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


With Medea's incantation as its centerpiece, Giasone set a memorable standard for scenes of invocation; without actually establishing the convention, it articulated it for the future. Giasone honored other conventions by indirection, satisfying expectation through parody. The mad scene, for example, which had received its definitive operatic shape nearly a decade earlier, in La finta pazza , seems absent from Giasone , but as we shall see, that absence is only apparent.

Temporary madness, feigned or real, had a long literary heritage. Undoubtedly owing its inspiration to Canto 24 of Ariosto's Orlando furioso , perhaps the most celebrated portrayal of madness in Italian literature, the topos became a favorite tour de force for some of the most famous actors (or, more often, actresses) in the cornmedia dell'arte troupes;[49] but it held special, if fairly


obvious, implications for dramma per musica , justifying the use of music in a very specific sense. Madness freed characters from the decorum of normal behavior, allowing them to do whatever they pleased—even to sing.

But mere singing was not enough to project madness, particularly in an operatic context where everyone sang. In spoken drama, mad characters gained credibility by what they said as well as how they said it: by speaking irrationally, disconnectedly, and inappropriately, by voicing delusions—as well as by behaving unreasonably, dressing peculiarly, moving abnormally.[50] The musical setting of such texts would not automatically have produced convincing operatic madmen, however. Such characters had to break the accepted rules of their own language, music; they had to sing abnormally, erratically. Unlike the rules and norms of speech, which might depend on genre or theme, those of musical expression changed with changes in style. A mad scene of the 1640s might not share specific musical features with one of the 1720s or 1840s.[51]

As with so many other operatic conventions, we owe the critical as well as musical articulation of the issue of madness to Monteverdi, who was the first composer to attempt self-consciously—his characteristic mode of operation— to portray it in opera. He recorded his ideas on the subject in a famous series of letters of 1627 concerning an opera on which he was working with Giulio Strozzi, La finta pazza Licori , their first collaboration and Strozzi's first opera libretto.[52]

In advising Strozzi about the kind of text he wanted, Monteverdi was particularly concerned with the character of Licori, the "finta pazza" herself, and especially with her madness. His suggestions involved matters ranging from the disposition of the action and when and how often Licori appeared, to the actual poetry and topics of her discourse.


I have no intention of failing . . . to confer with him [Strozzi] and (as is my habit) to see that this gentleman enriches it [the libretto] . . . with varied, novel and diverse scenes. . . . This I shall explain according to my judgment, in order to see whether he can improve it with other novelties [besides madness], such as additional characters, so that the crazy girl is not seen so frequently in action. . . .

In my opinion she has very good speeches in two or three places, but in two others it seems to me that she could have better material—not so much on account of the poetry, as of the originality. I must also insist on his rearranging Aminto's lines, when the girl is fast asleep, for I would like him to speak as if he had not enough voice to be able to wake her up. This consideration—the need to speak in a low voice—will give me a chance to introduce to the senses a new kind of music, different from what has gone before. (22 May 11627)[53]

Strozzi was evidently quick to make the specific changes requested: "He . . . admits that as far as the part of Licori is concerned, he will make her come in later, and not in almost every scene, yet he will see to it that she always expresses new ideas and actions" (5 June 1627).

For the portrayal of Licori's madness, Monteverdi placed special emphasis on the clarity of the text presentation, the variety of the emotional expression, and the rapidity with which different emotions succeeded one another, as well as on the gestures:

Each time she comes on stage, she can always produce new moods and fresh changes of music, as indeed of gestures. (22 May)

Whenever she is about to come on stage, she has to introduce fresh delights and new inventions. (24 May)

It will now be up to Signora Margherita [Basile] to become a brave soldier, timid and bold by turns, mastering perfectly the appropriate gestures herself . . . because I am constantly aiming to have lively imitations in the music, gestures, and tempi take place behind the scene. . . . The changes between the vigorous, noisy harmonies and the gentle suave ones will take place suddenly so that the words will really come through well. (10 July)

He had earlier expressed his concern about the casting of the main role, urging that

because of its variety of moods . . . [it] not fall into the hands of a woman who cannot play first a man and then a woman, with lively gestures and distinct emotions. (7 May)


His most striking formulation, however, regards the special setting of Licori's text, for which he advocated a distinctive treatment of individual words as disembodied, disconnected entities rather than parts of sentences:

