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The Teatro Novissimo

The first Venetian librettos, then, with a few notable exceptions, were printed after the fact, when the operas had already been produced, rappresentato —presumably with success. The exceptions prove the rule. Virtually all of those printed ahead of time were for operas performed at the Teatro Novissimo, a theater with its own special story and influence. [54] The fourth theater to present opera in Venice, the Novissimo differed from both its predecessors and successors in several important respects. Although it had a shorter life span than any of its competitors—only five seasons of activity can be documented—and although it produced fewer operas—only six—the Novissimo had a greater impact than any other single theater on the establishment of opera in Venice.

Unlike its predecessors, it was not a preexisting theater converted or reconstructed for use as an opera house. It was a brand-new building—hence,


unuoubtedly, its name—constructed specifically to house "opere eroiche, solamente in musica, e non commedie" ("only heroic operas in music, not plays").[55] From its inception, the project represented a concerted effort on the part of a group of Venetian noblemen rather than a single family. Its management by committee rather than by an individual proprietor was one of its unique features.

On 30 May 1640, "diversi cavalieri," together with the patrician Luigi Michiel, had signed a contract with the Dominican monks of SS. Giovanni e Paolo agreeing to oversee construction of and to manage a theater on a property adjacent to the monastery. These "cavalieri" were members of the Accademia degli Incogniti, whose involvement with the enterprise determined the entire course of the Novissimo's brilliant though brief career. [56] We have already considered the Incogniti from the point of view of their theoretical writings, which had a fundamental influence on the definition of opera as a genre; their impact on its social, practical, and economic structure, specifically through their activities at the Novissimo, was equally profound. They were largely responsible for the creation of the model spectacle that defined Venetian opera for the rest of the century. Primarily through their influence, that model combined aspects of Ottonelli's second and third categories of opera, the academic and the mercenary: "those presented sometimes by various gentlemen or talented citizens or learned academicians for one good reason or another" and those "presented by those mercenary musicians, actors by profession, who, organized in a company, are directed and governed by one of their own, as the chief authority and head of the others" (Appendix II.3a, b). For the Incogniti hired a group of traveling musicians from Rome to carry out their program.

Individual members of the Academy like Pio Enea, Strozzi, Badoaro, and Busenello had participated in opera from the outset and were active in various theaters, but it was only at the Novissimo that the Incogniti acted as a group. Their influence permeated all aspects of the endeavor, which served as the perfect focus for their abundant energy and multiple talents. The broad base of financial support they commanded with the help of their patrician associates permitted, at least initially, a certain extravagance that could not be taken for


granted in other commercial theatrical efforts.[57] Moreover, the fame and reputation of the group lent enormous prestige to the undertaking. Most important, the Academy possessed a built-in mechanism for publicity, a pool of writers with well-lubricated pens who could supply a full range of verbal resources, everything from libretto texts to advertising copy. The internally generated publicity surrounding the inaugural production at the Novissimo, La finta pazza , was sufficient to assure opera an indelible spot on the cultural map of Europe.

The most striking aspect of Incognito publicity, however, and their most fundamental aim, was political. In keeping with their close association with the ruling Venetian patriciate, these writers repeatedly asserted a connection between the magnificence of Venetian operatic spectacles and the splendor of the Serenissima herself. Their involvement in these spectacles was a projection of their patriotism, a way of polishing the image of Venice. A connection between splendor on the stage and the image of the city had been implicit in the patrician involvement in earlier theatrical ventures as well, particularly in the three other opera houses, but it was made explicit for the first time in connection with the Novissimo. The Incogniti not only participated in the phenomenon, they defined it. It was the Incogniti who laid the groundwork for the political interpretation of the development of Venetian opera advanced some thirty years later by Ivanovich. As we shall see, much of the verbiage surrounding the individual productions at the theater was devoted to embroidering an elaborate defense of the traditional myth of Venice.

When the Novissimo opened its doors during Carnival of 1641, Venice's fifth consecutive opera season, it faced stiff competition from the three older theaters. S. Cassiano, still being served by Cavalli's troupe, was planning to mount a production of Didone (Busenello/Cavalli); SS. Giovanni e Paolo had two Monteverdi operas scheduled, Le nozze d'Enea and a revival of Il ritorno d'Ulisse , probably performed by Ferrari's and Manelli's troupe;[58] and S. Moisè was preparing a production of Ferrari's La ninfa avara .[59]

