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Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice rather than "Venetian Opera in the Seventeenth Century": the difference is significant. My concern is with the development of a particular art form in a very particular place. Opera did not originate in Venice, but, as with so many inventions that flourished on the lagoon (printing, for example), what was conceived and born elsewhere found a most nurturing environment in the Most Serene Republic. With the political stability of its oligarchic structure and the economic democracy that sustained it, Venice offered a unique situation for the elaboration of others' inventions. The opening of the Teatro S. Cassiano in 1637 marked the beginning of an important new phase in the history of the young art. What happened to opera in Venice during the seventeenth century was fundamental to the art itself: there and then, opera as we know it assumed its definitive identity—as a mixed theatrical spectacle available to a socially diversified, and paying, audience; a public art.

Born in Florence, and further developed in Rome, opera essentially defined itself as a genre in Venice. There, and only there, three conditions existed that proved crucial for its permanent establishment: regular demand, dependable financial backing, and a broad and predictable audience.

Regularity of demand was guaranteed by the Venetian calendar. Carnival season had been a major tourist attraction in Venice for at least a century. Traditionally hospitable to extravagant entertainments of all kinds, it readily accommodated the latest fashion, music-drama, to display before an audience that was already prepared by the carnival atmosphere to enjoy it.

Dependable financial backing derived from the Venetian sociopolitical structure: competition among patrician families, essentially a self-ennobled merchant class, encouraged investment in theaters as a means of increasing wealth and status. A few powerful families sustained the major expenses of constructing new theaters or adapting old ones for operatic productions. But a broader aristocratic base supported these theaters as annual leaseholders of


boxes. Indeed, a list of such subscribers from any season in any theater offered a who's-who of Venetian society.

The audience for opera, drawn from the carnival crowds that annually swelled the population of the city, was unusually large; it was also unusually diverse. Carnival was a time of masks, social license, the blurring of class distinctions. When foreign tourists took their places in the theaters, they were surrounded by the full spectrum of Venetians, from the patricians in the boxes to the volgo in the stalls. The significance of this varied audience cannot be overestimated. It was responsible for the breadth of opera in Venice and the range of its appeal. It also provided the basis for the celebration of the myth of Venice that formed such a significant aspect of the public message of opera in the Serenissima: the spectacle of opera mirrored the spectacle of miraculous Venice herself.

Nourished by these particular conditions, opera took quick and healthy root on the lagoon: the first historic spectacle at S. Cassiano in 1637, Andromeda , spawned another in 1638, three more in 1639 (in two theaters), five in 1640 and 1641 (in three and four theaters respectively), and as many as seven in 1642.[1] Success begat success. The more they saw of this spectacular new art form, the more audiences wanted, and what they wanted had to be (or seem) new. The need to supply such a steadily expanding and increasingly demanding market placed great pressure on the muses of librettists and composers. They sought to develop procedures that would speed up the creative process, maximizing the appearance of novelty, of brilliant invention, while allowing them, as efficient craftsmen, to draw on their own—and others'—previous works. Their efforts soon resulted in the establishment of a conventional poetic and musical language and a conventional structural core for plots, one that could support a variety of superficial modifications — a change of setting, an extra complication, or some new topical allusions.

This conventional core not only sustained infinite variation in Venice; it was portable elsewhere. Indeed, just this portability was one of its essential features. For even as it offered hospitality to the new art, a permanent home, Venice sent it out again to the rest of Italy and, eventually, Europe. The troupes responsible for the first Venetian performances of opera were traveling companies ema-


nating from Rome—Venice was initially only a stop on their tour. They found a stable base of operation in Venice, but only during Carnival; off season they still earned their livelihood elsewhere, carrying with them the products of the Venetian stage. Elsewhere, however, the product had to be modified to appeal to different audiences and to suit different performing conditions: topical and local Venetian allusions, for example, would hardly be effective in, say, Bologna or Milan, and temporary theaters in such cities often lacked the possibility of sophisticated stage effects available in Venice. The conventional core, however, which comprised the basic features of the genre, could be adapted accordingly.

