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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)

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