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13—Il ritorno d'Orfeo : The Decline of a Tradition
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Il ritorno d'Orfeo :
The Decline of a Tradition

Orpheus, the mythic musician of Thrace, who charmed men, gods, savage beasts, the very rocks with his song, was the quintessential operatic hero. His story was an explicit demonstration of the power of music, an operatic archetype. Orpheus, most celebrated of mythological musicians, specifically harnessed the rhetorical powers of music for dramatic ends, to persuade the god of the Underworld to release Eurydice from the bonds of death; and it was this dramatic application that accounted for his special appeal. Rendering the Orpheus myth in music represented one of the great challenges to librettists and composers—from Rinuccini and Peri to Cocteau and Stravinsky—a test of their own powers of musical persuasion.

Although not officially the first operatic hero, having been preceded in that role by his father Apollo several years before,[1] Orpheus was certainly the most important. In 1600 in Florence, as spokesman for Rinuccini and Peri in Euridice , he forcefully asserted the propriety of sung drama. Soon afterwards, in 1607, under his own name, he carried the operatic message to Mantua for Striggio and Monteverdi; and in 1647 he appeared in Paris in Francesco Buti's and Luigi Rossi's Orfeo , to confirm the arrival of the genre beyond the Alps.[2] It is thus perhaps somewhat surprising that in Venice opera had been in existence for some thirty-five years before Orpheus made his debut there. Evidently his presence had not been strictly necessary for the establishment of opera in Venice; the legitimacy of dramma per musica had been achieved through other means.


Indeed, mythology in general, the chief source for operatic subject matter in Florence and Rome (and later in Paris), had quickly relinquished that role in Venice to romance and history. After the first few seasons, the gods were permanently relegated to the sidelines—retained along with allegorical personifications in prologues and intermedi, primarily as an excuse for spectacle.

By the time he finally appeared in Venice during the 1670S, then, Orpheus was redundant, even superannuated. His main claim to operatic fame, the special ability to translate music into action, was by then taken for granted. Through repeated practice it had become common to all operatic heroes, whatever their lineage. Opera, which had once depended on the Orphic exemplum for its verisimilitude, was now fully sustained by the power of convention.

Nor was the Thracian musician merely superfluous. Compounding the ignominy of his redundance in 1673, Orpheus became a Venetian casualty, a victim of operatic success. The conventions that had developed during the initial decade of operatic activity in Venice—that had been deployed so naturally and effectively in Giasone in 1649, and that were exploited repeatedly in subsequent years by every librettist and composer working on the lagoon—exacted their toll on the operatic hero: they succeeded in depriving him of his unique birthright, his heroic status. Orpheus's loss of stature in Venice was not merely symbolic. It was 'actually dramatized on the stage of the Teatro S. Salvatore, in Orfeo of Aureli and Sartorio.

The unheralded return of Orpheus in 1673 did not signal any particular revival of interest in mythology—no such interest is reflected in other operas of the time. Yet it was hardly a casual event. No audience could have been unaware of Orpheus's mythic musical powers, and no librettist or composer could have ignored his operatic pedigree. He carried it with him wherever he went, daring librettists and composers to come to terms with it. A century later Orpheus would stand for the rebirth of opera in Gluck's and Calzabigi's setting of his story. In 1673, as well, he evoked an inevitable, if tacit, comparison with his own past, an implicit confrontation with the original ideals of opera. He had in effect always been waiting in the wings, ready to reappear when needed, either as an actor or as an observer of his own art.

Aureli, accustomed to weaving fantasy around a kernel of historia , performed his usual operation on the Orpheus myth, using it as the basis of a conventional Venetian plot in the Faustini mold. To obtain the standard double pair of lovers, he added Aristeo (a legitimate addition adopted from Virgil's version of the myth),[3] who competes with Orfeo for Euridice's affections, and


Autonoe, who loves Aristeo (her spouse in Greek mythology). Comic relief comes from the conventional nurse (Eurinda, serving Euridice) and squire (Orillo, serving Orfeo); and a subplot is provided by the actions of Achille, Chirone, Ercole, and Esculapio (Orfeo's brother and the only one bearing even the slightest relationship to the main plot), who are exploited for a variety of conventional purposes. Achilles, as we recall from (inter alia) La finta pazza , was sent into hiding by his mother, Thetis, to protect him against his fate in the Trojan War. In Aureli's Orfeo , his legendary musical studies with the centaur Chirone provide an excuse for the introduction of a conventional singing scene.

