previous sub-section
11—Le convenienze teatrali : The Conventions of Dramma Per Musica
next sub-section


One of the most pervasive conventions in Giasone is a dramatic device borrowed from spoken drama: the sleep scene. Isifile and Giasone each fall asleep twice and Medea once, for different purposes, not always crucial to the plot. Like all such dramatic conventions, sleep was an abnormal state of consciousness that facilitated the suspension of disbelief and thereby encouraged musical expression. It did so triply: for the singer of the provoking lullaby, for the sleeper, who could dream out loud, and for the on-stage observer, who could express himself as if alone.

Beyond its general loosening effect on verisimilitude, sleep functioned in a variety of specific ways as a plot device, in comedy as well as in opera. A sleeping character is vulnerable—to assassination, to rape, to penetration of disguise, and to involuntary disclosures via dreams. (In act 1, scene 14, Isifile, dreaming, describes Giasone's departure from Corinth, a scene that took place before the opera began; in act 2, scene 2, her sleeping encourages her servant


Oreste to attempt a rape—titillating the audience, no doubt, with the threat of class crossing;[33] in act 3, scene 17, Egeo attempts to murder the sleeping Giasone, but is prevented from doing so by Isifile.) Furthermore, a sleeping character (or one feigning sleep) can stimulate a companion (lover) to disclose his innermost feelings, thinking he is unheard. (Believing Medea to be asleep, Giasone declares his love to Isifile, which declaration, although only feigned at the time, persuades Medea to demand her rival's death.) Sleep was used in a variety of dramatic situations, but its musical associations were fairly limited. These were chiefly the prefatory lullaby (sung either by the eventual sleeper or by a companion), the dream (which could involve some special musical, in addition to dramatic, extravagance), and the miming of the action of falling asleep itself.

By 1650 the sleep convention already sported a lengthy operatic pedigree. It had been used in La finta pazza , that prodigious repository of conventions, to trigger the resolution by encouraging Acchille to express his love for Deidamia; and again in Il ritorno d'Ulisse , where Ulisse is transported to Ithaca while asleep so that he will be unaware of the divine intervention on his behalf. A more striking example is that in L'incoronazione di Poppea , where Poppea's sleep facilitates the precipitating action of the denouement, Ottone's attempt on her life. This scene is especially interesting and significant from the musical point of view because it provides a concrete example of what Monteverdi called "music suggesting sleep," thereby demonstrating his conception of musical imitation.[34] Music imitates sleep in two different ways here. First, it depicts Poppea's drowsiness: her words and musical line become halting, interrupted by rests, and she then acknowledges her sleepiness in a descending line that sinks gradually to the bottom of her range, whereupon she falls asleep (example 63). Her nurse Arnalta's soporific lullaby then imitates sleep itself, or actually assures it, by different musical means: repetitive, circular melody within a restricted range, abnormally long-held notes at cadences, and harmonic oscillations would provoke a yawn from anyone, whether on-stage or in the audience.[35]

As with so many of the conventions, Monteverdi's musical realization was prophetic for the future development of opera. Lullabies continued to display the circular, repetitive motion appropriate to them, and the act of falling asleep (or fainting) continued to be treated mimetically, even by later composers who did not share Monteverdi's conception of imitation. In fact, some even ex-


tended their treatment of sleep to the moment of awakening as well. These scenes are not always essential to the plot. Isifile's second one, for example, merely provides the occasion for the diverting attempted rape by Oreste. But they all share features with Monteverdi's scene. Isifile falls asleep very much as Poppea did, although her fatigue seems to come on more suddenly, during a short monologue at the end of act 2, scene 1 (example 64):


Alinda troppo vana,
Seconda il genio, e la sua voglia insana;
Oimé non posso più,
Perche manchin li spiriti,
Manca l'anima al seno,
Vacilla il piede, e a forza di stanchezza
Trabocco sul terreno.

Too heedlessly Alinda
Follows her mindless moods and fancies.
Alas, I cannot bear it any longer;
My senses are failing,
My heart weakens in my breast,
My footsteps falter, and with sheer weariness
I fall upon the ground.