Since the imitation of such reigned madness must take into account only the present and not the past or future, it must therefore be based on the single word and not on the sense of the phrase; when, therefore, war is mentioned, it will be necessary to imitate war, when peace, peace, when death, death, and so on. And because the transformations and their imitation happen in the shortest space of time, the person who takes the principal part, which should arouse both laughter and compassion, must be a woman who can lay aside every sort of imitation except that dictated by the word she is uttering. (7 May)[54]

In addition to affording a view of the general style of the work, Monteverdi occasionally describes the action in considerable detail:

In three places I certainly think the effects will come off well; first when the camp is being set up, the sounds and noises heard behind the scenes and exactly echoing her words should . . . prove quite successful; secondly, when she pretends to be dead; and thirdly, when she pretends to be asleep, for here it is necessary to bring in music suggesting sleep. In some other places, however, because the words cannot mimic either gestures or noises or any other kind of imitative idea that might suggest itself, I am afraid the previous and following passages might seem weak. (24 May)

For unknown reasons, La finta pazza Licori was never performed. It was probably never even completed.[55] But Monteverdi's ideas left deep traces in other


works: in Sacrati's La finta pazza and the mad scenes it inspired,[56] and in his own Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria .

Clearly, a number of the most important features of the Licori libretto found their way into Strozzi's second La finta pazza , the libretto set by Sacrati in 1641. Although Deidamia has only one real mad scene, at the end of act 2 (scene 10), it is central to the plot and carefully prepared well beforehand. Also it is quite long. The idea of feigning madness begins to take shape in Deidamia's poignant monologue of act 2, scene 6; it is carried further in the discussion between Giove and Vittoria (2.7); is previewed by the defeated cavalier's call to the gods of the Underworld, which seems as if it will become a mad scene (2.8); is described by Diomede in a conversation with the Eunuch (2.9); and finally culminates in Deidamia's appearance at the very end of the second act (2.10)[57] In the mad scene proper, Deidamia speaks repeatedly of war and also of death (cf. Monteverdi's letter of 7 May); she shifts rapidly from topic to topic as she pretends to rave (ibid.); and she feigns sleep, which encourages Acchille (= Aminto) to speak softly to her (cf. letter of 22 May). She also gestures wildly, as she herself says at the end of one speech, when she decides to stop talking: "What the tongue would say, let gesture do."[58] Finally, though her ultimate aim is a serious one, Deidamia's madness has a healthy admixture of the comic in it. Her disconnected, erratic discourse ranges freely over many topics and includes under the mask of madness, as we saw in chapter 4, a number of apposite allusions to her surroundings, the theater, the production itself.

All subsequent mad scenes reveal a kinship with Deidamia's, even if they were not directly modeled on it. Their common elements include rapidly shifting subject matter, tone, rhythms, and rhyme patterns; frequent exclamations; expressions of violence, often in the context of repeated references to war (bellicosa pazzia ), associated with trumpet imitations, and to Hell, usually marked by the conventional versi sdruccioli ; identification with mythological characters; delusions regarding the perversity of nature; reference to imaginary physical ailments or danger; incursions of abnormal speech—screaming, crying, laughing, singing; allusions to dance; and sudden, unexpected requests for songs.[59]


Occasionally, the madness terminates after a deep (or pretended) sleep (see below), a resolution that, like the topos itself, was probably inspired by Orlando furioso .

In several instances, the effect of the mad behavior is heightened by being described beforehand. In La finta pazza , Diomede's description leads directly to Deidamia's entrance:


Da tante amare doglie
Soprafatta la giovine dolente
Languí, tremó, sudò)
Inferocì, girò
Gl'occhi insieme, e la mente,
E con diluvio di querele atroci
Versò l'affanno, e vomitò l'ingegno.
Uscita fuor da le paterne stanze,
Per le piazze di Sciro
Del suo furor insano
Fa scena lagrimevole, e funesta.

By so many bitter woes
Overcome, the sorrowing girl
Languished, trembled, perspired,
Grew wild, turned
Her eyes about, and her thoughts,
And with a deluge of hideous laments
Poured out her grief and vomited her wits.
Issuing forth from the paternal chambers,
She makes of Skyros's public places
The woeful, dolorous scene
Of her insane fury.

