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2—Dramma per musica : The Question of Genre
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Subject Matter

One area in which the impact of ancient precedent remained evident, at least on the surface, was in the choice of subject matter. The stories were old. A number of the earliest Venetian operas, like those in Florence and Rome, had mythological subjects. Most of them were based on Ovidian tales (probably filtered through modern translation and adaptation, especially that of Anguillara): Andromeda, Adone, Apollo e Dafne, Arianna .[48] Others treated mythological char-


acters more freely: Amore innamorato, Venere gelosa, Delia . Still others, borrowing their plots from Homer and Virgil, recounted the exploits of Greek and Trojan heroes: Le nozze di Teti e di Peleo, Il ritorno d'Ulisse, Didone, Le nozze d'Enea . Another important category of libretto was the romance derived from more recent Italian literature, from Ariosto or Tasso: Bradamante, Armida . In most cases, the librettist relied on an earlier literary or dramatic model; newly invented plots were uncommon during the first decade of opera in Venice. Yet the nature of the source determined the librettist's attitude toward it, the extent to which he followed or elaborated upon it. Mythology, dealing with the exploits of the Olympian deities, allowed relatively free rein to the librettist's imagination. The various events of divine careers were self-sufficient, lending themselves to isolation as well as to combination and permutation. They could also be combined with those of other gods with whom they intersected, linked by their common Olympian citizenship. A divine cast could be expanded or contracted at will, characters could be added for their particular attributes— their comic potential, for example, like Momus or Mercury. Their characterization left more room for invention or imagination, for expansion. Most important, mythology not only permitted the suspension of disbelief, it actually encouraged it. Gods and goddesses were automatically exempted from the rules of human behavior.[49]

History, on the other hand, whatever its mythological dimensions, made greater claims on verisimilitude. The Trojan War had causes and results; it had a beginning and an end. Ulysses and Aeneas, though legendary, were human beings with well-known histories and destinies; their adventures were replete with historical implications and consequences. It is no wonder, therefore, that early librettists felt more strictly bound by human history than by divine myth, and that they felt compelled to justify any liberties they took as far as plot development was concerned.

One of the most notorious revisionists in this sense was, predictably, Busenello. His treatment of the Virgilian episode of Dido and Aeneas bows so deeply to "modern taste" that it verges on the absurd: he supplied that quint-essentially tragic story with a happy ending. And yet he found full academic justification for his departure.

And because according to good doctrine it is permissible for poets not only to alter [fictional] stories but even history, Dido takes Iarbas for her husband. And if it was


a famous anachronism in Virgil that Dido lost her life not for Sychaeus, her husband, but for Aeneas, great minds should be able to tolerate that here there occurs a marriage that is different both from the stories and the histories. He who writes satisfies his own fancy, and it is in order to avoid the tragic ending of Dido's death that the aforementioned marriage to Iarbas has been introduced. It is not necessary here to remind men of understanding how the best poets represented things in their own way; books are open, and learning is not a stranger in this world. (Appendix I.11b)

The convention of the happy ending in tragedy, of course, was hardly new with opera. Aristotle himself had confronted the issue. Judging the happy ending more proper to comedy, he recognized its use in tragedy as a form of pandering to audience taste.[50] Renaissance authors deliberately exploited the option. Giraldi Cintio, for example, all of whose tragedies end happily, acknowledges their generic impurity by calling them tragedie miste . He, too, admits that his motive was "exclusively to serve the needs of the spectators, and to make them [the tragedies] more pleasing on the stage, and to conform better to the usage of our times."[51] The issue remained problematic into the seventeenth century, and the rationale for the happy ending the same, its appeal to popular taste—as Giulio Strozzi reminds us in defending his tragedy Erotilla , written in honor of the marriage of the prince of Sulmona.