La finta pazza , with which the Novissimo vociferously initiated its activity in early January, became the first and possibly the greatest operatic "hit" of the century. It set the standard for measuring operatic success. The production


combined the theatrical know-how of arguably the most experienced and able librettist in the business, Giulio Strozzi (fig. 11),[60] possibly the moving force behind the whole Novissimo venture, and the formidable talents of three newcomers to the Rialto. These were the scene designer Giacomo Torelli, "engineer to the doge," who, after several spectacular productions at the Novissimo, was called to France in the service of the queen;[61] the Parmesan composer and impresario Francesco Sacrati, who subsequently collaborated on four more operas in Venice and was compared flatteringly with Monteverdi; and his pro-tégée, the soprano Anna Renzi, who became the first "prima donna" in operatic history.[62]

The success of La finta pazza was choreographed carefully from the start. In accord with recently established custom, a scenario was printed before the premiere, its dedication signed 4 January 1641. Strozzi was by now an old hand at writing publicity for the inauguration of theaters, having performed this function for SS. Giovanni e Paolo two years before. But the title page of the scenario for La finta pazza is especially—and uniquely—explicit in its claim for attention:

ARGOMENTO E SCENARIO DELLA FINTA PAZZA. Drama di Giulio Strozzi . Da rappresentarsi con solenne apparato di Musiche, Macchine, e Scene, il presente Carnovale, dell'Anno Mille e seicento quarantuno, nel Theatro Novissimo della Città di Venetia. (fig. 12)[63]

Atypically, however, and for the first time in Venice, Strozzi also published a full libretto before the premiere, which also contained a considerable measure of propaganda.


Portrait of Giulio Strozzi, from  Le glorie degli Incogniti  
(Venice, 1647).


Giulio Strozzi, La finta pazza  (Venice, 1641), scenario title page.


In his preface to this libretto, Strozzi provides extensive information about the production. He begins with a little self-promotion, linking the work to his previous successes and complimenting himself for his management of the plot: "This is the eighth theatrical effort that I find myself having made; five of them have already trod the boards more than once,[64] and in this one I have succeeded quite well in untying more than one knot without magic, and without resorting to supernatural and divine assistance" (Appendix I. 16a). [65] In addition, he praises in elaborate if obviously rhetorical terms the contribution of Sacrati and his band of singers, above all Anna Renzi:

The poverty of my ideas is made up for by the treasure of the music of Sig. Francesco Sacrati from Parma, who has known how to adorn my verses marvelously with his harmonies, and just as miraculously he has also been able to assemble an excellent chorus of so many most exquisite swans of Italy; and all the way from the Tiber, in the most extreme cold of a horrid season he has brought to the Adriatic a most gentle Siren, who sweetly steals the heart and charms the eyes and ears of the listeners. The city of Venice must be grateful to the diligence of Sig. Sacrati for the favor of the most skillful Signora Anna. (Appendix I. 16c)[66]

Although neither libretto nor scenario mentions Torelli by name, the scenario refers frequently to the magical effects of the stage designs (which, as we have already seen, were atypically mentioned on its title page). Torelli's contribution received its due in another volume, the Cannocchiale (telescope) per la finta pazza by one "M. B. di G." This elaborate publication, of fifty-five pages, vividly describes the visual effects of the opera. Probably published after Easter, certainly after the opera season had closed, it was evidently intended to augment the effect of the publicity campaign for the opera and the theater by prolonging the memory of its success.


This becomes clear in the volume itself. The cryptic author's initials are those of Maiolino Bisaccioni, count of Genoa, Incognito, and eventually the author of several librettos in his own right.[67] Bisaccioni begins by justifying the publication of this unusual volume, the very title of which declares its purpose of bringing the spectacle closer to the reader. The scenario as well as the libretto, he says, have both been published in order to serve those members of the audience too far away to appreciate the production, either because of absence—never having made it to the theater at all—or because of distance—having attended the performance, but being seated too far from the stage (thus implying that the theater was uncommonly large). But these publications did not do justice to the machines, the costumes, or the crowds, a shortcoming that the Cannocchiale would attempt to rectify. Bisaccioni hoped that even the remotest of readers would be able to imagine what was seen by the front-row audience in the theater.[68]

Although obviously intended to serve as propaganda for the Teatro Novissimo, and especially, perhaps, as publicity for the scene designer, Torelli, the Cannocchiale supplies, in passing, a number of interesting details about the brief history of opera in Venice up to that point. It gives an idea of the kind of competition that was already rampant, competition that its very publication documents. And it asserts explicitly for the first time the relationship between opera and "the miraculous city of Venice" that was so essential to the development of the genre there, emphasizing the function of the art as a projection of the Venetian self-image: "May the eyes of those even in the most distant and secluded foreign countries enjoy in these pages what eyes and ears have enjoyed in this city, which in its every aspect surpasses the bounds of the marvelous" (Appendix I. 17b). The subject of the final phrase is the city of Venice rather than the spectacle itself. This is part of the litany of the myth. The book claims to address a readership extending from Venice to Italy at large and the entire world.