The chronological coverage of this book is less than the full seventeenth century promised by its title. Rather, it deals with the forty-year span between the opening of the first and last opera houses of the century: S. Cassiano in 1637 and S. Giovanni Grisostomo in 1678. This limitation is not arbitrary. By 1650 all of the important elements of opera had been laid out, and the next two decades were a period of consolidation. The opening of S. Giovanni Grisostomo, however, marked a change in attitude toward the art, the end of what we can now see as the first of the cycles (all of them of about forty years) that were to shape and reshape opera during the course of its subsequent history: an arc moving between the extremes of aesthetic principle and extravagant over-ripeness. The 1680s heralded the beginning of a new cycle: the development of the so-called reform movement that culminated in the enthronement of Metastasio. The opening of S. Giovanni Grisostomo also coincided with a general increase in operatic activity outside Venice, much of it in public theaters, and, consequently, of the definitive establishment of opera as a pan-Italian—indeed, fully European—phenomenon. The developments of the final decades of the seventeenth century thus belong to a new chapter in opera history.

Between 1637 and 1678, in nine different theaters, Venetian audiences saw more than 150 operas. These were the work of some twenty composers and nearly twice that many librettists. Several individuals stand out among them, for different reasons: the composers Claudio Monteverdi and Francesco Cavalli and the librettist Giovanni Faustini, to name the most prominent. Each of them had a shaping influence on the developing genre. But that influence is not always easy to measure. Monteverdi, for instance, was fully recognized as the greatest composer of his time, and his reputation lent enormous aesthetic prestige to the new genre in Venice. He was also an experienced opera composer, and his lessons to his various librettists in the writing of operatic poetry had important consequences for the future. The influence of his musical style, in particular his approach to text-setting, can be traced in the operas of Cavalli as well as those of other composers, such as Giovanni Antonio Boretti and An-


tonio Sartorio. But the impact of his operas themselves is less evident. Il ritorno d'Ulisse and L'incoronazione di Poppea are masterpieces of the genre—the latter is the only opera of the period to enjoy any real place in the twentieth-century repertory—but they were not typical of their time. They represent the culmination of Monteverdi's own development as a madrigalist and interpreter of dramatic poetry, but they did not serve as models for the future: no subsequent opera in Venice quite matches the rich musical elaborations of Ritorno or the mimetic and ethical force of Poppea .

Closer to providing such models were the works produced almost yearly by the collaboration of Cavalli and Faustini over the course of the decade 1640-50. It was essentially through them that opera in Venice assumed its characteristic physiognomy. But these works made their impact more through repetition than as individual aesthetic objects, demonstrating and reinforcing their successful formulas season after season. High as the quality of some of these operas may have been, it was the regular rhythm of their production that was most significant historically—and their replicability.

For the formula assured its own continuation, at once instigating and permitting its adoption and expansion by other librettists and other composers, who devoted their energies to supplying the market. However powerful, the impact of all individuals—Monteverdi, even Cavalli and Faustini—was relative. Their particular contributions were absorbed, swept up by a general tide of accumulating convention. The product that emerged, opera, was in this respect a group effort.

The complexity of the sources of the developing genre is reflected in the shifting focus of this book, which approaches the material from a variety of critical perspectives: from focus on a single individual (Monteverdi in chapters 1 and 9, Giovanni Faustini in chapter 6, and particularly Cavalli in the chapters devoted to the developing conventions), an intellectual movement (the Accademia degli Incogniti in chapter 2), or a theater (the Teatro Novissimo in chapter 3, S. Giovanni Grisostomo in chapter 13) to particular works that embody different stages of the development. La finta pazza (1641) at the beginning, the first operatic hit, exemplifies the confluence of the local and traveling companies (in chapters 3 and 4); Giasone (1649), in the middle, represents a moment of equilibrium in the cycle, a perfectly adjusted meeting of music and drama, the model of the genre to future generations (in chapters 9 and 11); Orfeo (1673), in its highly attractive, explicit way, displays the symptoms of decadence that had been gradually infecting the genre since midcentury (in chapter 13).