But what have tragedies to do with weddings? In truth the incongruity would be great if mine were not one of those tragedies that are allowed to have a happy ending and to leave a sweet taste in the mouths of the spectators. . . . It is true that, according to the rules of Aristotle, such tragedies seem less perfect, but in accordance with the taste of the day, which is the rule of all rules, they are received with greater enthusiasm, and listened to with greater patience. (Appendix I. 14a,c)[52]

Within this same passage, Strozzi makes a further distinction, one also emphasized by Renaissance writers, between tragedy with a happy ending and tragicomedy:

Nor do I want anyone to baptize it a tragicomedy, because it would show that they do not understand the significance of that term, nor know in what sense the ancients used it. For they called tragicomedies only those comedies in which some more noble and tragic characters were inserted, such as heroes or gods; but they never used that term for tragedies to which they gave happy endings. (Appendix I. 14b)


That distinction, as we shall see, proved to be of particular relevance in the subsequent development of the Venetian libretto.[53]

In any case, whether in tragedy or tragicomedy, the happy ending already boasted a lengthy operatic pedigree, having been introduced in the first surviving opera from Florence, Peri's Euridice , and used on many subsequent occasions. Busenello nevertheless felt compelled to justify the practice in his Didone , perhaps because the tragic outcome of the story was so well known. Whatever the reason, he seems to have been the first librettist to cite ancient authority—though he is rather vague on exactly which authority he is referring to—to justify the practice in opera.

Other librettists, however, stuck more closely to their sources, at least in the early period. In Il ritorno d'Ulisse , for example, Badoaro follows the Odyssey quite faithfully. But when he treated the same subject in another libretto, Ulisse errante (1644), he took many more liberties with his source. The contrast, as pointed out by Badoaro himself in the preface, was intentional, a response to critics of his earlier work who had apparently judged it lacking in invention.

Many years ago [i.e., four] I produced Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria , a drama wholly derived from Homer and deemed excellent by Aristotle in his Poetics , and even then I heard dogs barking, but I was not slow to respond with stones in my hands. Now I present Ulisse errante , which consists, in substance, of twelve books of Homer's Odyssey . I have partly reduced the episodes, partly built up the subject with inventions as I deemed necessary, without departing from the essence of the story. (Appendix I. 8a)

Although Il ritorno d'Ulisse is indeed close to the Odyssey , it does not follow it exactly. Badoaro's play with dialogue is naturally much shorter and more focused than the Homeric epic, in which the action is described rather than enacted. The generic distinction is one to which Badoaro, predictably, was extremely sensitive. He nimbly explains the difference, though with reference not to Il ritorno d'Ulisse itself but to Ulisse errante :


If some wit should assert . . . that it is a subject more suitable for an epic than a tragedy, I will say that whoever wishes to read it in an epic will go to Homer's Odyssey , and whoever wishes to hear it as a tragedy will come to the theater of the Most Illustrious Signor Giovanni Grimani, where, in a short time, and with less effort, he may behold it in greater splendor upon the stage. (Appendix I. 8f)

The characterizations in Il ritorno d'Ulisse are generally based on Homer, but they are developed in various ways. The secondary figures left greater latitude for expansion than the protagonists: less is known about them, their histories are less important. One in particular, the beggar Irus, gains much fuller characterization at Badoaro's hands. Labeled a "parasito" by Badoaro (and in Monteverdi's score, "parte ridicola"), he has a much more prominent role in the opera than in the epic, providing the opportunity for a full range of comic imitations—blustering, stuttering, crying. His effect is hardly comic, however, when, having been roundly beaten by Ulisse, he is not propped passively against the courtyard wall to scare away stray animals, as in the Odyssey , but actively determines to commit suicide.[54]

The abuse of decorum perpetrated on this "tragedia" by the presence of a comic character such as Iro was noted by the anonymous author of Le nozze d'Enea , who modeled an indecorous comic character of his own on him.[55] Once again, the desire to satisfy modern taste inspired breaking the "rules"—in this case, those of genre. But a precise precedent for doing so was easy to find; the anonymous author had a number of models besides Iro to choose from, and even earlier ones. He could have looked to Ermafrodito in Strozzi's Delia of 1639, to whom Strozzi had called particular attention in his preface: "I have introduced here the hilarode of the Greeks in the person of the playful Ermafrodito, a novel character, who, between the severity of the tragic and the facetiousness of the comic, sits very nicely upon our stage" (Appendix I. 15f). Strozzi himself had modeled his character on a still earlier one, who had appeared on stage the year before: Scarabea, from Ferrari's La maga fulminata .[56] And he acknowledged his debt explicitly in Ermafrodito's first speech:

Con lusinghe ladre

Mercurio mio padre

Venere assaggio:

Nacqui di bella Dea;

E la nudrice mia fù Scarabea.

