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2—Dramma per musica : The Question of Genre
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Dramatic Structure: The Unities

In addition to defending their general involvement in opera by such shows of erudition, these early Venetian librettists also cited precedents from the past to justify certain specific features of their works. Their individual decisions regarding observance of the unities, division into acts, and the use of chorus were carefully examined in the light of classical authority. One of the most hotly debated topics concerned the appropriateness of adhering to the so-called Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action. Originally conceived by sixteenth-century literary theorists and commentators on Aristotle as merely one aspect


of the larger issue of genre—in particular the distinctions between tragedy, comedy, and the epic—the unities had become an increasingly specific focus of discussion.[17] The subject continued to concern seventeenth-century writers.

The crux of the problem for the sixteenth century was the disagreement as to whether Aristotle had addressed the unities at all in his Poetics . In fact, Aristotle set some store on unity of action in tragedy—as opposed to the epic, which by definition encompassed many actions.[18] And he alluded to the unity of time when he observed that tragedy limited itself to what can occur during a single revolution of the sun—whereas the epic, again by definition, knows no such limits.[19] The third unity, that of place, did not figure at all in the Poetics . A number of the sixteenth-century elaborations and interpretations of the Poetics , however, did concern themselves specifically with the unities. One of these, Castelvetro's Poetica d'Aristotele vulgarizzata et sposta (1570), seems to have been the first to articulate unity of place as a rule and to formulate the concept of the three unities as they were subsequently understood—in France as well as Italy.[20]

The "rules" were originally interpreted as being genre-specific, applicable to tragedy only, and not to comedy or the epic; but a number of commentators, including Castelvetro, tried to adapt them to other genres as well. It was this attempt during the sixteenth century to broaden their application that stimulated librettists' concern with the unities. The question was most pressing—and most relevant—in those early Venetian librettos that aspired to the status of tragedy. The anonymous author of Le nozze d'Enea , for example, whose preface I have already quoted, made a special effort to define his work as a tragedia (though di lieto fine ) and considered the problem of the unities at great length.[21] Significantly, librettists' concern with the unities diminished in proportion to their growing acceptance of the generic legitimacy of dramma per musica .

As for the literary theorists of the sixteenth century, so, too, for their seventeenth-century heirs the unities represented only part of the larger ques-


tion of genre. But the topic nevertheless received special emphasis in the apologies of the librettists, perhaps because it came into direct conflict with one of the most essential requirements of the new operatic genre: variety. It was difficult for librettists to reconcile these two principles, the one theoretical, the other practical, but they spilled considerable ink in the attempt. As usual, their explanations took one of two forms: either they demonstrated how their works were unified—interpreting that concept with considerable freedom—or else they justified the fact that they were not.

Some authors minimized the distinctions between their works and classical drama. Fusconi, for example, in his preface to Amore innamorato (1642), states that the work "follows all the good rules taught by the masters: it ends within the span of one day, or little more; it has one plot line, with no extraneous events; and it does not stray at all from established custom" (Appendix I.27a). But no sooner has he affirmed his observation of the unities of time and action than he deftly—and predictably—undermines the significance of that affirmation by invoking modern taste:

But I do not think it makes sense to go to the trouble of defending something even the authors themselves were careless about. Especially given that our present age is made up of private opinions and interests and thus does not believe in any rules except those of whim and of passion. (Appendix I.27b)[22]

Giulio Strozzi, in the preface to his Delia (1639), adopts a similarly casual tone in minimizing the extent of his departure from the unity of time, implying quite effectively that a slight abuse of that unity is his only transgression. After defending his plot and characters by citing classical precedents, he confesses: "I have taken the liberty of a couple of hours: I don't know if Aristotle or Aristarchus will grant them to me" (Appendix I.15g).

