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The Comic Aria

Essentially based on the Faustini model, Giasone features a typical cast of characters, who perform the functions and express themselves in the language appropriate to their several classes. The comic characters in particular, considerably more numerous here than usual, illustrate one of the oldest and most stable of operatic conventions: the comic aria style. A distinctive style for comic arias, in fact, based on a combination of textual and musical features, had been established in the very first Venetian operas and persisted throughout the century. We have already explored and illustrated some aspects of this style in chapters 9 and 10.

Comic arias depended for their effect on being in some sense artificially formal statements, either songs that served within the drama as props, like drinking songs or lullabies, or else cliché complaints or advice, ostensibly addressed to fellow actors, but effectively directed to the audience. Their texts usually comprised two or more strophes of versi misurati , generally senari or ottonari , which often contained refrains of one or more lines, either within the strophes or enclosing them. The strophic form itself, of course, although an-


tithetical to dramatic progress and thus inappropriate for many dramatic situations, was essential to the song, distinguishing it from other more natural modes of communication and thereby underlining its nature.

Beyond reinforcing strophic texts with strophic music, composers emphasized the strongly metrical structure of individual comic strophes by marking grammatical articulations as well as formal patterns—rhymes, metric parallels and contrasts—and by setting the refrain lines clearly apart from the rest of the text. And, since much of the humor of comic texts lay in details of language— odd turns of phrase, puns, alliteration—as well as meaning, composers generally adopted a simple, almost speechlike style in which such verbal play would be clearly audible: speedily delivered syllabic text-setting within a narrow range involving many repeated notes, homophonic texture, short, often separated, repeated musical phrases based on text-phrases, and text-derived rhythmic patterns. In addition, comic arias were often marked by exaggeration of various kinds: excessively literal text-painting, sharp and frequent musical contrasts, and overly extended sequences or repetitions.

Such music—normally not requiring extraordinary breath control, particularly well-developed high and low registers, or vocal flexibility—allowed for an unusual freedom of stage movement. In fact, certain of these musical features—such as the short, separated phrases, which were often linked to one another by instrumental echoes—even actively encouraged comic stage business. It is worth emphasizing, once again, the suitability of such music for performance by skillful actors rather than trained singers.[6]

The comic arias in Giasone display typical characteristics of the type. One of them, sung by Medea's old nurse Della, "È follia" (illustrated above in chapter 9 [example 12]), is marked by a mincing, stepwise, highly repetitious melody, strictly syllabic text-setting, short, clipped phrases, and a strong contrast between strophe and refrain. Like most of the other comic arias in the opera, it is part of a lyric scene, the second of two arias separated by a recitative passage. Comic arias by other composers, as well as later ones by Cavalli himself, share many of the same features, particularly the sense of text-generated music, although one or another aspect may be emphasized, depending on the particular dramatic situation or text at hand. Exaggeration and contrast, always in the service of text clarity, remain constant features of the comic style. They are fundamental to an aria like Alceo's "Io pensavo innamorarmi" from Argia (Apolloni/Cesti, 1669) 2.5, where speechlike, syllabic text-setting in a small range alternates back and forth with wildly extended, sequentially struc-


tured melismas (example 45). A similar contrast is found in Clitarco's "Fier tiranno" from Ercole in Tebe (Moniglia/Boretti, 1670) 1.13 combined with other typical comic features (example 46). Here short sequential phrases separated by instrumental echoes move in steady eighth notes, setting the text syllabically; suddenly, near the very end of the final refrain, that steady motion explodes in an enormous (four-measure) sixteenth-note melisma on tiranno , a word whose previous three settings, in syllabic eighth notes, leave the listener unprepared for the final expansion.

Finally, rapid text delivery is deliberately exaggerated in Erinda's "S'io potessi ritornar" from Orfeo (Aureli/Sartorio, 1673) 1.4, where the continuous eighth-note motion in the voice, hardly pausing for breath, is intensified by the relentless continuo accompaniment that matches the voice note for note, even urging it on at the ends of phrases (example 47).[7]

The examples are countless. There were comic arias like these in every opera from the 1640s until the end of the century, when comic characters were finally expunged from operatic plots—only to reappear, however, in the intermezzi of the early eighteenth century, with the same musical characteristics. But although they remained musically recognizable, such arias became somewhat less distinctive as the century progressed, owing largely to the proliferation of arias for serious characters. In their attempts to differentiate serious arias from one another and to strengthen the portrayal of affect in them, composers adopted some of the most characteristic features of comic arias.