Other topics involve broader, more general issues that are critical to the history I am writing: the aesthetic soul-searching involved in trying to define


a bastard genre seeking to combine music and drama (in chapter 2), the emergence of the professional librettist (in chapter 6), the rise of the prima donna (in chapter 8). Most significant of all, and the subject of four full chapters, is the emergence of conventions within the works themselves, the enabling structural units that unified all the individual efforts of composers and librettists. Those conventions are of various kinds and sizes, affecting the several aspects of the works, from the relationship between text and music (in chapter 9) and formal structures for arias (in chapter 10) to dramatic situations suggesting particular musical settings (in chapters 11-12).

The shifting focus of this approach has resulted in a book whose structure might best be described as bipartite (perhaps "rounded binary" would be more accurate). The first eight chapters constitute an A section that is primarily concerned with extramusical issues: the aesthetic definition of opera, the chronology of theater openings and productions, the publication and contents of librettos, the iconography of Venice, and the changing roles of librettist, composer, and singer. The B section (chapters 9-12), attending more precisely to the works themselves, analyzes the development of musical, musico-textual, and musico-dramatic conventions in some detail. And the concluding chapter returns once more to the level of cultural and historical generalization, a final sententia on ripeness and decadence—with implications of eventual renewal.

Although the contributions of most of its individual members were anonymous, and difficult to distinguish from one another, the group responsible for the creation of opera in seventeenth-century Venice left a large body of commentary on what they were doing and why. Their letters, contracts, and libretto prefaces not only provide the documentary basis for our reconstruction of the past, they lend a personal, individual dimension to institutional history. To suggest the vitality of the ambience in which opera developed, I have quoted abundantly from this wealth of contemporary commentary, particularly in the A section of this study. The B section is embedded in a documentary context of another kind: a large number of musical examples, mostly complete pieces, drawn from the full range of works produced during this period. Here, for the first time, composers like Ziani, Boretti, and Sartorio take their place alongside Monteverdi, Cavalli, and Cesti as full participants in the development and confirmation of operatic conventions.

Venetian opera was established as a field for study relatively early in the history of musicology, with important steps taken before the end of the nineteenth century. Chief among the pioneers, most appropriately, was a Venetian, Taddeo Wiel, whose primary research facilitated the early efforts—by several German scholars (Hermann Kretzschmar and Hugo Goldschmidt, then Egon


Wellesz), and a Frenchman (Henry Prunières)—to place the music of Cavalli and Cesti in historical perspective.[2] That perspective was broadened in 1937 by Helmut Christian Wolff's dissertation on the later seventeenth century, which focused on Venetian works by composers other than Cavalli and Cesti. A new era of Venetian studies was initiated in the 1950s, when the burgeoning literature on Monteverdi yielded a significant monograph on the composer's Venetian operas by Anna Amalie Abert. And in that same year, 1954, Simon Towneley Worsthorne published the first substantial monograph on Venetian opera, in which he considered the librettos and staging of the operas as well as their music. The 1950s also saw publication of the first of Nino Pirrotta's and Wolfgang Osthoff's many contributions to the field, which approached the material from a variety of special angles, all of them with profound implications for our understanding of the larger phenomenon of opera in Venice. Both Pirrotta and Osthoff expanded the study of Venetian opera to include its social context, which, they demonstrated, offered significant insight into aspects of the creation, function, and meaning of the art.

The literature continued to grow in the course of the following decades with the publication of documentary studies that focused on the history of the theaters, by Remo Giazotto and Nicola Mangini, and a number of monographic dissertations, articles, and books on various figures and topics: William Holmes and Carl Schmidt on Cesti, Thomas Walker (a dissertation unfinished but nonetheless valuable), Martha Clinkscale, Edward Rutschman, and myself on aspects of Cavalli, and Jane Glover on Cavalli and on the Teatro S. Apollinare and the 1650s. More recent dissertations have continued to expand the field of study: Peter Jeffery on the manuscripts in the Contarini Collection, Beth Glixon on recitative, and Harris Saunders on the Teatro S. Giovanni Grisostomo. These recent contributions have clarified our understanding of the role of individual figures and institutions in the history of opera in Venice. At the same time there have been important advances in the definition of the repertory itself. Claudio Sartori's libretto census, in particular, has finally made it possible to clarify the chronology of operatic activity in Venice, and to measure it against that of other centers.