In addition to the extra personnel, who help to turn this story into a typical Venetian libretto—they also include the gods Pluto, Tetide, and Bacco—the events of the myth itself are distorted and rearranged. But Aureli's invenzione goes well beyond mere dimostrazione . The operatic implications of the myth charge his emphases and omissions with special significance. They cannot but comment on the state of opera in 1673. The most basic events of the myth are: the death of Eurydice from a snakebite; Orpheus's desperation and determination to rescue her from the clutches of death; his plea to the Underworld, a test of his powers as a poet and musician—the quintessentially operatic action; her restoration; her second death; and, finally, his renunciation of womankind. All these are present in Aureli's text, but each is purposely perverted. The poet managed to incorporate some of the most important operatic conventions of the day, at the same time as he systematically reduced the stature of Orpheus as hero.

Euridice dies from the snakebite while being chased by Orfeo's rival, Aristeo. But this ostensibly crucial event hardly precipitates all of the action of the drama: since it does not take place until the end of Act 2, it is as much the result of previous actions as the cause of subsequent ones. Indeed, it occurs only after Orfeo himself has attempted to kill Euridice out of jealousy, has actually threatened to pursue her to Hades for the purpose of doing so—an ironic anticipation and inversion of his traditional course of action—and has subsequently enlisted his servant Orillo to accomplish the deed.

Hypocritically, then, and rather weakly, Orfeo laments her loss, which he had himself tried to engineer, but the emotional drain of lamentation tires him and he falls asleep (sleep scene). He eventually does follow Euridice to Hades, but only after she herself has urged it on him in a dream (invocation scene), during which she sings a passionate lament (descending tetrachord aria). He wins her release, but the prayer, which counts as his most singular act of musical heroism, is never heard. It occurs off stage, between scenes, out of earshot of the audience—who learn of it only from Pluto's report: "Orpheus, you have won. Your sonorous song has placated the furies and softened hell." ("Orfeo, vincesti. Il canto tuo sonoro / Placcò le furie e raddolcì l'Inferno"


[3.13]). (To increase the irony of the omission, Sartorio's setting of this report is extremely elaborate and florid, as if Pluto rather than Orpheus were the legendary singer.) On their return to earth, despite all Euridice's warnings and pleas, Orfeo insists upon looking back at her. At her second death, he does finally sing an impassioned lament, but no sooner has he finished than he launches into a strongly contrasting aria in which he happily renounces all womankind (cantabile-cabaletta combination; use of comic style for incongruity). Whereas in the myth his renunciation is filled with bitter passion, eventually culminating in his own violent death, here it becomes the subject of a comic aria.

By expunging, inverting, or parodying all of the scenes in which Orpheus had traditionally proven his mythic valor, Aureli dissuades us from recognizing him as the hero of this opera. Euridice, in fact, is clearly the more heroic of the two. In addition to planning her own rescue from the Underworld, she remains steadfast in her love for Orfeo and adamant in her respect for the law and her adherence to Pluto's decree.[4]

Nor is the audience encouraged either by Aureli or Sartorio to appreciate Orfeo as a musician. Every other character seems to have usurped his traditional musical functions. Achille rather than Orfeo is the "singer" of the opera (he sings a song in Orfeo's music room); Euridice sings the tetrachord lament we would have expected from him; and in describing to the audience Orfeo's triumph over the Furies, Pluto actually sings Orfeo's elaborate Underworld prayer.

The mythological operatic hero has been transformed into a jealous Venetian husband, a character whom anyone in the audience would have recognized easily enough. Orpheus's altered identity, his demotion to Everyman, is acknowledged by the titles affixed to revivals of the opera: Orfeo o sia Amore spesso inganna (Brunswick, 1690) and Orfeo a torto geloso (Bologna, 1695).[5] Although audiences must have appreciated the ironies of the once-heroic musician's transformation and enjoyed the role played in it by their favorite operatic conven-


tions, the transformation itself was symbolic of something they probably could not fully have appreciated, at least not all of them. It represented the erosion of operatic decorum. In surrendering his heritage and sinking to the level of the audience, Orpheus personified the decline that the Arcadians were soon to ascribe to Cicognini's influence. Like Orpheus, opera, too, had lost its stature.