Not only do such descriptions whet the appetite of the audience, but they alert the audience (and the critic) to the things they should notice; they call attention to the skill of the poet—and anticipate that of the actress. In Egisto (Faustini/ Cavalli, 1643), Cinea's description of the hero's madness, which occurs between his two mad scenes, provides a particularly detailed and accurate forecast of the second one, emphasizing its most important elements: Egisto's fury, his uneven ranting and raving, his irregular, improper language, his sighs and sudden laughter, and his scandalous song ("Io son Cupido").


Signor l'hospite Egisto
L'intelletto hà travolto,
E' divenuto stolto,
Hor di furor ripieno
La Campagna trascorre,
Hor s'arresta, e discorre
A sterpi, à tronchi, à venti
Con vari, e impropri accenti,
Hor tace, e bieco mira,
Nè conosce mirando,
Hor geme, & hor sospira
Hor ride, e và cantando
Sciocche, e immodeste rime,
E talvolta di Clori il nome esprime.[60]

My lord, our host Aegistus's
Intellect is overturned.
He has become a dolt.
Now filled with fury
lie runs about the countryside;
Now he stops and addresses
Bushes, tree trunks, the winds
With various inappropriate exclamations;
Now he falls silent and looks grim,
Nor, looking, recognizes;
Now he moans, and now he sighs;
Now he laughs and goes about singing
Foolish and immodest rhymes,
And on occasion utters Clori's name.


Monteverdi's descriptions as well as those of Diomede and Cinea promise striking musical effects in the portrayal of madness. And indeed, each of these early mad scenes fulfills expectation by exaggerating or perverting what might be regarded as a normal narrative sequence or language of communication. Strikingly, all of them embody Monteverdi's program, at least to some degree.[61]

Sacrati's music for Deidamia is dominated by obsessive arpeggios and martial rhythms, clear allusions to trumpet fanfares that qualify as literal imitations of the predominating battle and hunt imagery in the text.[62] Although the arpeggios are primarily on G, A, and C, the imitation of trumpets is finally carried to a literal extreme when they occur in the trumpet tonality of D major.[63] The association is established even before Deidamia's entrance in the canonic fanfare duet between Diomede and the Eunuch announcing her appearance, which she then echoes (examples 70a and b). These aggressive arpeggios, which also occur independently of hunt imagery in this mad scene as well as others, would seem to represent the soul at war with itself. They occasionally yield to music that is more characteristic of Deidamia's former (sane) mode of address: lengthy successions of repeated notes or softer melodic lines that rise or fall gradually, in stepwise motion. These are usually inspired by some particularly poignant phrase of text, such as that leading into an aria near the end of the scene: "Ah so ben io / Qual di racchiuso pianto al mesto core / Fa lago il mio dolore" ("Ah, well I know how holding my tears back will make a lake of my suffering") (example 70j). The prevailing duple meter of her recitation is interrupted twice, first for a short arioso passage calling special attention to three particularly scurrilous lines of text: "Giacer io volea teco, / E lasciar il mio Giove, ch'ogni notte stà meco" ("I wanted to lie with you and leave my Jove, who stays with me every night") (example 70g), the change back to duple meter likewise emphasizing the conclusion of this passage: "Ma stanco dal lunghissimo camino, / Ch'ei fa dal Cielo in terra, / Mi riesce sovente il gran tonante /Un sonnacchioso Amante" ("But tired out from the long journey that


he makes from heaven to earth, the great thunderer often turns out to be a sluggish lover"). The second interruption occurs near the end of the scene, in a short aria accompanied by strings, a kind of parody of a lament that invokes the powers of the Underworld in the conventional versi sdruccioli (example 70k).

Extremes of Deidamia's range—at either end of the staff—are exploited, sometimes within a very short span. This usually can be understood as literal, even simplistic, text imitation of the kind Monteverdi advocated for madness.[64] For example, a sudden dip to the low tessitura accompanies the phrases "soldato dormiglione" ("sleepy soldier") and "tacete, homai, tacete" ("be still, now, be still") and an octave descent interprets the distance—or lack of it—expressed in the line "destati ch'il nemico di qui poco è lontano" ("Wake up, for the enemy is near") (example 70f). For the phrase "Ma stanco dal lunghissimo camino / ch'ei fa dal cielo in terra," Sacrati moves to a melodic high point on F for cielo , from which he descends rapidly a ninth, by means of an extended, rhythmicized melisma, to low E on terra (example 70g). Later in the scene, in an amusing and academically allusive passage, Deidamia literally silences herself in response to the line "A stride quiete, dunque" with an octave leap from C down to middle C, where she remains, appropriately, through "Alla muta, alla muta" (example 70h):

