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1—Far recitare un'opera a Venezia : Origins and Sources
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Monteverdi in the Wings

The Venetian experiment of Ferrari and Manelli took immediate root. Their return with a new production the following season affirmed and confirmed the existence of opera in Venice as a seasonal occurrence. Ferrari and Manelli were not, however, the first composers of opera to reach Venice, though they may have been the first to bring opera to the Venetian stage. Claudio Monteverdi, undoubtedly the most celebrated opera composer of his day, had been living in Venice since 1613, when he assumed the position of maestro di cappella at San Marco (fig. 1). Monteverdi was the composer of numerous theatrical entertainments in addition to the two famous Mantuan operas Orfeo and Arianna of 1607-8. Most recently his "favola pastorale," Proserpina rapita , had been performed in Venice, in the Palazzo Mocenigo, in 1630. Yet the seventy-year-old composer remained aloof from the new operatic activities. Perhaps it would have been unseemly for the maestro di cappella to express overt interest in the public theater;[18] possibly, too, his advanced age discouraged him from under-


Giovanni Battista Marinoni,  Fiori poetici raccolti nel funerale del molto 
illustre e molto reverendo Signor Claudio Monteverde
(Venice, 1644), title page.

taking so large-scale a project as an opera. Whatever the cause, his silence is remarkable not only to us. It was noticed by several of his contemporaries. One of them, probably in late 1637 or 1638, commented expectantly that Monteverdi might surprise everyone and produce an opera for Venice after all: "God willing, one of these nights he too will step onto the stage, where everyone else


is about to appear, with the production of a musical drama," to which the appreciative response was: "Even if he doesn't actually appear, he'll be there in spirit, since he was so powerfully behind the whole business."[19] Clearly Monteverdi's participation was expected; and it was missed. In 1640 the librettist Giacomo Badoaro claimed to have written the text of Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria for the express purpose of encouraging his friend Monteverdi to enter the operatic arena:

From the author to the Most Illustrious and Reverend Signor Claudio Monteverdi, Great Master of Music. Not to compete with those inspired minds, which in these very years have published their compositions in the Venetian theaters, but to stimulate the virtue of Your Excellence to make known to this city that in the warmth of the affections there is a great difference between a true sun and a painted one, I dedicated myself, as a matter of principle, to compose Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria . (Appendix I. 7a)

It was not until 1640, then, after three seasons of observing the operatic activities of younger musicians from the sidelines, that Monteverdi finally—and, it would seem, still reluctantly—made his move. He first revived an old opera, Arianna , which ostensibly required little of his time or energy. Then he produced a new one, Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria , which obviously must have required a great deal of both.[20]

Although Arianna was one of Monteverdi's favorite works,[21] reviving it in Venice, thirty years after its creation, would seem to have been an unlikely, even unworkable, enterprise. The conditions of opera production, not to mention the aesthetics of opera and Monteverdi's own style, had changed radically. To be sure, some revisions were made in the work, apparently to suit new, Venetian conditions. These included the cutting of many of the choruses and the alteration of some passages specifically linked to the original performance in Mantua, as well as elimination of the designation tragedia from the title


page.[22] Despite such adaptive changes, the opera remained very different in tone, structure, and content from any of its contemporaries on the Venetian stage. Clearly, however, Monteverdi's reputation must have been more than sufficient to compensate for the inevitable stylistic incongruities.[23] The dedication of the libretto to one Bortolo Stacio, signed by the printer, gives some sense of the composer's exalted status:

Now that Arianna, the most praised of dramatic compositions in Italian theaters, returns to the stage in Venice, the work of Signor Claudio Monteverdi, most celebrated Apollo of the century and the highest intelligence of the heaven of harmony, I take the occasion to no longer keep my [respect] hidden from you, but, by offering it in the name of Your Excellency, to manifest [that respect] to the world by means of its new reprinting. (Appendix I.6a)

And this is reinforced by Benedetto Ferrari's oft-mentioned sonnet of homage to the older master, whom he addressed as "l'Oracolo della musica" (Appendix I.6b).

Arianna was a monument to Monteverdi's past glory; Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria boldly affirmed his present powers. Any hesitation on the composer's part must have been dispelled by the success of the new work, which ran for ten performances in Venice and was produced in Bologna as well,[24] for he wrote two more operas before his death in 1643. Le nozze d'Enea e Lavinia was produced in the 1640-41 season and L'incoronazione di Poppea in 1642-43.[25] Three new operas in four years: an amazing creative spurt for a 75-year-old composer whose operatic career had long seemed finished.

The radical differences between these late works of Monteverdi and his first opera, Orfeo , have been noted by every student of the subject.[26] The evolution


of Monteverdi's own style would be enough to account for the major differences between the works. But, although Orfeo and Poppea do indeed exemplify two important points in his development, they also serve to illustrate vividly the distinctions between court and public opera. These distinctions can be brought into relief by a comparison of the surviving sources.

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