Il volgo tumultuario

The conditions that contributed to the fall of Orpheus in 1673 were reflected in other developments as well. In the very next year, the two-theater monopoly that had dominated operatic activities for more than a decade was broken. Newly revitalized, the Teatro S. Moisè, which had unsuccessfully threatened the monopoly some years earlier (in 1666), entered into competition with SS. Giovanni e Paolo and S. Salvatore. And the S. Moisè's new manager, Francesco Santurini, incurred the enmity of his competitors by reducing the price of admission. The change was lamented by Ivanovich, among others.[6] He regarded it as undermining the level of operatic entertainment, and alluded to it passionately several times during the course of his "Memorie teatrail" before devoting an entire chapter to a discussion of its deleterious effects.[7] In Ivanovich's view, reduced ticket prices, besides limiting the funds available for operatic productions and therefore diminishing their grandeur, lowered the social level of the audience to include ignorant and disruptive crowds.[8]

Santurini's move, strongly opposed by the other theater managements, met with great popular success.[9] Despite the notoriously small size of S. Moisè, the price reduction was so profitable that it encouraged him to seek the usual patrician support for the construction of a new, larger theater, where he could expand the practice. The first new opera house in nearly three decades, the Teatro S. Angelo opened for business in 1677.[10] The new theater was still relatively small, but its modern facilities and central location combined with the reduced price of admission attracted a large audience, forcing the competing theaters to lower their prices as well—S. Salvatore in 1677, SS. Giovanni e Paolo in 1680.[11]


Although other factors were certainly involved, perhaps the most significant result of Santurini's move was the opening in 1678 of yet another new theater, the Teatro S. Giovanni Grisostomo (Figs. 27, 28), by the most important theatrical entrepreneurs of the period, the brothers Grimani, proprietors of SS. Giovanni e Paolo (and of the prose theater of S. Samuele as well). While these shrewd businessmen eventually bowed to competition by reducing the price of admission to their older opera house, they retained the traditional higher price for their new one, thus asserting its social distinction. It was clearly their aim to maintain a certain decorum. Larger, better equipped, and more magnificent than any other theater of the seventeenth century, the Teatro S. Giovanni Grisostomo eventually became a symbol of the restoration of decorum to Venetian opera as a whole.[12]

The decline of operatic standards could not be ascribed exclusively to the influence of the "volgo tumultuario." As Ivanovich explained when he returned to the subject, the causes ("abusi correnti") were intrinsic to the works themselves and to the system that nourished them. Commercial considerations and the rule of the marketplace had so eroded the ethics of librettists that they


Teatro S. Giovanni Grisostomo. Engraving from Vincenzo Maria Coronelli, 
Venezia festeggiante  . . . (Venice, 1709). Venice, Biblioteca del Civico Museo Correr.

regularly stooped to plagiarism of all kinds, even trampling on the bonds of friendship in the process: "They steal not only the cleverest incidents but ariette and whole lines of poetry too, by using the pretense of friendship, the artifice of ostensible familiarity, nor is there any longer a secure path to trust."[13] Plagiarism had been a cause for concern for some time, and the "borrowing" of individual scenes was commonplace. The transfer of whole arias from one work to another, a more recent phenomenon, was a somewhat different matter, however. It was acknowledged only occasionally, as in the printer's prefaces to Argia (1669) and Antigona (1670):


Entrance ticket for the Teatro S. Giovanni Grisostomo. Venice, Biblioteca 
del Civico Museo Correr (Cod. Cicogna 2991/II).

You will notice a few arias heard on another occasion; but because it is known that they were taken from this drama they have been left in, because they are both few and of singular exquisiteness. (Appendix I. 55)

If you recognize the beauty of some of Ziani's ariettas that you have heard before, either in Venice or in the Imperial Court, understand that everything was done with the single aim of pleasing you more. (Appendix I.51)

But the practice was clearly more widespread. We recall that by the 1660s singers were being permitted, if not encouraged, to bring their own arias with them. The very fact that wholesale lifting of musical and textual materials could occur at all is in itself symptomatic of the decline of the genre: it assumed the conventionality of the arias, trading on their loss of musico-dramatic specificity.