Non si può più parlare,
Ogn'un, a quel ch'io sento,
Hoggi mi vuol glosare,
Mi vuol far' il comento,
A stride quiete, dunque
Ad intendersi a cenni,
Alla muta, alla muta
Pronta man', occhio presto,
Quel che diria la lingua, esprima il gesto.[65]

One can no longer speak.
Everyone, I gather,
Wants to gloss me today,
Wants to comment on me.
To silent shouts, therefore,
And gestured understandings.
Mum! Mum!
Nimble the hand, quick the eye!
What the tongue would say, let gesture do!

Deidamia's concluding aria, the lament-parody (example 70k), inspired by two quatrains of rhymed settenari sdruccioli , displays several concrete imitations. Contrast of high and low tessituras literally portrays the contrast between "alti papaveri" ("high poppies") and "sozzi cadaveri" ("loathsome corpses"). And the phrase "resto immobile" ("I remain immobile") is communicated by an unchanging harmony for two measures in contrast to the half- and quarter-measure changes before and after it. Sacrati imposed an interesting and unexpected musical contrast on the two similar quatrains of this text. For the first one, in duple meter, a rhythmically sequential, diatonic melodic line moves


repeatedly to a high point on F before leaping to the low point, D, on cadaveri . It contrasts strongly with the more affective setting of the second quatrain, in triple meter, in which the melody ascends chromatically and sequentially to its own highpoint (which is actually lower than that of the first strophe) before gently descending to the tonic. In one final literal imitation at the end of the scene, Deidamia screams as she is forcibly removed from the stage in chains. The kind of literal imitation counseled by Monteverdi, then, illuminates the most outstanding features of Deidamia's mad music: the evocation of war (or hunt) by means of arpeggios and martial rhythms and the use of schizophrenic tessituras an octave apart in response to individual words or phrases implying distance, direction, or dynamics.

In comparison to La finta pazza , Cavalli's first attempt to portray operatic madness, in Didone , is somewhat pallid, perhaps because it was accomplished in such a hurry.[66] But in his second essay, in Egisto , he carried Monteverdi's ideas abut literal imitation and contrast considerably further than had Sacrati. Egisto's madness is more extensive than Deidamia's, occupying two lengthy scenes, the first (3-5) a monologue, the second (3.9) performed, like Diadamia's mad scene, in public. Egisto's texts are also more highly structured than Deidamia's. In addition to frequent incursions of versi sdruccioli , they contain several refrains and a large number of rhyming couplets. Furthermore, perhaps because Egisto's madness is real rather than feigned, Faustini's poetry itself exhibits greater affective contrast; in particular it places greater emphasis on the emotion of love, which is repeatedly juxtaposed against war and anger. Having called such explicit attention to these scenes in his preface, as we have noted several times, it is apparent that Faustini lavished special care on them.

Largely in response to the richer text, Cavalli's musical realization is more varied; it makes use of a larger vocabulary of musical gestures involving rhythm and harmony as well as melody. And Cavalli worked with his text more actively than Sacrati, repeating many more words and phrases to increase affective intensity. In general, Cavalli's music is more mobile than Sacrati's; it contains more sequential repetition, more rhythmic patterning, and more dissonance. As a result, Egisto projects a more authentic confusion than Deidamia does— but, we must recall, hers was only feigned. (See example 71 a and b.)

Martial fanfares play an important role here too, but they usually respond more exclusively to Underworld references in versi sdruccioli and are juxtaposed more forcibly with other kinds of melody and rhythm; these include lengthy single-note reiterations that tend to culminate in furious stile concitato climaxes,


and conjunct lines that ascend or descend gradually, often creating strong dissonances against the bass.