In the past, theaters may have opened in other places as well, and a single one was sufficient to render a people famous and memorable for an entire century. But Venice has rejoiced in no fewer than four at the same time, all


competing with one another in size, scenography, music, staging, and machines (Appendix I. 17c). Bisaccioni's rather gradual historical buildup culminates predictably in a bold demonstration of the superiority of the Novissimo to all other theaters, a superiority that relies in part on the perfection of its construction, carried out with the help of Torelli.

The last of these [theaters], which as it happens was called the Novissimo, surpassed all belief because in the space of six months it was built from the foundations and perfected with the assistance, for its construction as well as for the sets and machines, of Sig. Giacomo Torelli from Fano; who came to exercise his talents in military matters in the service of this August Senate, and, impatient of idleness, has shown what his talent is capable of. (Appendix I. 17d)[69]

After these general remarks, the Cannocchiale moves to specific description of the opera itself, concentrating primarily on the staging, the marvels of the machinery, the speed and smoothness of the transformations (one of them so simple that "a single fifteen-year-old boy set it in motion"), and the success of the pictorial illusion.[70] It also comments on the singers, adding to the information provided in Strozzi's preface to the libretto. Several remarks on the star of the show, Anna Renzi, amplify what we know of her from other sources: "Signora Anna Renzi from Rome, a young woman as skillful in acting as she is excellent in music, as cheerful in feigning madness as she is wise in knowing how to imitate it, and modest in all her habits" (Appendix I. 17e). The part of Acchille was played by a "young castrato from Rome (like all the other musicians brought in from various places) of beautiful appearance, who resembled an Amazon in his mixture of warlike spirit and feminine delicacy" (Appendix I. 17j).[71] Bisaccioni also singled out a singer from Pistoia for special praise, reporting that he sang "so delicately that the souls of the listeners, as if drawn through the portals of the ears, raised themselves to heaven to assist in the enjoyment of such sweetness" (Appendix I. 17i).

One of the most important contributions of the Cannocchiale is the insight it offers into the effect of the work on the audience, most of whom attended two, three, or even four performances (Appendix I. 17f). The scenery was so well painted that the audience forgot that they were in Venice, the illusion so overpowering that "the eye did not know where to stop, for that shallow scenic space knew how to feign an immensity of sea and land" (Appendix I. 17h). Such


was the art of the scene painter that the eye was deceived into thinking that painting was sculpture, that flatness was depth (Appendix I. 17k).

Bisaccioni attempted to recreate the excitement of being in the theater, of actually experiencing the work as it unfolded: "When the theater was filled to its utmost capacity with spectators, who were impatiently awaiting the movement of the curtain, a sinfonia was begun, of instruments played no less expertly than sweetly, after which the curtain rose with incredible rapidity" (Appendix I. 17g). [72] His description concludes with a publicist's confirmation of the success of the work that borders on the tautological. The opera's fame has caused unusually large crowds to gather in'Venice—an implicit credit to the efficacy of the advance advertising.

The public's desire to see it again never ended; and thus, however many times it was repeated, the place was crowded with people, and many were led to curse their own laziness when they arrived and had to leave because they could not find any place to sit. Nor did the long period between the end of Carnival and Easter lessen the desire in the city to see such an applauded work again, even though familiarity normally breeds contempt; and thus it was necessary to reopen the theater and perform it a number of times, which further spread the fame of this delightful spectacle to the cities of Italy and beyond, and was the reason that, quite exceptionally, Venice was filled ten days early with the crowds that normally gather for the devotions and ceremonies of Ascension Day. (Appendix I. 171)[73]

For all its ca mpanilismo and self-promotion, the Cannocchiale can be trusted in its general outlines. Its reporting involves exaggeration rather than invention, for many of its observations can be validated from other sources. In a second printing of the libretto, a note from the publisher to the "frequente compratore" explains that he was forced "by the avidity of the readers of this work to print it twice in one month, such was the approbation received from every tongue by the Finta pazza at the Novissimo theater in the city of Venice, where it was performed with regal display twelve times in seventeen days" (Appendix I. 16d).[74] The printing of a second edition as well as the information


provided in it about the success of the work—the number of performances, the amount of applause—continued the publicity campaign initiated by the scenario, the first libretto, and the Cannocchiale .[75]