After an abrupt harmonic shift, the last five lines of text are set to a gradually descending chromatic melody interspersed with some long rests and articulated by a final upward leap before resolving down to a cadence. Medea's and Giasone's joint lullaby "Dormi, dormi" (example 14), on the other hand, although it is somewhat repetitive in rhythm, and perhaps exaggeratedly sequential, does not quite match the intensely soporific quality of Arnalta's.

The range of possibilities and functions (and the persistence of mimetic devices) offered by the sleep convention is illustrated by two sleep scenes separated by more than a decade: one from Orontea (Cicognini/Cesti, 1656), the other from Ercole in Tebe (Moniglia/Boretti, 1671) (examples 65 and 66). In Orontea 2.4, Alidoro, overcome by his confusion and his apparently unrequited love for Silandra, faints. Cesti's setting realistically disintegrates into short phrases, interrupted, chromatically descending, though leaping up for a brief final gasp before sinking with Alidoro into unconsciousness—the voice leaving the bass to cadence alone. In his unconscious state, which lasts for three scenes, Alidoro is first prey to having his pocket picked by Gelone, then oblivious audience to Orontea's declaration of love and to her (redundant) lullaby, and finally the unknowing recipient of a letter, which she leaves in his possession. He then awakens gradually, with ever longer, and rhythmically and melodically more active, phrases, to find Orontea's letter, which provides enough material to propel the rest of the plot. Like Monteverdi, Cesti responded mimetically to the action of falling asleep and even awakening, but his setting of Orontea's lullaby lacks the hypnotic effect of Arnalta's. Cesti's natural inclination toward bel canto, his talent for writing fluid, well-shaped melodies, overcomes his sensitivity to the dramatic situation.[36] Despite the greater dra-


matic complexity and greater number of elements in this scene, the items of musical interest are essentially the same as those in Poppea's sleep scene.

Boretti's scene, on the other hand, contains several new elements. When the despondent Megera falls asleep near the end of act 2, she dreams of Ercole's victory in the Underworld. Upon awakening, she realizes it was a dream, but vows to be hopeful anyway. Boretti's depiction of drowsiness is considerably less convincing than Cesti's. It comes on suddenly, after Megera has sung an extended, virtuosic (exhausting?) arioso with trumpet imitations. In recitative she acknowledges the growing effects of a sweet lethargy, but she resists long enough to sing what amounts to a lullaby to herself (accompanied by strings), more elaborate than Arnalta's, but sharing some of the same repetitive features, including the prominent imperfect cadences. She sleeps during a ballo and then awakens rather abruptly to sing an optimistic aria about the outcome of Ercole's trip to the Underworld, "Festeggia, o core."[37] Here, aside from changing Megera's mood, the sleep scene serves primarily as an excuse for several arias. The mimetic aspect, with respect to Poppea and Orontea , is reduced in favor of musical elaboration.

The convention of sleep challenged the librettist more than the composer: it was up to him to find new ways of incorporating such scenes into his drama, a challenge he met with varying success. But the particular dramatic function of the sleep scene had a limited effect on the music. In some librettos, sleep seems to serve no significant dramatic purpose whatsoever (the librettist was unsuccessful in integrating it into the drama), though it may have inspired more than one kind of musical elaboration, as in the Boretti example. At the other extreme, the scene may have been pivotal to the drama, but was completely passed over by the composer.[38]

In later operas, the emphasis seems to have shifted from concentration on the act of falling asleep and on sleep as an occasion for special, unwitnessed action to emphasis on its more imaginative and inspiring results, dreams. Portrayed in special ways by composers, dreams precipitate important actions in a number of operas of the 1670s. An ingenious and effective use of the dream provides one of the musical and dramatic highpoints of Aureli's and Sartorio's Orfeo . Orfeo, having exhausted himself in lamenting Euridice's death, falls asleep (3.4), whereupon Euridice's ghost appears, as in a dream, urging him to seek her in Hades. Sartorio forgoes the opportunity to mime musically Orfeo's falling asleep, but he does exploit Euridice's spectral appearance for special musical effects. These include some extremely elaborate coloratura passages, a


lengthy (if misplaced) lament accompanied by strings, and an evanescent ending on an imperfect cadence that marks Euridice's disappearance just before Orfeo awakens.[39]

previous sub-section
11—Le convenienze teatrali : The Conventions of Dramma Per Musica
next sub-section