Wide melodic leaps between phrases emphasize the discontinuity of discourse and frequent exclamations, whereas those within phrases are more directly inspired by individual words, such as the leap of a ninth on aspri in "Udite, prego, udite aspri, e maggiori" ("Listen [you leaves] to my bitter and great [pains]) (mm. 37-41). Rhythmic contrasts, such as juxtapositions of disparate note values, also respond to specific text cues: the phrase "Non mi nega l'inferno / La sospirata moglie, / Più caro seno accoglie / La mia donna incostante" ("Hell does not deny me my hoped-for wife, but welcomes my unfaithful lady more warmly"), for example, is set to a sequence of almost uninterrupted eighth notes that brakes abruptly for an extended whole-note cadence on [inco ]-stante , a literal rendering, in rhythmic terms, of inconstancy (mm. 42-48). In another passage, comprising two parallel phrases of text, rhythmic discontinuity between affective long-note syncopations and stile concitato sixteenth notes stresses the conflict between the expansive, emotional first line and the angry tension of the second two (mm. 68-80).


Ah cor malvagio, ah core
Fuori di questo petto,
Che non vò dar ricetto à un traditore;

Ah cot malvagio, ah core
Esci via, via, che tardi,
Over spegni quel foco onde ancor ardi.

Ah, wicked heart, ah, heart!
Leave this breast!
For I will not give shelter to a traitor.

Ah, wicked heart, ah, heart!
Go, leave, leave, why do you tarry?
Or else extinguish the flame that still consumes you.

Beyond these contrasts, Egisto's recitative is interrupted more than once by arialike sections characterized by faster, more regular bass motion and more self-contained melody; while a few of them are based on textually distinct passages, such as a lengthy sequence of quinari (at "Io son Cupido" in 3.9, example 71b[3]), others are inspired by a change of direction or tone in the text (at "Amor sospendi i vanni" and "Aprite il varco, aprite," example 71a, mm. 81-93 and 107-34). This kind of musical contrast gives the impression of the mad Egisto speaking temporarily in another voice, an effect that communicates the sense—or non-sense—of the text.

In addition to rather obvious and brief imitations of actions—such as laughter, sighs, and so on—Cavalli's setting includes some more subtle, intellectualized imitative effects. One of the most striking is a triple-meter arioso passage near the opening of Egisto's second scene, setting a three-line passage of text:


Hor ch'il mondo è in scompiglio
O popoli di Dite
Di guerreggiar con Giove io vi consiglio.

Now that the world's in disarray,
O ye subjects of Pluto,
I advise you to wage war on Jove.

Here the characteristic D-major fanfare inspired specifically by the image of conflict between Heaven and Hell becomes literally (rhythmically, metrically) out of joint, at war with itself, through a powerful hemiola on the word guerreggiar (example 71b[2]).[67]

As with Deidamia's mad music, behind the mad scenes in Egisto clearly lies Monteverdi's prescription for the projection of madness: literal imitation and abrupt contrast are both fundamental to Cavalli's treatment. Because of his own special musical and dramatic gifts, however, in particular the mobility of his word-sensitive style, and possibly because of the structural variety of Faustini's text, the impact of literal imitation is diluted by a greater reliance on contrasts and discontinuities—on communication of text rather than strict imitation. The effect of irrationality is projected not so much by a succession of unrelated imitations (or images) as by an accumulation of contrasts.

Despite the effectiveness of these mad scenes and the resonance in them of Monteverdi's ideas, the fullest realization of those ideas is found, not surprisingly, in a work by Monteverdi himself. The opening scene of the third act of Il ritorno d'Ulisse is a monologue for the parasite Iro, who laments his hunger. Although this is not strictly speaking a mad scene, Iro's fear of starvation, comic at first, becomes increasingly exaggerated and irrational until, in a radical reversal of mode, it leads him abruptly to take his own life. A strange comic character who suddenly shifts modes to achieve a kind of heroic status at the end, Iro evokes a disturbing mixture of laughter and compassion, precisely the combination of affects Monteverdi sought from Licori. Monteverdi evidently used Iro's scene to test this combination, since it was he and Badoaro who added its tragic conclusion; in Homer the parasite has nothing more to say after he has been defeated by Ulysses (example 72).[68]

Monteverdi's music for this monologue shares many features with the mad music of Sacrati and Cavalli, including wide leaps, stile concitato trumpet imitations, and dance elements. What is especially striking about this scene, however, is the extent to which Monteverdi breaks up and stretches out the text, attaching musical images almost at random to individual words. Cavalli fre-


quently repeated words and lines, but he always did so to enhance textual meaning; Monteverdi's repetitions are so extensive that they tend almost to obliterate the text, replacing it with musical images.[69]