The Venetian success of La finta pazza was enormous. But the work made its fullest impact in subsequent performances outside Venice, where it was brought, variously altered and rearranged, by a succession of traveling opera companies—most famously in Paris under the auspices of Torelli and Balbi, one of the first of a series of Italian operas performed in the French capital.[76] The glow of success enjoyed by La finta pazza , fanned as it was by the full deployment of the Incogniti publicity machine, continued to surround the productions of the Novissimo. Strozzi wrote no further librettos for that theater, returning to SS. Giovanni e Paolo, but Sacrati continued to serve as composer-impresario, Torelli as scenographer, and Anna Renzi as prima donna. The season of 1642 saw two new productions. The first, Alcate , on a libretto by Marc'Antonio Tirabosco, was set not by Sacrati but by Manelli, and Torelli seems to have had no part in it.[77] The libretto, atypically for this theater, was published after the performance, on 13 February 1642. The real successor of La finta pazza was the second production of 1642, Bellerofonte , with a libretto by Vincenzo Nolfi, music by Sacrati, machines by Torelli, and starring Anna Renzi.

In fact, Bellerofonte seems to have been even more elaborate than its spectacular predecessor. Its libretto and scenario, like those of La finta pazza , were both printed before the performance. As we learn from a note to the reader attached to the end of the libretto, the scenario came first: "Various things in the opera were altered and corrected after the scenario was printed; thus if in number of scenes or in some part of what is presented in them you find some


divergences from the one to the other, do not immediately become critical; take everything with goodwill, because our only aim is to minimize your boredom and maximize your pleasure" (Appendix I. 19h).

The scenario was probably prepared by the theater management, since it is unsigned, bears no author's name on its title page, and continues the publicity campaign initiated the previous year by the Finta pazza publications. Indeed, it is atypical of scenarios in opening with a preface. Reminding the reader of the extraordinary success of the opera of the previous year, which had rendered the Novissimo "worthy of the favor and applause of the whole city," it praises the forthcoming opera, Bellerofonte , "likewise a musical drama," which, it is hoped, will maintain if not improve the reputation of the theater. Bellerofonte is "the very recent work of Signor Vincenzo Nolfi, gentleman of Fano." Although the work was a rush job, it is nevertheless a masterpiece, which, in any case, is largely owing to the generosity of the patrons, "questi Signori interessati," who spared no efforts in obtaining however many machines the poet felt necessary (Appendix I. 19a).[78]

The preface to the scenario concludes with several paragraphs addressed "to the curious reader" by Torelli, unnamed but identified as "l'inventore delle machine." In a conventionally self-effacing note laced with only a touch of paranoia, he divulges the curious information that his sets are being plagiarized. His swipe at the narrowness of the theater is the only indication we have of any deficiency at the Novissimo:

If in the scenes and machines I have constructed for you you do not find that perfection and beauty that you deserve and that you have a right to expect in virtuosic emulation of other celebrated and most noble theaters in such a glorious country, forgive me because the desire to delight you won over my awareness of the weakness of my talent. Appreciate the little that I can offer you in relation to the great deal that I wish to offer you; I confess that the imperfections are infinite, nor do I allow myself to be flattered by the speed with which others have adopted, perhaps in order to use them, things first invented, established, and, I might even say, bestowed, by me. Whatever they are, they are certainly the simple fruits of my invention. The site of the Teatro Novissimo cannot give you a full idea of things, as its narrowness would make it impossible even for an extraordinary architect to work perfectly.[79] Let this too convince you to excuse and bear with me. My weaknesses, in any case, will be largely covered up by the brush of Signor Domenico Bruni of Brescia, who with his usual success painted the sets. (Appendix I. 19b)

In contrast to that of the scenario, the preface to the libretto of Bellerofonte , signed by the author, is less concerned with propaganda than with aesthetic


issues, of more specific relevance to the librettist as poet than as servant of the theater. But Nolfi offers a novel, and revealing, excuse for his literary shortcomings: his deference to the wishes of the scene designer: "You are wasting time, O Reader, if with the Poetics of the Stagirite [Aristotle] in hand you go tracking down the errors of this work, because I confess freely that in composing it I did not aim to observe any precepts other than the desires of the scene designer" (Appendix I. 19c). And again, slightly later: "The tale that was crumbling because of its antiquity has been restored by my pen in a dramatic form, under the constraint of very little time, in order to be crowned by the beauty of the theatrical machines and sets" (Appendix I. 19g). The preface is followed by Torelli's note, reprinted from the scenario, and the front matter of the libretto concludes with poems addressed to the poet, two of the singers (including Renzi), and the composer.

