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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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