As a further cause of generic erosion, Ivanovich cited librettists' mistreatment of their sources, the lacerations, distortions, and anachronisms perpetrated by them in their attempts to create something new:


With indiscreet freedom they begin to make mincemeat of the libretto, and with the caprice of those few who pretend to set universal standards, they lacerate, they displace, they decompose the model, they jostle the invention, they deform the disposition, and make the locution worse, so that what is exposed in public is a deformed product, like the statue in Athens. Passing now to a consideration of the success of such works, and what one can expect from a composition distorted by so many alterations, no scruple is attached to anachronisms; no defect seen if the history or fable is changed. (Appendix II.6ii)

Ivanovich's final attack was multipronged. Moving to the question of decorum of genre and language, he decried in rapid succession the lowering of tone, the confusion of serious and comic elements, the destruction of linguistic propriety, the domination of the arias, and, perhaps most significant of all, the elimination of emotion: "It is considered a small error that the same style is used for the heroic and the ridiculous; that the pathetic element, which is the soul of the drama, is restricted, that the ariette take the place of the necessary recitative" (Appendix II.6jj).

Ivanovich's remarks acquire substance from their relevance to Aureli's and Sartorio's Orfeo . They can even be read as a critical response to that work insofar as it represents all works of the period. As we have seen, many of the key moments of Orfeo involved familiar techniques and scene-types (not demonstrably the result of plagiarism but rather of convention): the sleep scene, the ghost scene, the scene in the music room, the lament on the descending tetrachord. The source of Orfeo was certainly mistreated; deconstructed, rearranged, and deformed, it was subjected to numerous anachronisms.[14] Furthermore, the opera was virtually defined by its mixture of the heroic and the ridiculous. The validity of Ivanovich's remarks is confirmed by Orfeo , and they in turn affirm the representative nature of Sartorio's and Aureli's work.

In Defense of Decorum

The professed aim of Ivanovich's book, as we learn from the dedication, was to glorify his aristocratic patrons, the Grimani brothers, "whose theaters are admired by the whole world" (Appendix II. 6a). With their magnificent theaters and generous profusion of gold, these "true Apollos . . . allow the most elevated meters and the most exquisite voices to be heard" (Appendix II. 6b). They will prevent any further erosion of decorum. Their theatrical abilities are all the more powerful for being inherited, as Ivanovich recognized in ascribing to their "great progenitors" the responsibility for having resurrected theaters equal in


splendor to those of ancient Rome (Appendix II.6c). The Grimani, of course, in the person of their illustrious uncle, Giovanni, had been responsible for the founding of the theater at SS. Giovanni e Paolo in 1639, one of the earliest and grandest opera houses in Venice. And the family had been active in the affairs of a number of other theaters as well, most recently, as Ivanovich emphasized, with the erection of the magnificent new Teatro S. Giovanni Grisostomo, which merits a special celebratory sonnet just after the dedicatory message.[15]

After the dedication and sonnet, Ivanovich continued to compliment his patrons during the course of the volume, although somewhat more obliquely. His concern with decorum and ticket prices, for example, turns into an implicit tribute to their high standards and lofty aims. They alone refused to descend to the level of cheap competition by lowering prices (Appendix II. 6y). And in the chapter entitled "The Number of Theaters There Were and Are at Present in Venice and the Date of Their Founding" (Appendix II.60), his description of S. Giovanni Grisostomo is more elaborate than that of the other theaters, containing a number of flattering, if gratuitous, details: "The eleventh [theater], at San Giovanni Grisostomo, [was] erected with admirable speed in the year 1678 by Giovanni Carlo and the Abbot Vincenzo, the Grimani brothers, Antonio's sons, nephews and heirs of the abovementioned Giovanni, who thus showed that they had inherited his magnificence as well as his virtuosic genius, making the nobility of lineage and spirit all the more conspicuous" (Appendix II.6r).[16]

