristotile and Alessandro indeed did not act like heroes. They could not behave properly in public because they did not know the difference between speech and song, knowledge that any comic servant or Venetian audience was fully privy to.

In marked contrast to Giasone, Alessandro seems to have failed at its first performance.[43] It would be reassuring to be able to ascribe that failure to its shortcomings as a music drama, to the tastes of a discriminating audience; but unfortunately evidence for such discrimination is lacking. Indeed, despite its problematic character, the work was revived at least six times during the 1650s.[44] But it remained an anomaly. The librettists and composers of the second half of the century—including Cesti, and even Sbarra—eventually found more effective ways of incorporating additional arias into their operas: they did so not by abusing verisimilitude but by expanding the opportunities for justified song. Rather than depriving arias of their dramatic function, Cicognini's heirs altered the dramaturgy of their librettos to accommodate more of them, developing structural as well as dramatic conventions to shield them—in monologues and dreams, at entrances and exits. It was the crystallization of these conventions, originally inspired by the requirements of verisimilitude, and the attempts to circumvent or vary them, that eventually led to the decline lamented by Crescimbeni.


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