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2—Dramma per musica : The Question of Genre
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Modern Taste and Ethics

Behind all of these specific decisions—about the use of chorus, division into acts, and even adherence to the unities—lay a central conflict between traditional rules and modern taste. That conflict touches on an even more fundamental issue, to which these librettists were especially sensitive, one at the very basis of their whole enterprise: the purpose of their works.

The overt commercial values that had shaped opera in Venice from its earliest days gave a new focus to the question, but in addressing it, librettists were following an old tradition, that of the sixteenth-century writers who attempted to understand and communicate the aims of drama in the light of ancient poetic theory.[41] They acknowledged Aristotle's emphasis on emotional catharsis, but generally followed Horace in regarding their purpose as involving both delectation (il diletto ) and edification (l'utile ). The exact definition of these terms, as well as the proportion of the two ingredients in any single work, however, were matters that required considerable discussion. Following Horace, most previous theorists had allowed a mixture of the two aims, the one being a necessary means to the other. So, too, with our librettists, although their generic insecurity led them, at least during the 1640s, defensively to emphasize l'utile above il diletto .

An effort to demonstrate ethical content evidently inspired such elaborate interpretations as the one offered by Giulio Strozzi in the prefatory "Allegoria" of his libretto Delia :

But since . . . I did not work at random in structuring this plot, I shall tell you its allegorical meaning. The sons of the Sun . . . are wretched mortals, subjected to punishment by him for their pride and audacity. The Cyclopes represent the evil vapors. . . . The Sun shoots the Cyclopes, that is, those pernicious fumes, with arrows . . . and overcomes evil. [The Sun pretends to be] the shepherd of Admetus, that is, of the wise prince, who contributes by appropriate means to our salvation. . . . Like the sacred poems, this entire composition can be spiritually applied to the human soul, which seeks to unite with God, by whom it is received in glory. (Appendix I.15b)[42]

Strozzi claims a high moral significance, indeed, for a text that might seem a rather unlikely vehicle.

Moral scruples appear to have been operating once again in the preface to his next libretto, La finta pazza , in which he defends the apparently low tone of the work: "Do not laugh at the humbleness of the name ['The Feigned Madwoman'], nor at the [low] nature of the subject, because I wished to keep


my claims modest, and my invitation narrow, so that, without high-sounding titles, I could much more easily live up to the low expectations of the work" (Appendix I.16b). Not only is the apparent modesty of the libretto intentional, but so is the seemingly indecorous behavior of one of the principal characters, Deidamia, who feigns madness. Her action, however, offers a moral lesson: as Strozzi reminds his readers, "many great men, through feigned madness, have put into effect their wisest counsel, to the great benefit of the nation" ("molti huomini grandi con simulata pazzia hanno effettuato i lor prudentissimi consigli in gran benefitio della patria").

Didactic value of a more specific kind is ascribed to Deidamia's madness by Bisaccioni. In his commentary on Strozzi's work, he interprets it as a practical lesson in child-rearing, illustrating "how wary fathers should be, in raising their children, to provide for them and foresee the dangers they face" ("quanto debbano i padri star oculati nel provedere e prevedere i pericoli dei figli nell'allevarli"). And this lesson in turn proves that, unlikely as it may seem, "stage works should be heard and considered more for edification than for pleasure" ("l'opere sceniche dovrebbono per utile, più che per diletto udirsi, e considerare"). The message certainly transcends the medium.[43]

Some librettists, however, made a point of denying moral purpose to their works. The oft-quoted anonymous author of Le nozze d'Enea asserts that although the Horatian l'utite is in fact the "fin principale" of poetry, his aim is "diletto maggiore" as well as the Aristotelian excitation of the passions:

But although it is true that tragedies with tragic endings are superior to the other kind [i.e., his tragedy "di lieto fine"], even this kind is capable of exciting the passions; and besides it produces greater pleasure, which, even if it is not the principal aim of poetry, as edification is, still must be much sought after by the poet, especially since it is demanded by the temper of the times, to which poets have always adapted themselves in large measure. (Appendix I.9b)

And the librettist of Bellerofonte no longer even felt the pull of l'utile as he boldly rejected Horatian authority and proclaimed it diletto as poetry's chief purpose: "Of the two aims of poetry that Horace taught, only pleasure remains. In this age men have no need to learn the way of the world from the writings of others" (Appendix I.19f).