The unusual emphasis on the scenographer in both the scenario and the libretto is capped in a third publication issued shortly after the performance. A deluxe commemorative quarto volume similar in function to the Cannocchiale per lafinta pazza , this book was published under the aegis of Torelli himself and accordingly emphasizes the visual aspects of the production to an even greater degree. In addition to an elaborate narrative account of the performance, the entire text of the libretto is reproduced, along with ten engravings of scene designs.[80]

From our point of view, the most interesting section is the "Descrittione de gli Apparati" by Giulio del Colle. In its effort to place first the machines and then the Novissimo in their proper context, this report provides a veritable history of opera in Venice up to 1642, isolating many of the elements that were to prove crucial to its development—though much of this was recognized only in retrospect by later historians. Del Colle's description was obviously an important source for Ivanovich, who used it, amplified with information culled from later librettos, as the basis for his history of Venetian opera.[81]

Del Colle opens with a typically chauvinistic encomium to Venice and its unique history, including the usual favorable comparison to Rome, which it surpasses by virtue of its singular and miraculous site and, especially, in the number and magnificence of its theaters. Particularly in recent years, these have produced works that would have caused ancient Rome to blush with shame at being so surpassed (Appendix 1.20a). The most magnificent of all, of course, is


the Teatro Novissimo, which, "built two years ago, has really caused a sensation and has deserved and won acclaim. This year it presented Bellerofonte, a drama by Signor Vincenzo Nolfi from Fano; and since, for many reasons, the things introduced in it are worthy of minute description, I have decided to undertake the task, however imperfectly" (Appendix I.20b).

Del Colle then goes on to describe the action of the drama itself, commenting on the various singers as he sketches the individual characters. He mentions only three by name: Giulia Saus Paolelli from Rome, who had resided and performed in Venice for the previous three years; Michele Grasseschi, a contralto on loan from Prince Matthias de' Medici of Florence; and Anna Renzi romana, "true embodiment of music and unique marvel of the stage, who, during the course of the performance first gave vent to, then hid, then disguised, then revealed, and then lamented her amorous passions." But he gives the city of origin for most of the others and, more important, supplies vocal ranges for all of the roles, which would be otherwise unknown to us, since the music of Bellerofonte has not survived. His complete list comprises Innocenza (soprano from Parma), La Giustizia (a castrato from Rome), Nettuno (tenor from Parma), Paristide (tenor from Pistoia), Il Re (bass from Siena), Regina Anthia (Signora Giulia Saus Paolelli romana), Defiride, the nurse (a castrato from Parma), Pallade and Diana (two soprano castratos), Melistea (a castrato from Pistoia), Eolo (a Sienese bass), Bellerofonte (Signor Michele Grasseschi, contralto), and Archimene (Anna Renzi romana) (Appendix I.20c).[82] Most of del Colle's text, however, is devoted to a vivid description of the costumes, sets, and the workings of the machinery, in which he emphasizes the novelty of Torelli's inventions. As in the similar descriptions in the Cannocchiale and even in the earlier librettos of Andromeda and La maga fulminata so long before, a special point is made of the amazed reaction of the public, its inability to penetrate the illusion.[83]

After Bellerofonte , activity at the Novissimo began to slacken somewhat. Only one opera was produced during each of its next (and last) three seasons: Venere gelosa in 1643, Deidamia in 1644, and Ercole in Lidia in 1645. Sacrati and


Torelli seem to have been directly involved only in the first of these; in fact, following Strozzi's lead, they both began to work at SS. Giovanni e Paolo. Sacrati collaborated with several other composers there in a joint setting of Strozzi's La finta savia already in 1643, and he provided all of the music for Badoaro's Ulisse errante in 1644, for which Torelli served as scenographer. Anna Renzi, too, moved over to SS. Giovanni e Paolo after Bellerofonte to sing in L'incoronazione di Poppea and La finta savia in 1643, though she returned to the Novissimo in 1644 and 1645 for Deidamia and Ercole in Lidia .[84]

In fact, the theater of SS. Giovanni e Paolo and the Novissimo had always been linked, by geographical proximity and outlook as well as personnel. Strozzi, as we know, had written his Delia for the Grimani theater in 1639, before the Novissimo was built, and many other members of the Accademia degli Incogniti, including Busenello, Badoaro, and the anonymous author of Le nozze d'Enea , were active there rather than at the Novissimo. It was natural, then, for Strozzi to have returned to SS. Giovanni e Paolo and to have brought his Novissimo colleagues with him in 1643. Torelli, for his part, may even have found the older theater more congenial to his scenographic technology. At least one of his inventions, the fine machine for changing all the sets simultaneously by means of a lever or winch moved by a weight, described in the eighteenth century, may have originated there.[85] SS. Giovanni e Paolo was certainly the larger theater. In fact, although in 1645 it was deemed the most comfortable and beautiful theater in Venice, as we have noted, Giovanni Grimani himself thought it was too deep and should be shortened by two boxes because "those facing the stage hear the performers poorly."[86] It is just possible that the general exodus from the Novissimo to SS. Giovanni e Paolo was in some way connected to the signing of a new rental contract at the Novissimo by Gironimo Lappoli in 1643, though the nature of the relationship between the two events is uncertain.[87] The fact that Strozzi's operatic trilogy—which began with La


finta pazza and included La finta savia and Romoto e Remo —was split between the two theaters suggests that SS. Giovanni e Paolo was considered in some sense a natural twin or even heir of the Novissimo.

