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Orfeo and Poppea

The score of Orfeo , like those of its operatic predecessors in Florence and most of its successors in Rome, was published, although not until two years after the work was performed.[27] Dedicated by the composer to the patron of the Mantuan production, the publication was commemorative, its purpose to preserve the event for posterity.

The fable of Orpheus, which has already been represented in music under the auspices of your Highness on a small stage at the Accademia degli Invaghiti, now having to appear in the great theater of the universe to show itself to all men, there is no reason that it should allow itself to be associated with any other name than that of Your Glorious and Fortunate Highness. To you therefore I humbly consecrate it, so that you, who as a benign star were propitious at its birth, with the most serene rays of your grace, will deign to favor the progress of its life.[28]

Indeed, the edition, using the past tense, records a number of details of the original performance, particularly regarding specifics of orchestration, not fully indicated in the music itself. For example, a song at the beginning of act 1 "fu concertato al suono de tutti gli stromenti" ("was accompanied by the sound of all the instruments") and a ballet shortly thereafter "fu cantato al suono di cinque Viole da braccio" ("was sung to the sound of five viole da braccio").[29] There are even occasional references to staging, such as this near the beginning of act 2: "Questo ritornello fu sonato di dentro da un Clavicembano [sic ], duoi Chitaroni, & duoi Violini piccioli alla Francese" ("This ritornello was played from within by a clavicembalo, two chitaroni, and two small French violins").[30] And, at the beginning of act 5: "Duoi Organi di legno, & duoi


Chitaroni concertorno questo Canto sonando l'uno nel angolo sinistro de la Sena, l'altro nel destro" ("Two wooden organs and two chitaroni accompanied this song, one of them playing in the left corner of the stage, the other in the right corner").[31] But several directions are given in the present tense, suggesting that the purpose of the print may have been somewhat broader: to serve not only as a historical document but as a practical one as well, a kind of generic score providing the basis for future performances.[32] In fact, the score offers several choices, such as that for the opening toccata "che si suona avanti il levar da la tela tre volte con tutti li stromenti, & si faun tuono piu alto volendo sonar le trombe con le sordine" ("which is played three times with all the instruments before the curtain rises, and if one wishes to use muted trumpets, this piece should be played a tone higher").[33] Perhaps the most striking, most curious choice is offered for Orfeo's central number, "Possente spirto," where the singer is directed to perform only one of the two lines, the first unadorned, the second a highly elaborated version of the first: "Orfeo al suono del Organo di legno, & un Chitarone, canta una sola de le due parti" ("Orfeo, to the sound of the wood organ and a chitarone, sings only one of the two parts") (fig. 2).[34]

The libretto of Orfeo was also printed, two years earlier, presumably shortly before the first performance of the opera.[35] It matches the printed score quite closely, with the single major exception of the ending; the score alters the original myth so that the opera ends happily.[36] Although published by the ducal


Claudio Monteverdi,  L'Orfeo, favola in musica  
(Venice, 1615), p. 52.

printer, this libretto was not designed primarily as a commemorative document. Thus it fails to mention either the composer or—and this is more unusual—the poet. It was used by the audience as an aid to following the action.[37]


In contrast to the score of Orfeo , that of Poppea was never printed. It survives in two manuscript copies, neither of which can be linked with its initial performance. Documentation for that first performance is slim indeed, resting solely on a scenario — a scene-by-scene synopsis of the action that was printed not for commemorative reasons but, once again, for the practical purpose of helping the audience in the theater to follow the performance.[38] The scenario mentions neither the composer nor the poet. In fact, there is no printed documentation whatsoever for Monteverdi's authorship of the music. Two librettos eventually appeared in print, but not until 1651 and 1656. The latter, published along with his other librettos by the poet himself, Gian Francesco Busenello, mentions the original date of performance on its title page but fails to include the composer's name.[39] As for the 1651 libretto, published in conjunction with a Neapolitan revival, it lacks the names of both the composer and the poet, as well as the original date.[40]

The two manuscript scores of Poppea might best be described as performance scores.[41] They memorialize expedients adopted for one or several specific performances after the premiere (figs. 3a, 3b). Transpositions, cuts, rearrangements, not all of them fully worked out or reconciled with one another, are indicated in various strata throughout both manuscripts. Preserved, it would seem, by chance, these scores owe their survival to the fact that the opera was revived; both are probably connected with the revival that took place in 'Naples in 1651.[42] Evidently, despite Monteverdi's enormous reputation, there was no interest in preserving the music of the first performance of Poppea .[43] That music per se had no practical value except as a basis for subsequent


3. a,b.
Claudio Monteverdi,  L'incoronazione di Poppea , I-Vnm, It. IV, 439 (=9963), fols. 65v-66.


performance. The differences between the scores and other sources confirm the fact of multiple performances, and the kinds of alterations in each document indicate the liberties taken with the original opera—transposed here, cut there—in response to changing conditions of performance.

One major difference between the scores of the two operas that is only partly explained by their different functions concerns orchestration. The score of Orfeo is not only much more specific in its instrumental requirements (listing them, however incompletely, in its front matter), but it calls for a much larger, more varied instrumental group, essentially the late Renaissance orchestra that was customarily used for court entertainments; and this is deployed alone, in a large number of purely instrumental movements, especially dances, as well as in combination with voices, with particular expressive functions. In its successive strophes, for instance, "Possente spirto" displays first violins, then cornetti, then double harp, and finally violins again, the variety enhancing the moving power of Orfeo's prayer.[44]

The Poppea scores, on the other hand, contain considerably fewer instrumental movements, and the voice is invariably accompanied only by a bass line. Furthermore, they contain no instrumental specifications. This notational reticence is more than a matter of expediency. It reflects an actual difference in instrumental practice between the Mantua of 1607 and the Venice of 1642. The chief components of the typical Venetian opera orchestra, as attested by a few widely scattered documents, were a large continuo group (several harpsichords and several theorbos), which was evidently deployed in various combinations to accompany the voice. The two treble parts written out in most ritornelli and sinfonie were taken by two violins.[45]

The different orchestral requirements of Orfeo and Poppea underline the distinctions I have been making between court and urban opera. The instrumental display of Orfeo formed part of the court spectacle in Mantua. The reduced band of Poppea satisfied the economic conditions of a commercial en-


terprise. It allowed theaters to function without large stable orchestras. It also tended to focus greater attention on the singers.

A Mantuan opera of 1607 could be fixed, commemorated in print as a rare, even unique, object, a jewel in the crown of a ruling prince. Not so a Venetian opera of 1643. It was but one of a succession of similar events that would be remembered only as long as the season lasted, and then discarded—unless subsequently revived. Whereas we owe our knowledge of the music of Montever-di's Orfeo to the desire to preserve a moment of dynastic celebration, our knowledge of Poppea depends upon a more professionally utilitarian motive, the appropriation of a past event for the purposes of the present. Only because Poppea was revived, given renewed life on the stage, do we know anything of its music. Orfeo , although immortalized by the act of publication, embodied a tradition of court entertainment that was essentially over. The very survival of Poppea , imperfect as it is, testifies to its continuing vitality, to its function within a living tradition of public opera.

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