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11—Le convenienze teatrali : The Conventions of Dramma Per Musica
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Of all the conventions in Giasone , the most celebrated is Medea's incantation scene, in which she invokes the powers of darkness to aid Giasone in his quest for the Golden Fleece. We discussed the special poetry of this scene and illustrated its setting in chapter 9 (example 11). Since Medea's magical powers are intrinsic to her persona, any treatment of the Medea legend would have whetted an audience's appetite for a scene in which those powers were exhibited. Giasone did not disappoint. Medea's incantation scene, closing the first act, is one of the most powerful in the opera.

The scene of infernal invocation (the "ombra" scene) differs from other music-theatrical conventions in several important ways. For one, it was associated with a special verse form, the short line—either quaternario, quinario , or senario —with a sdrucciolo ending, an association, like the scene-type itself, inherited from spoken drama. Fundamental to its identity as a convention, this distinctive meter not only affected the musical setting of invocations but distinguished them from the rest of an operatic text. In addition to its meter, the invocation also involved a distinctive scenic dimension, requiring an infernal or magical setting of its own. In fact, the convention may have originated in part as an excuse for scenic contrast in the early operas. Finally, such scenes often included choruses, either alone or interacting with the soloist.

Although it did not initiate the convention,[40] Medea's incantation probably did more than any other to assure the persistence of such scenes throughout the century. A real tour de force for the prima donna, it was also the centerpiece of the drama: Medea's invocation of the infernal spirits enables Giasone to capture the Golden Fleece and frees him to return to his homeland with her, thereby exacerbating the crisis with his abandoned wife, Isifile, which forms the substance of the opera.

Related scenes appeared with some consistency in the operas that followed Giasone . But as an action the invocation was not as pervasive as other dramatic conventions, primarily because it resisted variation. While the affect of invocation was occasionally employed metaphorically, literal invocation scenes


were difficult to integrate into most dramas. Unless they were built into the libretto via its source—as in Giasone or the operas based on the Hercules legend—they tended to be extraneous, serving merely as a pretext for scenic display.[41] Both the difficulty of integration and the importance of the scenic dimension are reflected in the placement of invocation scenes within these operas. Whether for solo voice, chorus, or both, like Medea's scene they often appear, intermedio-like, at the ends of acts, where they lead directly into the entr'acte balli ; or else they occur in prologues.[42] Significantly, too, these scenes were often omitted in revivals, a commentary on their peripheral dramatic function as well as, presumably, the extravagance of their scenic demands.[43]

Nonetheless, the invocation scene seems to have outlasted all of the other musico-dramatic conventions of this period, persisting well beyond the seventeenth into the eighteenth and even nineteenth centuries. But it hardly developed at all; it remained insensitive to stylistic change. Because of its strong metric associations, the invocation imposed greater strictures on composers than any of the other dramatic conventions. While this rigidity may have limited its usefulness, it also contributed something to its effect: unchanging and thus increasingly primitive in its power, its very stylistic anomaly evoked a sense of dark antiquity. That chthonic power is particularly evident in the two best-known invocation scenes of later centuries, those in Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice and Verdi's Un ballo in maschera .[44]

Although primarily associated with the actual invocation of the Underworld, versi sdruccioli were also used when Hell or the world of darkness was invoked figuratively, out of jealousy, fury, or some other strong emotion. In Giasone , Medea employs them not only in her incantation but later as well, in the aria "L'armi apprestatemi" (3.9), in which she calls upon the Furies to lend her their arms so that she can punish the faithless Giasone.[45]Versi sdruccioli also appear in Ecuba's aria from Didone (1.7), in which she invokes the spectre of Hell as she seeks to purge herself of her weak, lamenting emotions (example 67):


Tremulo spirito
Flebile, e languido
Escimi subito.
Vadasi l'anima,
Ch'Erebo torbido
Cupido aspettala.
Povero Priamo
Scordati d'Ecuba
Vedova misera.
Causano l'ultimo
Horrido essitio
Paride, & Elena.

Tremulous spirit,
Plaintive and languid,
Leave me forthwith.
Let my soul depart
For gloomy Erebus
That hungrily awaits it.
Unhappy Priam,
Forget Hecuba,
Pitiful widow.
Cause of the ultimate
Horrid calamity
Are Paris and Helen.