Two arias from Sartorio's Orfeo illustrate the point. In Autonoe's "Qual spirto dannato" (1.5) exaggerated repetition and literal text interpretation portray the central image of the text, girando , which represents the character's hopeless wandering (example 51 below). In Euridice's "Non sò dir" (1.17) similarly literal text interpretation as well as abrupt contrast between syllabic and melismatic motion are directed more generally toward displaying that character's power—dramatic as well as vocal (example 48).

Sometimes the adoption of comic features seems more explicit and deliberate. In Atamante's "Nascer grande, ohimè che giova" from Cesti's Argia (1.5), for example, the use of comic characteristics—in particular, strong and abrupt contrast between syllabic and melismatic text setting, short, motivic phrases, metric shifts, and literal text interpretation (especially of scherzo and gioco )—tends, effectively, to undermine the seriousness of the king's amorous dilemma: that he cannot bear to marry beneath his station (example 49).[8] And, in another instance, in Adelaide (Dolfin/Sartorio, 1672) 1.11, an aria in simple


syllabic style, with many repeated notes and strictly motivic structure, is part of Duke Annone's disguise as a shepherd—he expresses himself very differently, in a much more elaborate style, when he is alone (example 50).

Comic arias, like the characters who sang them, did not undergo significant development over the course of the century. Clarity of text presentation remained their primary objective, and musical expansion, accordingly, was kept to a minimum—or else comically exaggerated beyond sense. But they nevertheless served an important and continuing function in the evolution of the operatic genre. Their negligible affective responsibilities encouraged composers to experiment with their form, and those experiments bore fruit in the context of serious arias.

Composers' experiments with comic style exceeded the boundaries of individual arias to affect entire scenes. Comic scenes, expanding upon the idea of contrast that formed such an important ingredient of individual comic arias, were the first to display a succession of two arias linked by recitative. We already noted that Delfa's aria "È follia" (chapter 9, example 12) belongs to such a scene; and the same is true of several of the other comic arias discussed in earlier chapters.[9] Such successions eventually found their fuller realization in the obligatory operatic scene for protagonists. But whereas successive arias in a comic context required no greater justification than any individual aria—they simply intensified the comic effect—serious characters, at least initially, needed a specific excuse for repeated or sustained lyrical expression.

The large-scale musical structure of early comic scenes, like their dramatic structure, is negligible. Delfa's little scene (3.10), for instance, displays only the most rudimentary coherence. The two arias, one a brief bipartite stanza (almost too short even to be called an aria), the other (illustrated in example 12) a more extended strophic bipartite form, in different meters and keys, D minor and G major respectively, are linked by a recitative passage that begins immediately in the key of the second aria, where it cadences twelve measures later. But aside from distinctions of key, meter, and formal structure, the two arias are quite similar. They share the same sort of text treatment, the same restricted range of melodic motion, the same patter rhythm; in short, the same affect. There is no dramatic progress from one to the next, and no need for it. This was true even in more elaborate contexts, where arias were longer and where there were more elements in the scene than just the basic pair of arias and connecting recitative—sinfonie , arioso passages, independent refrains.

Serious scenes of the composite type, however, were structurally more complex and more strictly integrated, dramatically as well as musically. Au-


tonoe's scena (Orfeo 1.5) (example 51), for instance, the second aria of which I have already mentioned, opens with a brief aria expressing her generally sad state. The aria is cast in expanded bipartite form by Sartorio, who divides the six-line text in half and expands the second half through a combination of irregular repetition and affective melismatic extension on tormento . Autonoe explains the reasons for her sadness in the ensuing recitative, which culminates in an angry outburst against her fate. The recitative also accomplishes the rather radical harmonic transition from A minor, the key of the first aria, to B minor, the key of the second. The second aria, half the length of the first, is no less effective. Autonoe now announces the specific means whereby she hopes to overcome her dejection—her intention to pursue her faithless lover, "traveling, searching" (girando, cercando ), until she finds him again. The generalized sadness expressed in the first aria is particularized in the following recitative and channeled in the much more energetic second aria. The musical contrasts between the arias, not only of key but of meter and text treatment as well, animate the dramatic structure. Autonoe's scene is a clear albeit distant ancestor of the cavatina-cabaletta.[10]

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