But in 1643, despite the loss of Strozzi, Sacrati, and Anna Renzi, the energy of the Novissimo was still far from spent. Venere gelosa , by all (admittedly prejudiced) accounts, was just as marvelous and successful as any of its predecessors. The text, by a new librettist, Niccolò Enea Bartolini,[88] was published as expected before the premiere and reprinted at least four times in Venice and also in Padua; it contains the characteristic Incognito peroration on the aesthetics of opera, but is not especially informative about the performance. Nor, atypically for the Novissimo, does a scenario seem to have been published for the purpose. Torelli, however, made up for this with another commemorative volume, the last of his efforts in that direction, issued in 1644.

The title of this publication, Apparati scenici per lo Teatro Novissimo di Venetia nell'anno 1644 d'inventione e cura di Iacomo Torelli da Fano , is neutral, making no reference to any specific opera. Indeed, even the dedication of the volume seems purposely noncommittal. It simply introduces the designs as having been made for the Teatro Novissimo and shown "this past Carnival to the eyes of Venice in the representation of a musical drama."[89] The description of the opera in question by Bisaccioni, the author of the Cannocchiale , makes it clear, however, that it was Venere gelosa , performed during the previous season (1643). But the printing of the Apparati scenici , whose dedication was signed by Torelli on 24 January 1644, was a year late if it was intended to commemorate only Venere gelosa , and in fact only nine of the twelve plates relate to that work. The other three probably illustrate Deidamia , the opera then on the boards.[90]

Furthermore, of the eight stage sets listed in the libretto for Deidamia , the five not included in the Apparati could have been drawn from those of Venere gelosa .[91] Thus, while the Apparati scenici describes only Venere gelosa , it in fact


illustrates both Venere gelosa and Deidamia —and not only three of the latter's sets but probably all of them. This is confirmed in a note to the reader appended to the volume.

These sets were so marvelously and exquisitely presented that they convinced their maker to allow them to be seen this year, 1643 [1644], also. And in truth he judged very wisely, since people have derived inexpressible satisfaction from them, to the extent that many thought they were new, and others that they had been improved; and this because of the addition of other very beautiful sets included here [i.e., the three already mentioned], and because the drama turned out to be marvelously beautiful: whence it was shown that to repeat beautiful things even twice is commendable. (Appendix I.22c)

Like the Cannocchiale and the deluxe Bellerofonte , the Apparati scenici sheds valuable light on the current state of opera in Venice. It begins (like Bellerofonte ) with a capsule history of the city and its theaters in order to place the Teatro Novissimo and especially the featured production, Venere gelosa , in their proper context—on a pedestal, as the culmination of a brief but glorious tradition. In so doing, it makes its own considerable contribution to the blossoming mythology:

Venice, always and on every occasion extraordinary, and never tired of displaying her greatness, has discovered the remarkable also in virtuoso entertainment, having introduced a few years ago the presentation in music of grand drama with such sets and stage-machines that they surpass all belief; and what the richest treasuries can produce only with difficulty (and only rarely) in royal halls [Regie Sale ] here we see easily achieved with private resources, not only in one, but in three theaters [tre orchestre ] at once;[92] and competing with each other for the greatest perfections, they each draw spectators from the most remote parts of Italy. I am not undertaking to write down what was done in Venere gelosa because I deem it the most notable of this year's, and this city's, theatrical productions, nor because my choice aims to detract from the others' merits, but rather because I enjoyed this one first, and I have preserved the most vivid memory of it. . . . But not even of this one do I want to write every detail, because it seems to me enough to report the most important things of the drama, as much as is needed to show what its scenic clothes, or shall we say sets, were like. (Appendix I.22a)

The author will tell only as much about the drama as is necessary to illustrate or describe the scenography—by which strategy, of course, he hopes to achieve exactly what he disclaims, to convince the readers of the superiority of Venere gelosa to all other operas of the season, especially, we might guess, to the opera at SS. Giovanni e Paolo.