Denial no less than affirmation of ethical aims calls attention to an issue that obviously concerned these librettists. Such aims might be difficult to discern without the authors' hints, but they were inherent in many of these texts, even the most unlikely of them, those that seem especially hedonistic and amoral. One early librettist, Paolo Vendramin, offers a key to the interpretation of such


texts in ethical terms. In the prologue to his Adone , he comments on the tragic death of the hero, pointing out the moral of the story: "Se stupor, se pietà sia, che v'ingombre / Spettatori a tal fin; fattevi accorti, / Ch'i diletti de l'huom tutti son corti / E le gioie d'Amor tutte son'ombre" ("Spectators, whether it be shock or pity that weighs you down / At such an ending; be aware / That all the pleasures of man are brief/And all the joys of love are shadows").

Vendramin's moral lesson could be applied even under the opposite conditions; a happy ending could be as instructive as a tragic one. This point is crucial to the interpretation of one of the most problematic librettos of the period, Busenello's L'incoronazione di Poppea —and undoubtedly to that of others as well. Poppea's illicit rise to power, which culminates in her coronation as Nerone's empress, is built on lust and the death and exile of apparently innocent, moral individuals. In the end, however, despite the overwhelming victory of Poppea, the work is less a celebration of the vices of murder and lust than a cautionary tale. The audience, undoubtedly familiar with their Seneca, knew that Poppea's triumph was only momentary and that she would soon be violently killed by her husband. The lesson of her story, then, although only implicit, can be considered no less moral than that of Vendramin's Adone .[44]

After the middle of the century, when their number had increased markedly, most librettists abandoned the theoretical defense of their works; they could now accept as axiomatic the premises argued by their more academically inclined predecessors. Some, however, still felt compelled to account for the gap between the ethical aims of ancient drama and the more hedonistic purposes of their own works. As late as 1667 Nicolò Minato asserted the ethical intentions of his La caduta di Elio Seiano quite explicitly in his preface:

And if you come across some who say [the actions] are not to their liking, look closely and you will see that they are people of low condition who are unable to comprehend the elevated sentiments of a heroic soul. Remember that the performance of these dramas was invented by the ancients to teach perfection in morals, and thus the actions that are represented in them must be modeled after the idea of what should be, if not after what actually is. (Appendix I.43)[45]

And the publisher's preface to the anonymous Achille in Sciro (1664) still concerns itself with the aims of drama: "If this play does not proceed according to the strict rules of Aristotle, [at least] it follows the pleasant custom of the age, being a new kind of composition, which, unlike the ancient ones, has as its aim more to delight than to instruct" (Appendix I.54).[46]


The issue became especially pressing in the case of some of the more lascivious librettos of this later period, although not all librettists attempted to excuse their salaciousness with the same circuitous and pathetic justification as Giacomo Castoreo in the preface to his Pericle effeminato (1653):

If I have not maintained either decorum in the characters or verisimilitude in the incidents, do not find fault with me, since I am following the misguided custom, introduced by many and practiced by all. Those metaphors that go by the name of playful, though they stray rather far from moral propriety, listen to them if you wish, but know that my intention was never to introduce obscenity into them; rather it was to induce you to mourn with me the depraved corruption of the century, in which poetic talent, which in other times was used to intimidate tyrants with civility of conduct, can find no means to delight you except through the effrontery of indecent jokes. (Appendix I.40b)

Much later, in the preface to his Alcibiade (1680), a thin pro forma reference to morality was all that Aurelio Aureli could muster to excuse his thoroughly licentious libretto: "You will enjoy a few lascivious though restrained actions, composed by me with the sole aim that you learn to shun them, and not to imitate them." ("Goderai di qualche scherzo lascivo ma pero moderato, com-posto da me a solo fine, che tu impari a sfuggirlo, e non ad imitarlo.")[47]

For the first generation of librettists—the Incogniti Busenello, Badoaro, Bartolini, Bisaccioni, and Strozzi, who were truly academic in their education and interests—the authority of the ancients was part of their cultural heritage. It loomed in the background, waiting to be applied whenever and however it was needed. The main purpose of all of their citations, as Badoaro neatly put it, was to show that they knew the rules: "In every age the road of invention has been shown to be open, and we have no other obligation in regard to the precepts of the ancients than to know them" (Appendix I.8k). What they did with them after that was a matter of individual choice.

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