In the past decade or so, however, the most important work in the field has been in the realm of social history. In a series of major publications Lorenzo Bianconi, Giovanni Morelli, and Thomas Walker have enriched and refined our view of these operas by uncovering the social and political matrices in which they were formed, the external forces that helped to shape the works of art; and their interpretations have been based upon the richest foundation of primary


documentation. My debt to these scholars—and to their students in Italy—can be read in the frequency with which they are cited in the footnotes to the following pages.

Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice builds on this previous scholarship. Although it aims to survey the entire field, from a variety of perspectives, its particular agenda is signaled by its subtitle: The Creation of a Genre . Its thesis, as already suggested, is that opera received its most lasting theoretical, as well as practical, definition in the public theaters of seicento Venice. I have used the words of the librettists themselves, and the message they convey through their often jocular, ironic, and defensive tone, as indications of contemporary attitudes toward the phenomenon of opera. And I consider their words a critical framework for discussion of the repertory. This has been done for the Arcadians who followed, and for the Florentines who preceded, but never for the seventeenth-century Venetians, precisely because their voices were never taken seriously. What they offer, in fact, is nothing less than an aesthetics of opera, as relevant today as it was then.

Just as their theoretical discussions can be applied to opera in general, so the practical realization of their ideas, the conventions they developed, continued to shape the operas with which we are most familiar. Modern opera-goers will recognize in those conventions the roots of favorite scenes: Cherubino's song, Tatiana's letter, Lucia's mad scene, Ulrica's invocation, even Tristan and Iseult's love duet, all trace their lineage back to seventeenth-century Venice. There, too, is the beginning of another phenomenon that modern opera-goers will recognize: the hedonistic contract between audience and singers, and its first concrete manifestation, in the da capo aria.

One reason that modern audiences may initially fail to appreciate the relationship of these conventions to their own experience is that they were created with disarmingly simple materials. Although the techniques of baroque scenographic spectacle were far from simple—in fact they have hardly been equaled since—the musical means of seventeenth-century opera were comparatively limited; the orchestra was small, the chorus virtually nonexistent. Voices were for the most part accompanied by continuo instruments; arias were short, ensembles few and far between. The forces, in other words, were not overwhelming. But the creators of these operas exploited their resources fully and subtly. Contrast, though on a comparatively small scale, was of the utmost importance: between speech and song, vocal and instrumental sound, string and continuo accompaniment, high and low voices, and between serious and comic moments. A couple of chords on the harpsichord might thus have been sufficient to create the impression of a fierce battle (Il ritorno d'Ulisse ), three soloists singing together the effect of a chorus of followers (L'incoronazione di


Poppea ), and a single juxtaposition of two unrelated tonal realms a fundamental conflict of personalities (Seneca and Nerone in Poppea ).

Given a chance to speak for themselves, to instruct us in their ways, seventeenth-century operas appear less archaic, less distant than, until recently, we have been led to believe. Not only were they made of the conventional units that have continued to shape opera to our own time, but they appealed to audiences in ways that remain essential to operatic experience. Their plots, however apparently exotic and gratuitously intricate, confronted fundamental realities, universal human passions—love, jealousy, ambition. They dealt with social issues and moral dilemmas—honor, fidelity, deception. Self-conscious from the beginning, the art that combined drama and music continued to make the most of its inherent implausibility by testing it constantly against a standard of verisimilitude. Even as it created depths of mimetic chiaroscuro, drawing an audience into the reality of its fictional pathos, it inevitably found moments in which to reinvoke disbelief: the singer directly addressing the audience, the text directly addressing the art, the topical allusion to life outside the theater. Perhaps the most obvious legacy of Venetian opera to modern practice is the phenomenon of the prima donna, the star singer who comes to outshine all else, who makes of the composer's art a vehicle for herself. But that perversion of original values, too, was part of the very vitality of the art, part of its dynamic rapport with its audience.

In witnessing the development of opera on the Venetian stage, we recognize an art we already know. Opera in seventeenth-century Venice is the art of opera itself.


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