With deceitful sighs

Mercury my father

Tasted Venus.

I was born of a beautiful goddess

And my nurse was Scarabea.


L'han gia molti udita

Vecchia rimbambita

D'amore cantar,

Ma non è maraviglia

D'una Tiorba, e d'un Poeta è figlia.

Latte Scarabeo

Mi fece un Orfeo

Si lungo, e sottil:

Son di Venere figlio,

Ma nel restate à Scarabea simiglio.

Many have already heard her,

The old woman grown childish,

Sing of love.

But it's no wonder,

Since she's the daughter of a theorbo and a poet.

Scarabean milk

Made me an Orpheus

So long and thin.

I am Venus's child,

But in all else I resemble Scarabea.

In all these cases, the comic character provides relief from the serious drama, and in so doing represents a breach of the rules of tragedy. Although the perpetrators were self-conscious about it, at least they felt they were not alone. They could rely, with comforting tautology, on one another's example for justification.

This solidarity, supplying one another with support or precedent, marks an important turning point in the development of Venetian opera. The practice actually began as soon as it could, with the second opera performed in Venice referring to the first, and it grew up alongside and quite soon replaced the function of invoking classical models. Librettists cited one another's works, as they had done and continued to do with all sources, quite intentionally, with full awareness of their twin needs: for specific precedents and for a general history of their own, both of which would support the legitimacy of their activity. Such cross-references were a crucial component of opera's increasingly secure establishment in Venice, at once creating and recording its own history.

The growing number of such cross-references produced a decisive shift in the equilibrium between ancient authority and modern taste. By concretizing the concept of modern taste, these specific examples gave it greater weight, and certainly greater relevance for contemporary efforts. The borrowing of material from one libretto in another over an extended period of time eventually resulted in the establishment of a set of conventions that defined Venetian opera as a genre.

Badoaro's elaboration on Homer in Ulisse errante , like Busenello's alteration of Virgil in Didone , reveals another important trend in the development of the genre—one that, although established in the early 1640s, gained momentum rapidly in the course of the decade. This was the tendency toward increasing freedom in the adaptation of sources, toward increasing inventione . But in this same early period, not all librettists felt obliged to apologize for taking liberties with sources. Giovanni Faustini did just the opposite. In the preface to his


second libretto, Egisto (1643), he admits not to excessive inventione but to a borrowing: "I confess to you that I have taken the episode with Cupid from Ausonius, with the same license that the Latin poets used to take the ideas of the Greeks in order to adorn their own stories and epic compositions" (Appendix I.31b). The essential difference between Faustini's libretto and those we have been discussing, implied here but not stated, is that the remainder of his text is not taken from any obvious source, but is freely invented, suggesting a different model: tragicomedy rather than tragedy.[57]

This contrast between librettists who defended invention and one who defended borrowing stands for a basic dichotomy in the early history of opera in Venice. Badoaro and Busenello, the Incogniti apologists, represented one side; Faustini and others, to be discussed in the following chapters, represented the other. The academic theoreticians and the practical men of the theater: these two currents, epitomizing the struggle between theory and practice, were the main tributaries of the new genre, dramma per musica . From the beginning of its history, opera in Venice was shaped by this dialectic. The professional theater men, like Ferrari and Manelli, brought opera to Venice; the academics, the writers whose views on the nature of tragedy and its relation to their own theatrical efforts we have been considering, helped to provide it with intellectual and historical substance.[58] Although they themselves did not use the term, choosing tragedia or dramma instead, their efforts bear major responsibility for defining dramma per musica for the future. In airing and then dismissing the "rules" as inconsistent or irrelevant, the Incogniti librettists disposed of the issues that troubled them as intellectuals well versed in the classics, helping to clear the ground and set opera on a firm footing for their less intellectual, more pragmatic successors. Their theoretical defenses lent a patina of legitimacy to the bastard genre.


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