His isolation of and fixation on individual words goes far beyond anything we have seen in either Sacrati or Cavalli. Monteverdi thought nothing of repeating a single word or phrase as many as eleven times (l'ho distrutta , example 72a—in this case admittedly to an appropriate musical figure). While the choice of words to repeat is usually justified rhetorically—ah (six times), rida and m'abbatte (four times each), mai (seven times)—the appropriateness of the particular musical association is not always immediately evident. Even as it decontextualizes the word itself, however, the musical image increases its psychological effect. Monteverdi repeats Iro's desperate textual refrain "chi lo consola" ("who will console [the starving man]") numerous times, setting it to an extended, outwardly incongruous triple-meter arioso over a ciaccona bass (example 72b, c). But the musical image itself, a protracted, regular dance, actually offers temporary consolation: the reassurance of a calm, patterned oasis within the frenetic, sputtering context of the monologue as a whole. Iro asks for comfort and he literally gets it, however briefly, from the composer. Monteverdi's fragmented treatment may fracture the sense of Iro's discourse, but it thereby heightens its instability—and poignancy.

Monteverdi's literal imitations, too, are far more exaggerated than Cavalli's. Iro's opening whine on a single pitch seems extended almost infinitely, its exaggerated length measured out and intensified by an eighth-note ostinato figure in the bass (example 72d). The word estinti , repeated three times to a strangely disjunct sequence of descending thirds separated by several interruptive rests, finally extinguishes itself (example 72e). M'abbatte pits two overlapping five-beat melodic figures in the voice and bass against a six-beat measure— the three patterns literally beat against one another, causing considerable conflict (example 72f). And Monteverdi's laugh (example 72g), unlike Cavalli's, is so extreme, so exaggerated and stylized that it turns itself from musical imitation to singer's trill to actual laugh: Monteverdi enacts the transformation of music into mimetic gesture.

Whether because the developing musical style suited them less well or because of the dramatic limitations of the convention itself, mad scenes receded somewhat in prominence during the second half of the century.[70] The flash fire


of the early 1640s, when every new opera had its mad scene, rapidly died down, to be refueled only occasionally. One such occasion was the final appearance on the Venetian stage of the original "finta pazza," Anna Renzi, as Damira in Aureli's and Ziani's Le fortune di Rodope e Damira (1657). In that opera Damira feigns madness in order to reclaim her husband from the clutches of the courtesan Rodope. Surely the audience must have recalled the triumph of Renzi's now legendary debut and recognized in Damira's shrewd gesture the recreation of that earlier success. In convention was the memory of theatrical history. And Renzi's own reenactment of the convention reemphasizes the importance of the connection between mad scenes and the prima donnas who created them, a connection that was fundamental also to the persistence of the convention in commedia dell'arte .

Madness may have relinquished its prominence on the operatic stage after the early 1640s, but it remained potently dormant, retaining a strong hold on the imaginations of librettists and composers—and presumably on those of audiences as well. Indeed, the (apparent) absence of a mad scene in the plot of Giasone is corrected by the characters themselves: they deliberately create one. Giasone seizes on the topos to protect himself, using it as a screen for Isifile's behavior. Her madness, he explains, has caused her to appropriate the events of Medea's life as her own. (The audience is aware, of course, that the lives of the two women are in fact remarkably parallel: each is a queen, each is the mother of twins sired by Giasone.) It is an explanation that Medea readily believes because such delusions are the common coin of operatic madness. In this case, the character herself does not feign madness; it is reigned for her. Making further use of the convention, Giasone prepares the audience for Isifile's appearance by a vivid, Monteverdian description of her mad behavior, a familiar preparatory procedure:


Or s'allegra, or si duole,
Or ride, or piange,
Or s'umilia, or s'adira,
Conforme alla cagion per cui delira.

Now she rejoices, now she sorrows,
Now she laughs, now cries,
Now she humbles herself, now takes offense,
According to the occasions of her ravings.