His description of the effect of the final scene gives a good idea of the audience's reaction and provides a fitting conclusion to the volume:

At the birth of this scene the whole theater, not just the stage or the buildings, was supposed to rise, and it rose indeed, for with the movement of those great back-drops and the disappearance of the sky, and upon seeing all the parts of that great machine turn and mix in great confusion, not one of the spectators sat still: they stood up and turned around and did not know what they were seeing or what to expect, if not a great novelty; but soon the eye was satisfied, because it saw the scene transformed into a lovely and delightful garden, which was far different from any that have been depicted, either on stage or in print. (Appendix I.22b)

This Apparati scenici was the last volume of his stage designs Torelli published in Venice, although he promised a similar one for his next opera, Ulisse errante , at SS. Giovanni e Paolo, in a note to the reader in the libretto of that work: "Experience makes me recognize the fact that favors often increase the daring of those who receive them; I received Ulisse errante from the hand of the author with the privileged authority to print it in large format with illustrations after the performances, and I undertook this to be able to show to the world the efforts I faced in order to serve these gentlemen well" (Appendix I.8m).[93]

Torelli obviously assumed the responsibility (and profits?) of the librettist in this case. Perhaps permission to publish the libretto as well as engravings of the sets was part of his contract with the theater management, possibly an inducement to leave the Novissimo. Interesting also, given the precedent of the Cannocchiale and the deluxe Bellerofonte , is the proviso that he should not publish the engravings until after the performance, as if prior publication might diminish their effect. Conversely, the publication of this particular libretto before the premiere (which is implied in Torelli's preface, though not by any verb on the title page) seems explicitly intended to enhance the audience's enjoyment of the performance.

It is evident that by 1644 Torelli's exclusive ties to the Novissimo, like those of a number of his collaborators, had loosened, if not broken altogether. The staging of neither Deidamia that year nor Ercole in Lidia the next is specifically ascribed to him. And, as we know, 1644 saw the performance of his first, and only, new work for another Venetian theater, Ulisse errante at SS. Giovanni e Paolo. This was followed by revivals there of two works that had originally been produced with his sets at the Novissimo: Bellerofonte in 1645 and Deidamia in 1647. But by then Torelli was gone: in the spring of 1645, after the


opera season, he accepted an invitation from the queen of France and left for Paris, "sacrificing all of his important interests in Venice," thus bringing to a close the Venetian chapter of his career.[94]

Although Torelli was not the only scenographer active in Venice in the early years of public opera (we have noted Alabardi at S. Cassiano, and Chenda and Burnacini at SS. Giovanni e Paolo), he clearly left an indelible mark upon the Venetian stage—and, through the engravings of his designs, upon our knowledge of its visual spectacle.[95] Stage design had traditionally aimed at producing marvelous effects; Torelli's special contribution was to achieve those effects with a mechanical efficiency that enhanced the marvelous. By creating a central mechanism that controlled all the moving parts, he could set the entire stage into simultaneous motion. Light and shadow further contributed to the smooth transition of space, adding the final convincing touches to the illusion of a world in mutation. No longer merely a backdrop or setting, the scenery actively participated in the drama, changing with, and as part of, the action.

Torelli's (and Sacrati's) transfer to SS. Giovanni e Paolo may have represented a significant victory for the management of that theater, but it did not signal the end of the Teatro Novissimo's career as a major opera house or a change in its mission. The Incogniti involvement continued—and with it the propaganda about Venice, about opera, and about the Novissimo initiated with La finta pazza —in the two operas that followed Torelli's departure, Deidamia and Ercole in Lidia , both of them starring Anna Renzi. These marked the librettistic debuts of Scipione Herrico and Bisaccioni, though the latter at least was no stranger to matters operatic. And at least one of the new operas, Ercole in Lidia , marked the operatic debut of a composer from the San Marco chapel, Giovanni Rovetta.[96] Both librettists proclaim their indebtedness to anonymous collaborators (probably their fellow Incogniti), Herrico because he was a novice, Bisaccioni because he lacked inspiration (Appendix I.23a, 24a-b).

Herrico's dedication to Alvise da Mosto, "Nobile Veneto," borrows the old Novissimo rhetoric and has the familiar ring of Venetian myth making:

This great city, as it is in its site, so always it has shown itself, and shows itself, to be admirable and extraordinary in its public and in its private actions. In these times foreigners are astonished to see the ornate theaters in which so many dramatic


works are presented in music, and which are so ingeniously composed, and so full of diverse and marvelous effects. Whence the opportunity is offered for many fine talents to exercise themselves and receive great praise, whether in poetry, or in music, or in the construction of stage-machines, or in other similarly honored and related labors.