Ivanovich's special appreciation of the Grimani brothers and of their new theater for maintaining aesthetic standards may have been the obligatory response of a courtier to his patrons and therefore rather rhetorical. His relationship with the family, after all, had been a long one; it went back at least to 1663, when he wrote the libretto of Amor guerriero for SS. Giovanni e Paolo, which was then under the direction of the brothers' uncle, Giovanni (d. 1663). But his respect for them and their new theater was not misplaced. For the Grimani brothers, at S. Giovanni Grisostomo, were eventually instrumental in promoting the "reform" that Ivanovich's criticism of "abusi correnti" implicitly called for. The older of the two brothers, Giovanni Carlo, was a statesman and diplomat with many connections in Rome. His interests were strongly academic, and he was an important patron of the arts and of men of letters. In 1691, at his home in Venice, aided by the family's young secretary, Apostolo Zeno, Gio-


vanni Carlo founded the Accademia degli Animosi, which became incorporated as a colony of the Roman Arcadian academy in 1698.[17]

The relationship of Arcadian literary theory to the reform of opera at the end of the seventeenth century has been the subject of much scholarly attention. The Arcadians themselves were to spill considerable ink over the topic of opera, as the most visible and popular manifestation of the general decadence in Italian literature that they wished to reform. Their widely publicized views on the reasons for the decline and the sources of salvation, exemplified by the remarks of Crescimbeni quoted earlier, and by those of other writers, eventually succeeded in promoting a restoration of literary standards to the "decadent" genre.[18]

Giovanni Carlo Grimani, then, represented a direct link between opera in Venice and the impending Arcadian reform. Indeed, so-called reform librettos made their first Venetian appearance on the stage of S. Giovanni Grisostomo shortly after 1690.[19] But even before 1691, when the Accademia degli Animosi began to exercise a classicizing effect on the repertory of S. Giovanni Griso-stomo, the predilection of the Grimani brothers for a stricter sense of decorum was manifested at that theater in various ways: in its high entrance fee, and consequent cultivation of a particularly aristocratic audience, and in productions that were not only consistently more elaborately staged but generally more elevated in tone than those of other theaters, eschewing the sexual explicitness that characterized many operas of the 1680s.[20] The contrast is particularly vivid between the two Grimani theaters. The older SS. Giovanni e Paolo, with reduced prices, continued to employ professional librettists like Aureli, and to perform such patently decadent works as Alcibiade (1680) and Dionisio ovvero la virtò trionfante del vizio (1681). In the newer theater, on the other hand, ancient Roman themes predominated, and librettists were increasingly drawn from the higher reaches of society. Conceivably the Grimani brothers were intentionally exploiting both ends of the market, depending on


large lower-class audiences in one theater to support their extravagances in the other.[21]

The exalted image of the Teatro S. Giovanni Grisostomo persisted well into the eighteenth century. It was apparently the only opera house in Venice to resist the general invasion of comic intermezzi that began early in the century, a resistance that inspired the second historian of opera, Carlo Bonlini, to praise its uncompromisingly high standards: "At S. Giovanni Grisostomo [comic intermezzi] were never allowed, that majestic theater having always tried to maintain decorous restraint in all things."[22] And it was the site of a regular series of important opere serie —with librettos by such well-known reformers as Zeno, Domenico David, Girolamo Frigimelica Roberti, and Francesco Silvani—from the end of the seventeenth century until 1747, when it ceased to function as an opera house.[23]

In identifying with the accomplishments of the Accademia degli Animosi and in bringing their ideals into the opera house for the purpose of promoting operatic reform, Giovanni Carlo Grimani was reviving an old relationship between opera and the academy. Half a century earlier, we recall, another academy, the Incogniti, had exercised comparable influence on the genre. Its voluminous aesthetic discussions in opera librettos and elsewhere had established the premises for the development of the genre. They had aired the fundamental questions of verisimilitude, linguistic decorum, and adherence to Aristotelian principles, justifying all sorts of evasions and improprieties on the basis of modern taste; and they had invoked precedents drawn from a wide range of historical sources. It was the very improprieties they so avidly defended that, when naturally extended, became the abuses that the Arcadians, invoking their own precedents drawn from the tradition of French classicism, were to condemn and seek to correct. Seicento opera in Venice, then, was bracketed by the activities of two academies, both claiming special influence by virtue of their elaborate propaganda networks.[24]


