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11—Le convenienze teatrali : The Conventions of Dramma Per Musica
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The Love Duet

One final operatic convention illustrated in Alinda's and Besso's fertile scene is the love duet. "Non più guerra" (example 53), literally embodying its text, provides a harmonious resolution to the preceding flirtatious repartee, the guerra of the scene. The duet, or aria for two, was a natural musical impulse, a readily available resource for composers of vocal chamber music, but one whose viability in opera was open to question. Indeed, as Badoaro had been quick to point out in his apology for opera in 1644, not only was it thoroughly unrealistic for "men to conduct their most important business in song," but it was equally absurd that, "speaking together they should spontaneously find themselves saying the same things" (Appendix 1.8j).

The only reasonable occasion for a duet under these circumstances was one in which the characters were somehow united in their sentiments; and there was no more natural or powerful bonding agent than the spell of love. Indeed, love not only sanctioned characters singing together but in turn was confirmed by their harmony. The duet, then, as an expression of amorous accord, had a particular dramatic function. In the context of the shape of librettos of the 1640s, it assumed a structural function as well: to mark closure. For the reconciliation of Faustini's lovers was usually postponed until the final scene, and the cementing love duets were usually saved to emphasize that moment. Unanimity was usually further enhanced by the practice of casting the protagonists, both male and female, as sopranos, so that their duets could involve literal intertwining, even occasional unison encounters.

Duets, of course, could occur earlier in a drama, and they could also involve characters who were not lovers, but in such cases they usually served some other, more specific, dramatic purpose. Even then, however, they often exploited the appropriateness of the duet as a symbol of amorous agreement.[27] One such duet in L'incoronazione di Poppea , between Nerone and Lucano in the middle of act 2, serves to underscore an important theme of the opera. Monteverdi adopts the conventional form of lovers' communication to establish an erotic effect in this scene. By celebrating Seneca's death with the texture, procedures, and affect of a love duet devoted to an appreciation of Poppea's beauty, the composer underlines the opera's libertine message.[28]

Whether or not duets occurred earlier in the drama, for lovers or other characters, it was only the exceptional seventeenth-century Venetian opera that failed to close with at least one duet—or two, one for each pair of lovers;


sometimes the four would join forces for a closing quartet. This particular convention seems to have become established quite early in the 1640s. It coincided with the movement away from mythological plots, which concluded with elaborate supernatural scenes, toward more exclusively human dramas. The intimate duet ending is appropriate to the more personal opera plots of the 1640s. On the other hand, like those plots themselves, it also may have been encouraged by practical limitations that made choruses—and supernatural scenes—too expensive or difficult to produce.

The transition is illustrated by several operas of the early 1640s that seem to combine both traditions. Gli amori d'Apollo e di Dafne (Busenello/Cavalli, 1640) ends with a mythological duet—between Apollo and Pan—while the libretto of Le nozze d'Enea (Anon./Monteverdi, 1641) has a love duet in the penultimate scene but actually closes with the typical supernatural chorus. In this respect it is similar to Il ritorno d'Ulisse , whose libretto also closes with a mythological finale, but whose score ends sooner, with the preceding love duet. (Perhaps the same was true of the score of Le nozze d'Enea , which is lost.)

L'incoronazione di Poppea , too, originally concluded with a mythological scene with final chorus. It is now generally agreed that the present, notorious final love duet, "Pur ti miro," with text by Ferrari, was introduced into the original finale sometime after its first performance, possibly during a revival; certainly the music is not by Monteverdi. It may have been specifically motivated by the limited stage equipment (and cast) available for such a revival. But it seems more likely that it was added because by the time the opera was revived, whether in 1651 or earlier, a final love duet had become de rigueur, a necessary sign of closure.[29]

The duet may even have been added during the initial run of the opera, as happened in a work of the previous season, La virtù de' strali d'Amore , the first collaboration of Faustini and Cavalli. That opera, too, had originally ended with a mythological finale preceded by a scene of reconciliation for the protagonists. But although in the libretto the penultimate scene closes with an aria,


it is followed in the score by a love duet that was evidently inserted after the libretto was printed. If the mythological finale of Virtù was cut, as was that of Poppea in at least one performance, both operas would have concluded with love duets that, besides being late additions, were quite similar in style and message (example 61).[30]

The conventionality of the love duet was naturally not limited to its dramatic placement; it extended to its text and musical setting as well. Texts were usually quite short—sometimes only a line or two—and used essentially the same images. The endings of Aureli's two Eliogabalo librettos of 1668, one set by Cavalli, the other by Boretti, illustrate the range of duet texts. Cavalli's text, set as a quartet, reads as follows:


Put ti stringo,
Pur t'annodo
Meco il fato
Idol caro
Crudo avaro non è più.
Tant'è la gioia quant'il duolo fù.

Yet I hold you,
Yet I clasp you.
Fate no more,
My darling idol,
Is a cruel miser with me.
Joy is as great as sorrow was.

Boretti's text, set as a duet, is shorter:


Al ferir
Occhi veraci
Sia campo il letto e dolci strali i baci.

In wounding
True eyes
Let bed the field, and kisses the sweet arrows be.

The first of these bears a strong resemblance to, among other closing-duet texts, that of Poppea .[31] The similarity, although notable, merely illustrates the conventionality of the poetry, the dependence of librettists on formulas. Indeed, unlike that of the rest of an opera, the text of the final duet had little importance. The opera was essentially over. The musical message of duet texture itself was sufficient to convey the resolution of the dramatic situation.

Even more than in the conventional aria types, and with even rarer exceptions, stylistic similarities among composers' settings of these duets predominate over any individual differences. In fact, it is difficult to point to any significant differences at all.[32] Duets suffered built-in musical limitations imposed by their similar affect. But although stylistic choices may have been restricted,


expression was not. Frequently accompanied by strings, and in triple meter, love duets often involved considerable expansion of text through repetition and melismatic extension. The repetition was usually threefold, one statement for each voice followed by one for both together. In addition to repetition of individual words and lines in successive musical phrases, opening lines were sometimes repeated at the end to create a da capo form. Duets usually began with brief motivic exchanges or longer imitative passages that culminated in parallel movement in thirds and sixths enriched by suspensions and resolving into unisons. Interdependence of lines, perfect consonance, and ultimate union: these were all qualities that represented quite literally the relationship between reconciled lovers. The most eloquent confirmation of the conventionality of the closing duet is provided by a series of examples, chosen almost at random, from operas spanning several decades and representing the work of a variety of composers. Despite their different authors and disparate dates, they are virtually interchangeable (example 62 a-d).

Seen against the convention of the closing love duet, which was well established by the middle of the century, the ending of Giasone gains special impact as a kind of ironic transformation. It, too, presents the coming together of formerly opposing forces in two duets, each for two high voices. The first, for Isifile and Giasone, is followed by a second, not, as expected, for Medea and Egeo but for Medea and Isifile, two erstwhile rivals in love. This permutation of the convention, playing on expectations both dramatic and vocal, surely delighted an audience of 1650.

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