Now, coming to this noble refuge of every virtue, and admiring such fine rivalries, I, too, was stimulated by poetic fervor, and that same reason that persuaded me not to compete with so many skilled men urged me on with a sweet desire to imitate them. Finally, with the continual requests of my friends added to this internal inclination of mine, I entered the arena to please them, and they guided my style, which is by habit very far from this kind of poetizing. I have written this work for performance in the Teatro Novissimo, and since it was to be printed for the greater convenience of the audience, I wanted it to appear adorned with the name of Your Most Illustrious Lordship, who will deign to receive it as much in my name, as a token of my loyal service, as in the name of those who had a part in it with me, in the invention and in the ideas. (Appendix I.23a-b)

Although Torelli was probably not directly involved in designing the scenes for these operas, he may still have had some hand in the productions. At least no other scenographer is mentioned in connection with them. As we have seen, Deidamia probably used sets from his other operas, especially Venere gelosa ; and the same may also have been true for Ercole in Lidia , since none of the sets mentioned in the scenario or libretto seem to make demands beyond the variety available from La finta pazza, Bellerofonte , and Venere gelosa .[97] In any case, the stage designs played no little part in the impression made by Ercole in Lidia on John Evelyn in 1645:

This night, having with my Lord Bruce taken our places before, we went to the Opera where comedies and other plays are represented in recitative music by the most excellent musicians vocal and instrumental, with a variety of scenes painted and contrived with no less art of perspective, and machines for flying in the aire, and other wonderful motions; taken together it is one of the most magnificent and expensive diversions the wit of men can invent. The history was Hercules in Lydia, the scenes changed thirteen times. The famous voices, Anna Rencia, a Roman, and reputed the best treble of women; but there was an eunuch who in my opinion surpassed her; also a Genoeze that sang an incomparable bass. This held us by the eyes and ears till two in the morning.[98]

There has always been some question as to when the Novissimo actually closed its doors for good. Like much of the confusion surrounding the chronology of early Venetian opera, this uncertainty derives in part from Ivanovich, who gives two conflicting dates, 1646 in his chapter on the history of Venetian theaters, 1647 in his chronology. This is his version of the demise of the Novissimo: "Musical performances took place there until 1646, when the theater


was completely destroyed, and its site was where at present the Riding-School has been set up, behind the Mendicanti, toward the Fondamenta Nuove" (Appendix II. 6q). In his chronology, however, Ivanovich assigns Busenello's Giulio Cesare and a revival of Deidamia to the Novissimo, in 1646 and 1647 respectively; and various chroniclers, following Ivanovich, have chosen one of those two dates for the closing of the theater. But Ivanovich's confusion was itself the result of an ambiguity in the naming of theaters on the title pages of librettos, between "Novissimo" and "Novo," a designation that referred at this time to SS. Giovanni e Paolo. The confusion was compounded by the fact that the Novissimo and SS. Giovanni e Paolo were both located in the same parish. Giulio Cesare , for example, was certainly written for the SS. Giovanni e Paolo, though it was probably never performed,[99] and the revival of Deidamia , according to the libretto, clearly took place not at the Novissimo but at the "Teatro Novo."[100]

Evelyn's description of Ercole in Lidia of 1645, then, is the last document of a performance at the Novissimo. Whether or not the theater was actually destroyed soon after, as Ivanovich implies, the focus of operatic interest and activity had certainly shifted elsewhere, primarily to SS. Giovanni e Paolo. In the meantime, S. Cassiano and S. Moisè continued to compete as well, each averaging two operas per season. Like all of the theaters in Venice, the Novissimo closed in 1645 and remained closed through 1646 and 1647. But unlike the others, it never reopened.[101] Possibly because of the enormous cost of Torelli's scenographic extravaganzas, which may have accumulated, and because it failed to recoup the expenses of Ercole in Lidia , which was apparently interrupted during its run, the theater was bankrupt by 1646.[102] The Dominican friars, unlike the patrician proprietors of the other theaters, were understandably not committed enough to the venture to bail it out. And so, when the Novissimo closed in 1645, it closed forever. The strength of the initial enterprise, which lay in the cooperation of a large number of energetic collaborators, may ultimately have become the source of its failure. No family's reputation


and position depended on its success. By 1645 the status of the theater was not important enough to any single individual to inspire the heavy economic transfusion that would have ensured its survival.

Although the bright light of the Novissimo was extinguished in 1645, the effect of that theater on the subsequent history of opera in Venice was permanent. Its activities may have been concentrated in a few short seasons, but in that brief time steps fundamental to opera's development were taken and reinforced. By launching the career of the first "prima donna," the Incognito managers set new standards for singers, elevating them to greater prominence and greater influence in the operatic partnership with composers and librettists. By providing an environment—physical as well as financial—for the exercise of Torelli's special creative talents, they raised the level and importance of operatic stage design, transforming it into an independent art. Most important, they traded on the unspoken but fundamental connection between opera and the image of the Republic. In making that connection patent, the Novissimo Incogniti fulfilled their responsibility as patriotic Venetians. And, by the very energy of their publicity campaign on behalf of their theater and their city, they stimulated interest and excitement in the new art. Their success created a market for opera both in Venice and abroad.


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