Ivanovich's History and Criticism

Ivanovich may have dedicated his Minerva al tavolino to the Grimani brothers and paid them various compliments during the course of his narrative, but his intention in writing the volume—and his achievement—was much grander than mere flattery of a patron. His object was historical: to provide a documented catalogue raisonné of operas performed in Venice, and to supply a historical framework that would help to explain it:

The introduction of musical dramas took place, as we have already said, in the year 1637 under the Dogate of Francesco Erizzo, and in a time when the Republic enjoyed a most tranquil peace. It is therefore an obligation that so virtuous and delightful an entertainment, introduced in our own day, be registered with precision in all of its worthiest details, so that the memory of it shall not end with the sound of its instruments and voices (as occurred with the tragedies and other theatrical spectacles of Rome, for which there was no one with diligence equal to ours to inform posterity, which now lives in the dark about them), and so that it shall not remain buried among the shadows when the lights that illuminated it are extinguished. So worthy a memory, which challenged the greatest talents to produce the most curious and noble creations that ever appeared to human sight, deserves to be granted immortality, so that the merit of their virtue shall forever stand as an example and stimulus to those who feel inclined to practice it for its greater glory. Thus these "Memorie teatrali di Venezia" are followed by a general catalogue in which, for each work from the year 1637 to the present year, 1681, distinct and accurate mention will be made of the year, the theater, the title of the drama, the name of the author, and that of the composer. (Appendix II.6dd)

Ivanovich, however, like all good historians, was also a critic. He could not refrain from evaluating his material even as he set it down. To this tendency of his we owe the first official, sustained criticism of Venetian opera. But his critical remarks, in particular his repeated references to the decay that had affected the genre, have a familiar ring. For instance:

The theater was originally, and would now still be, of great benefit if its original decorum had been preserved, if abuses had not occurred, and if imaginations were tempered with more worthy sentiments. (Appendix II.6cc)

In the early years of operatic activity in Venice, the poetry

was not weighed down by as many concerns as it is at present. Any story was possible, every plot was appreciated, every phrase admired, as in all genres when they are new. These days it is thought a great miracle to encounter the most bizarre and uncommon inventions, structures, and elocutions, so spoiled and exacting have tastes become from being exposed to the sweetest delicacies of virtue. (Appendix II.6bb)

And again:


In the beginning theaters were not ruled by prices, since discretion and honesty carried some weight and the labors of the artists were better appreciated and tolerated; whereas at present taste has become so exigent that decay has replaced growth. Furthermore, instead of the former profits, debts are incurred because of the excessive payment to singers. At the beginning two exquisite voices, a small number of delightful arias, and a few scene changes sufficed to satisfy the curiosity [of the audience]. Now, one objects if one hears a voice that is not up to European standards; one expects every scene to be accompanied by a change of setting, and that the machines be brought in from another world. (Appendix II.6u)

And finally:

The . . . success of an opera, whether good or ill, depends on a thousand accidents based for the most part on the extravagant play of ridiculous Fortune, and which usually goes hand in hand with the verdict of the rabble. (Appendix II.6w)

Ivanovich's comments echo concerns, even language, we have already encountered, both among earlier critics of opera, primarily librettists of some thirty years before, and among later ones, like Crescimbeni. Indeed, Ivanovich's observations take their place within a critical tradition as old as Venetian opera itself. It is a tradition that developed along with opera in Venice as a necessary corollary to its self-confirmation as a genre, a genre characterized by intense self-consciousness, by recognition of its own conventions and compromises, and by a keen awareness of its audience—their tastes, prejudices, and expectations.

In lamenting its decline, then, Ivanovich was repeating a recurrent critical theme of the later seventeenth century, one that had concerned even those librettists most guilty of the abuses he decried. His articulation of issues and values familiar from the past affirms the continuity of the tradition of opera in Venice. That continuity was one of its most significant features, manifested most obviously in the persistence of conventions and in the frequent revivals of old works. It was simultaneously maintained and documented in printed librettos, whose very existence was symptomatic of the idiosyncratic economic and social structure of opera in Venice. In addition to advertising and promoting individual works, printed librettos became permanently available as documents, sources of historical information, preservers of conventions, and as potential candidates for revival or rifacimento .