When Isifile finally appears, only Medea believes she is mad. The other characters on stage, and the audience, know otherwise. But she fools them. After playing the scene out, Isifile unexpectedly fulfills Giasone's characterization of her: she becomes mad with anger. Affirming the implicit connection between emotional excess and madness, she erupts in a furious assault on Medea and Giasone, to the obvious delight of both of her audiences—on stage and in the theater. Cavalli could hardly resist the opportunity provided by the libretto. He seconded Cicognini's impulse by extremely literal treatment of Giasone's description of Isifile's state, and by the use of the stile concitato to project the violence of her climactic explosion (example 73).

Monteverdi's influence can still be felt in this brief passage—Cavalli carried the standard to the end of his career—though its power is considerably diminished. But operatic style was changing, and with it the concept of normalcy against which Monteverdi had measured his interpretation of madness. The effects of the literal, isolating imitation and abrupt contrast he developed could only portray madness within a context that was highly word-oriented, where text interpretation was fundamental to the style itself. Focusing on individual words was, of course, normal in this music, but they were regarded as parts of phrases or sentences and emphasized for their contextual meaning. The sense of a word normally affected an entire musical phrase rather than just the setting of itself. Decontextualizing or objectifying the single word, a process carried to an extreme in Iro's monologue, was thus abnormal: it upset the reason and structure of conventional discourse. But it had enormous expressive impact: musical obsession assumed psychological dimensions.

The portrayal of madness was achieved, then, by straining the boundaries of the normal. It provided an excuse for the composer (and the singer) to exhibit his (her) prowess, to display his (her) raw technique unencumbered by large-scale dramatic or structural concerns. In so doing, the composer called attention to crucial elements of his style. The mad music of the 1640s worked because it exploited the extreme text-orientation of the period. But as operatic style evolved, other features began to take priority. As I have repeatedly emphasized, the intimate, word-oriented rapport between text and music that characterized early dramma per musica gradually yielded to a more generalized, formal relationship, one determined by more exclusively musical considerations. The development can be measured in the treatment of mad scenes.

The mad scenes of the later seventeenth century are musically quite different from their predecessors, despite common elements in their texts, their exploitation of a similar framework of references—mythology, the Underworld, versi sdruccioli , battle imagery. Rather than by obsessive adherence to individual words and to word-painting techniques, the rapid emotional changes charac-


teristic of madness are portrayed by the unexpected and the inappropriate on a larger scale—by formal or affective improprieties: by unpredictable juxtapositions of recitative and aria or of arias of wildly contrasting moods or irregular form; by the totally inappropriate setting of a particular text; or by recourse to music and text that are unsuitable to the dramatic situation at hand.

Thus, in her first mad scene in Le fortune di Rodope e Damira (1657, 2.10), Damira sings an ironically extravagant aria to celebrate the forthcoming marriage of her husband and her rival. But after they have shared her enthusiasm in a brief duet, she abruptly calls a halt to their celebration with a suddenly contrasting arioso setting of a single word, fermate , which is followed by a bitterly accusatory recitative. By these contrasts, appropriate for a mad character, she manages to keep her would-be betrayers off balance and increasingly to undermine their resolve (example 74). And later in the same act, Damira bursts unexpectedly into a jubilant aria in response to the news of her own death. The aria should inform her husband and servant that she is not dead at all but, since they do not recognize her, its inappropriately celebratory tone merely reinforces their conviction that she is mad.

In Helena rapita (Aureli/Freschi, 1677), the arias of the feigned madwoman Euristene are inappropriate in another way. The mood of their music directly counteracts the sense of their words. The trivial, sing-song settings of both "Sù le rive d'Acheronte," an evocation of Hell and a lover's desperation, and "Se non fuggi amante insano," an angry, violent attack on her betrayer, Paride, madly belie their texts (examples 75a, b).

Finally, in Totila (Noris/Legrenzi, 1677), the mad Publicola not only lapses into a succession of contrasting arioso passages that emerge too suddenly out of recitative, but he sings two mad love songs that are strikingly inappropriate to his tragic situation (examples 76a, b).

In all these cases, the portrayal of madness exploits and subverts the assumptions of stylistic decorum on which it builds. If the appropriate match of style and situation, of setting and affect, represents a normarive aesthetic of mid-seicento opera, inappropriateness becomes, de facto, the proper expression of the abnormal. Mismatch is right for madness. The convention of the mad scene, in other words, depends upon a set of prior accepted stylistic conventions against which it can, in its perverseness, be gauged.


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