But other librettists seem especially bent on preserving the unity of time above the other two. The author of Le nozze d'Enea found it necessary to stretch the boundaries of place, choosing a large geographical region rather than the corner of a city for his action, but he accepted the unity of time without question:

As for the physical setting, whereas for myself I would have chosen a city, or a part of one, as good tragedians, our friends both ancient and modern, do, nevertheless, in order to give the audience pleasure through variety, I have taken a little piece of the small portion of Italy that is Latium, so that the action can be now in court, now in the woods, and elsewhere, as the occasion requires. But as for time, I did


not want to diverge from the rule so often laid down by the master of true knowledge, which stipulates for tragedy the span of one day or a little more. (Appendix I.9d)

Unity of time was particularly significant in this instance: it seems to have served an important function with respect to dramatic verisimilitude. In explaining, later in the same essay, why he has chosen to divide his drama into five acts rather than the more modern three, the anonymous author alludes to the relationship between dramatic and real time:

And although the modern practice is to divide even spoken plays into three acts, I have preferred to divide mine into five, so that with more pauses the audience might rest from the mental effort of following a series of depicted events, and to this end I have settled on such a division. And also to adapt, at least in appearance, the timespan of the imitation to the duration of what it imitates. Given therefore that the action of the play covers one day, it would seem indeed that that is how long the play should last; but since this would be too inconvenient and tedious for the audience, the same continuous plot is divided into acts, so that one imagines that between one act and another more time elapses than actually does, and in this way, all told, one attains the span of one day. (Appendix I.9j)

Since the play could not possibly last as long as the time represented on stage, four intermissions—rather than two—made the illusion that much more suggestive.[23] Unity of time as a concept is addressed more explicitly by another librettist we have already heard from, Bissari, in his preface to Toritda (1648): "These operas do not fail those rules of quantity in that they generally represent the events of a single day in the prescribed limit of four hours" (Appendix I.25d).

One of the fullest discussions of the unities, as well as of other aspects of "classical" theory, to be found in these early librettos is Badoaro's preface to Ulisse errante (1644), his "Lettera dell'Assicurato Academico Incognito." Badoaro's generous airing of various possible interpretations of the "rules" was intended to assure the reader that his own decision to treat them in the freest possible manner was an educated, conscious one: "This opera necessarily required some transgression of the rules. I do not consider this a fault, and if others insist that it is, it will be a conscious, and not inadvertent, error" (Appendix I.8e). According to Badoaro, none of the three unities, no matter which interpretation is followed, accords with modern taste. Here is his scholastic defense of his position on the unity of time:


As for the span of time covered by the plot, some wanted to allow a limit of eight hours, and no more, others one revolution of the sun, some two days, others three; and even these uncertain rules were not always observed by Aeschylus, by Euripides, or by Sophocles, in some of whose plots months go by, and even years. Others said that it was more than sufficient if the story could be grasped without effort in one act of memory, and I myself could accept this opinion. The precepts of poetics after all are not permanent, because the mutations of centuries give rise to diversity in composition. (Appendix I.8g)

Badoaro's apologia here, his justification for the stretching of time to its useful—if not logical—limits, recalls the sixteenth-century literary defenders or modernizers of Aristotle.[24] That justification was to supply the theoretical basis for exploitation on the part of later Venetian librettists to an extent Badoaro himself could hardly have imagined.[25]

As far as unity of place was concerned, the same argument applied. Ancient tragedy was different from modern drama, a difference Badoaro documents by a quick summary of its development adapted from Horace:

In its earliest days, Tragedy was recited by the poet alone, his face tinted with the dregs of crushed grapes. Later characters were introduced, and masks; and then choruses were added, and music, and sound effects, and scene-changes, and dances replaced the choruses; and perhaps in the future, as times change, our descendants will witness the introduction of still other forms. (Appendix I.8h)[26]

Since ancient tragedy was so different from modern drama, it followed that its rules could no longer be strictly applied. But free application of the rules resulted in a breach of verisimilitude—the very sin these rules were created to mitigate:

At one time changes of place were abhorred in these plays, but at present, in order to please the eyes, what was once prohibited seems to be prescribed, so that every day greater numbers of scene-changes are devised; now, in order to increase the delight of the audience, one thinks nothing of introducing some improbabilities, as long as they do not disfigure the plot. (Appendix I.8i-j)


Badoaro does claim unity of action for his drama, but he does so by vastly stretching the definition of unity through elaborate verbal sophistry:

The plot . . . aims to be una unius [one in unity]. Unified, then, is my plot, because the subject unity is Ulysses; the formal unity is his errancy; nor do many errors constitute many plots, but only many parts of a plot, which constitute a single and great action, such as Aristotle advocates. (Appendix I.8c)

He argues from both sides of the question, proving unity of action at the same time as he defends its absence:

If someone objects that this subject is not appropriate for the stage, I will say that it is, hoping that as soon as he has heard the work, he will change his mind. If he says that it contains multiple plots, I will say that I was the first to point it out, and that can easily be seen from the subdivisions of the action that I send him, here enclosed, for this purpose. As for the adventures that befall Ulysses while traveling, it is true that they are multiple actions, but in respect to the intention of the traveler, which is to get back to his country, they are but a single action. (Appendix I.8b)

And he adds:

If these arguments are convincing, let them be accepted; if not, let it be said that I have wished to depict the greatest misfortunes experienced by Ulysses on his voyage home. Those who create their subjects out of their own imaginations do very well to proceed in strict accordance with the rules; given that the choice is theirs, they are wise to follow common practice; but he who commits himself to the hero of a known tale cannot take him on without the details of the events that necessarily go with the story. (Appendix I.8d)

Badoaro's emphasis on the incompatibility of the unities and modern practice was also expounded by several other spokesmen for the new genre. Busenello touches on the question of the unities in almost all of his writings. Revealing his acute awareness of the distinctions between ancient drama and his own librettos, he draws upon a wide variety of defenses to support his departures from classical precedent; his final defense, however, is always the same: modern taste. In Didone (1641) he excuses his breach of the unity of time by citing the precedent of Spanish drama: "This opera is influenced by modern opinions. It is not constructed according to the ancient rules but, according to Spanish usage, it represents years and not hours" (Appendix I.11a).[27] In Giulio Cesare (1646), however, he simply confesses to abusing the unities of both time and place without presenting a formal defense, citing as justification only his


desire to please the public. Here the poet makes Tempo, one of the allegorical characters featured in the prologue, his mouthpiece:

Here you will see years / Epitomized in hours. / . . . Who could ever object / If one melodious night reveals to you / The happenings and deeds of a thousand days? / . . . And I, in order to delight you, / Disciples, or rather teachers, of Alcydes / With flattering art, / Have enclosed more than a year in an evening: / Without using either couriers or ships, / Without changing your seats, you will discover / Thessaly, Lesbos, the Lighthouse, Egypt, and Rome. (Appendix I.12d)

As far as unity of action is concerned, Busenello calls upon Guarini as a witness for his defense in the preface to Gli amori d'Apollo e di Dafne (1640):

The other things in the present play [aside from the Apollo-Daphne plot] are episodes interwoven in the manner that you will see; and if perchance someone should judge that the unity of the plot is broken by the multiplicity of love stories (that is, of Apollo and Daphne, of Tithonus and Aurora, of Cephalus and Procris), let him be reassured by remembering that these interweavings do not destroy the unity, but rather embellish it; and let him remember that the Cavalier Guarino, in his Pastor Fido, did not intend a multiplicity of loves (that is, between Myrtillus and Amaryllis, and between Sylvius and Dorinda), but rather used the love story of Dorinda and Sylvius to adorn his tale. (Appendix I.10)[28]

Busenello sounds suspiciously like Badoaro when he demonstrates, by means of historical exegesis, the incompatibility of ancient rules and modern taste: neither Greek tragedy (originally performed on a cart with mud on the actors' faces), Homer (whose characters spoke three, four, or even five cantos in a row), nor Seneca (whose acts consist of but a single scene with chorus) would appeal to a modern audience; by extension, neither can the rules that governed them serve modern drama.[29]

It is worth noting the dates of Busenello's statements. Although, with the exception of Statira (1655), his librettos were among the earliest performed on the Venetian stage, neither they nor his prefaces appeared in print before 1656— that is, well after the establishment of dramma per musica in Venice. If he seems somewhat more radical in his pronouncements than his fellow librettists, more responsive to modern taste, it may be because he is observing the scene in retrospect, having been bolstered by their success as well as his own.


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