Ivanovich acknowledged their function as reminders and inspiration when he justified the three indices that conclude his catalogue:

The first [index] will be of all the titles of the dramas, and it will be useful for those who compose, to know them in order to avoid [repeating] them, or to vary the choice of the actions of the protagonist, as illustrated by Hercules, with various titles, Alexander, and Pompey. The second will be of all the names of the authors


who have composed them. The third of all the names of the composers of the music. These indices will be useful to many who have the spirit and talent to undertake with virtuous effort the career in a field so laudably trod by the first and foremost pens of the literary republic. (Appendix II.6ee)[25]

Ivanovich himself, as we have seen, had certainly acquired his knowledge of the history of opera as well as of the views of his predecessors by reading the librettos he catalogued. He urged his readers to do the same, promising that they would gain a more accurate appreciation of their quality than that provided by their reputations, which were often based entirely on extraliterary circumstances:

Varied are the causes, and strange the events that accompany dramas on the stage, each one of which is sufficient to earn or to deny applause for the author. Already some dramas of great merit have been observed to be thwarted by bad luck, to the great surprise of those who professed themselves knowledgeable about such things, either because the choice of singers was only ordinary, or because of weak music, lack of machines, imperfection of sets, or poverty of costumes, all circumstances beyond the author's control, and nonetheless all of them injurious to his success. On the other hand, some dramas filled with the most monstrous defects, intolerable for their structure and their elocution, have been favored in the competition, either because of a special voice heard again, or for music of unusual meter, or for a machine of eccentric invention. In sum, it would seem that destiny, for the most part, favors those of least merit. From the reading of the dramas cited in the catalogue of the present "Memorie," it will now be possible for those skilled writers who have employed their talents nobly to hope to win from the objective judgment of posterity the praise they deserve; better than the present situation where it is denied to them because of the natural inclination to envy the fame of outstanding men while they live and to praise them only when they are dead. (Appendix II.6gg)

Tradition and Revival

The Venetian tradition consciously sustained itself in a variety of ways. Librettists' prefaces sometimes read like litanies or operatic curricula vitae. Most revivals and rifacimenti were clearly (and proudly) acknowledged as such, even on the title pages.[26] Such revivals and rifacimenti may well have been motivated by a shortage of new librettos or new subjects, but, rather than suffering for being derivative or unoriginal, they apparently claimed special status by virtue of pedigree, by the very fact of having had a past.


Many revivals involved the new setting of an old text. Scores, it must not be forgotten, were not published and so were less readily available than librettos. But old music was often reused as well, if it could be found. This is clear from a complaint regarding the difficulty encountered both in locating and in adjusting the original music of Cesti's Dori for a revival in 1667.[27] Since the work had been performed as recently as four years earlier at S. Salvatore, presumably the problem was not overwhelming. And since the previous performance had not been the first, there were probably multiple scores in circulation.[28] The difficulty must have been immeasurably greater in 1683, however, when Cesti's nearly thirty-year-old Orontea was revived at SS. Giovanni e Paolo: "At SS. Giovanni e Paolo they are rehearsing another new opera called Orontea , which, it is hoped, despite the fact that it was performed here years ago, will be successful, since it has quite a lot of humor and is the work of the reliable pen of Cesti."[29] Interestingly, although the reporter of this occasion expressed some concern about the antiquated nature of the score, he was reassured by Cesti's reputation, as well as by the humor in the libretto. Clearly, the underlying assumption here was one of stylistic continuity. While some operas underwent considerable alteration that involved aspects of dramaturgy, others could be brought up to date merely by the addition of new arias and sometimes, as we saw with Giasone , the excision of recitative passages as well.[30]