And they are used in Sesto's aria "Ciecche tenebre" from Pompeo magno (Minato/Cavalli, 1666) 2.16, in which he calls upon darkness to hide him as he attempts to enter his beloved Issicratea's room unseen:


Ciecche tenebre
Denso vel
Anco al Ciel.
D'ombre tacite
Pur mi celino
Foschi horror;
Ne mai svellino

Blind shades
Lend me
A thick veil,
Hide me
Even from Heaven.
Let murky darkness
Hide me
With its silent shadows,
And never eradicate
This love.

Along the same lines, sdrucciolo passages, carrying with them their symbolic connection to irrational or demonic force, also form an important ingredient of mad scenes and laments.

The conventional effect of such scenes, as we have noted, depended primarily on their use of verses with the sdrucciolo ending. Distinguished from the other verse endings, the abrupt tronco and the gentler piano , which call for accents on the final and penultimate syllables respectively, the sdrucciolo , exemplified by the word itself, is more awkward, receiving an accent on the antepenultimate syllable. Considered ugly and boorish by sixteenth-century poetic theorists, versi sdruccioli coincide in these operas not only with invocation but generally with texts associated with the darker elements of life: with the uncivilized, the demonic, magic, and also, on occasion, the comically rustic. Inherited (with its associations) from the pastoral, in particular the eclogue, the sdrucciolo apparently appealed to something quite fundamental in human experience. It persisted for a long time and in several languages, not only in Italian


but in German as well. Its basis was evidently in the affective impact of the accent itself.[46]

One of the most extended uses of versi sdruccioli in an opera of the period occurs in Calisto (Faustini/Cavalli, 1651), where it conjures the rustic or satyric world of Arcadia. The pattern pervades all of the dialogue (including an aria) of two characters, Satirino and Pane, both members of a lower, less rational order, half man, half beast.[47] The meter lends to their utterances a rhythmic awkwardness that is exacerbated by erratic melody, monotonous harmonic motion, and irregular phrase structure. But the effect of their distinctive metric language is particularly striking in the scenes they share with other, more evolved characters, as in this one between Satirino and the nymph Linfea (1.13) (example 68):


SATIRINO : Io son, io son d'origine

I am, I am of origin


Quasi divina, e nobile,

Ben tù villana, e rustica

Nata esser dei trà gl'Asini,

O da parenti simili.

Sò perche mi repudia

L'ingorda tua libidine,

Perche Garzone semplice

Mal buono à gl'essercitij

Di Cupido, e di Venere,

Ancor crescente, e picciola

Porto la coda tenera.

Almost divine and noble;

But boorish and rustic your birth

Surely was, amongst the asses,

Or some like parents.

I know why your

Greedy libido rejects me,

Because I'm a simple fellow

With little skill in the ways

Of Cupid and Venus.

Still growing and dainty

Is the tender tail I bear.

LINFEA : Ne le mandre ad amar và

Go take your love to the flocks ,


Aspetto ferino.

Fanciullo caprino

Che Narciso,

Che bel viso,

Vuol goder la mia beltà,

Ne le mandre ad'arnar và .

Fierce-looking one,


What a Narcissus!

What a pretty face!

He would enjoy my beauty.

Go take your love to the flocks .

Clearly, not every opera could support a full incantation scene, but most had a sdrucciolo aria of some kind.[48] Like the texts themselves, the musical


settings were virtually interchangeable. More than in the case of any other aria type, the librettist controlled the composer's response. The musical settings of these texts are dominated by a characteristic dactylic rhythm, to which all other stylistic elements are subservient. The aria "O voi dell'Erebo" from Annibale in Capua (Beregan/Ziani, 1661) is typical (example 69). Melodic and harmonic subservience is evident in the large number of repeated notes, the triadic and sequential leaps, the rigidly regular, emphatic cadences, and the often widely separated phrases. Occasionally some melodic or harmonic expression intensifies the affect projected by the dominant rhythm. Ecuba's aria mixes chromaticism with its chordal melody (example 67 above) and Medea's invocation gains momentum by powerful harmonic motion (example 11 in chapter 9). But in general, the domination of the rhythm gives the sense that the character is being ruled by an urgent force over which he or she has no control. The impact of the sdrucciolo is equivalent to that of trumpet figuration in "trumpet" arias. Both originally represented a specific dramatic situation or emotion, and the significance of both broadened to accommodate an affective component: the concrete representation of the irrational in one case, of emotional conflict in the other. Such equation of inner feeling and outward sign is characteristic of the mechanism through which music conveyed emotion during this period.

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