The relative stability of opera in seventeenth-century Venice, maintained through the persistence of powerful musical and dramatic conventions, is underscored by a comparison with a non-Venetian opera that was revived in Venice thirty years after its first performance, Monteverdi's Arianna . Modern, not to say pathbreaking, in the Mantua of 1608, the work was a complete


anachronism in the Venice of 1640. The alterations made in the libretto, such as the elimination of choruses, could not possibly have brought it into line with contemporary Venetian practice. Only Monteverdi's enormous reputation at the time could have sustained Arianna in Venice. In its new context— surrounded by such works as Strozzi's and Manelli's Delia , Busenello's and Cavalli's Gli amori d'Apollo e di Dafne , or Ferrari's Il pastor regio , and especially Monteverdi's own, only slightly later Il ritorno d'Ulisse and L'incoronazione di PoppeaArianna must have stood out as an anomaly, constructed for a different kind of audience at a very different phase in the evolution of opera. The libretto of Orontea , however, performed in 1649, 1666, and 1683—even with much of the same music—could remain essentially unchanged.[31]

Indeed, the preservation and appreciation of their own tradition by the Venetian public, and the availability of old music, are wonderfully illustrated in the prologue to a revival of Cesti's Argia in 1669. It is set in a library of musical scores, a variation on the scene in the music room. These Apollo, Piacere, and three Muses remove one after another from the shelves to evaluate them for possible performance and to sing arias from them, including one from the more than ten-year-old Hipermestra (Cavalli/Moniglia, 1658).[32]

It was this very continuity, self-consciously developed and maintained, that constituted and confirmed the generic identity of Venetian opera. Regularity of demand, dependability of economic support, and predictability of audience, all of these features, unique to seventeenth-century Venice, had combined to sustain the establishment of the new, distinct, and permanent art form, one that carried within itself all the premises of its future development. Once firmly established—in fact, even before then—opera began to spread from its Venetian matrix. The Febiarmonici, always on the move, transported it up and down the


peninsula for occasional performances, beginning as early as 1640 in Bologna. Eventually, stable theaters, with their own regular repertories, mostly borrowed from Venice, began to emerge in centers like Florence, Milan, Bologna, Genoa, Rome, Naples, and Palermo, none of them remotely resembling Venice in their social structure.[33] But by then opera had been fully formed; it no longer required the nurture of the Venetian hothouse environment.

What had been worked out by the middle of the century in Venice had become permanent. Yet it was never taken for granted. The issues that both challenged and inspired generic definition—questions of verisimilitude, distinctions between speech and song, propriety of style and language, play with illusion and reality in the three dimensions of music, words, and setting—were repeatedly addressed and resolved, in Venice and elsewhere, throughout the seventeenth century and beyond.

Orpheus's Venetian appearance in 1673 confirms the persistent relevance of these issues. As the character with the most legitimate claim to musical speech and action, his antiheroism in Venice is a direct challenge to operatic verisimilitude. His refusal to accept his role, to be himself, reaffirms the vitality of the operatic paradox. His subsequent appearances elsewhere, in other guises, under other conditions, would revive the same basic issues. From Gluck's and Calzabigi's eighteenth-century Vienna to Offenbach's nineteenth-century Parisian Underworld to Harrison Birtwistle's twentieth-century Thatcherized Britain, he boldly proclaimed his identity, raising and resolving anew the question of the legitimacy of opera.

Although Venice maintained its position as the major operatic center of Italy to the end of the eighteenth century, with the largest number of active theaters, by the end of the seventeenth it had yielded its operatic hegemony. New works were regularly being created elsewhere. But Venice left a permanent imprint on the genre. Responsive and relevant, exploiting the ambiguous power of multiple means of expression combined, the genre that so fascinated audiences in Venice, that was so effectively nourished by the Venetian climate, still lives. The creative ambiguity that was formally recognized and concretized


by terminological consensus in the acceptance of dramma per musica in midseventeenth-century Venice has continued to animate opera. The same self-questioning, self-assertion, and self-definition are inherent in virtually every subsequent descriptive subtitle affixed to the genre: opera seria, opera buffa, tragé-die lyrique , grand opera, melodrama, azione teattale, dramma lirico, Musiktheater , even Gesamtkunstwerk —all recapitulate the aesthetic issues first elaborated in the opera workshop of seventeenth-century Venice.


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13—Il ritorno d'Orfeo : The Decline of a Tradition
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