Preferred Citation: Rosand, Ellen. Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice: The Creation of a Genre. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991.

10—Il diletto : Aria, Drama, and the Emergence of Formal Conventions

The Exit Convention and the Bipartite Aria

Although ABB' arias did not always coincide with a character's departure, at least not until well after 1650, the two levels of action, musical and dramatic, meshed well. When associated with exits, the arias enhanced them even further. In addition, the echoing ritornellos commonly generated by both aria and epigrammatic arioso facilitated the business of exiting; perhaps arioso expansions and arias were even inserted in some cases to justify the interpolation of such instrumental passages.[17]

During the 1650s and 1660s, bipartite arias gravitated increasingly to the ends of scenes. The growing interest of Venetian audiences in the singers and their self-exhibition in arias must have been partially responsible for this tendency to save the best for last. Once a conventional function and position had been found for them, however, such arias were freed from the austerity of recitative-style setting. Accordingly, the close correspondence of music and text that characterized the earliest examples yielded to more expansive musical treatment. Although musical expansion affected entire arias, it was still the B section—the refrain or aphorism—that displayed the greatest freedom; compositional inventiveness further enhanced its exit function. But expansion could still serve a dramatic purpose beyond that: within an aria it could contribute to characterization or to the shaping of a conflict.

In Erismena , the text of the heroine's "Comincia à respirar" (1.12) comprises two unequal sections, of four and two lines. The aria is a soliloquy in which Erismena tries to feel hopeful over her quest to recover her faithless lover; she exhorts herself to optimism in the refrain, which summarizes the import of the text: "Courage, courage, my heart. Shake off all your griefs, bid sorrow adieu" (example 22):

[16] There are many examples of such increasing musical momentum in Egisto, Orrnindo , and Doriclea . See p. 297 below.

[17] This may not have been strictly necessary, since unattached instrumental music is not completely unknown in these scores. See, for example, the unattached exit Sinfonia at the end of Scipione affricano 1, 4 (Garland facs., 5: f. 13 ).


Comincia à respirar
Più giocondo ò mio cot l'aure vitali,
Satie di fulminar
Spera veder un dì l'ire fatali:
Vivi lieto sù sù ,
Ridi in mezo del duol, non pensar più .
[+ one more strophe]

Be cheerful, O my heart,
And let your joys trample your suffering under.
Fortune will sheathe her dart
And angry Jove will one day cease his thunder.
Courage, courage, my heart .
Shake off all your grief, bid sorrow adieu .

Cavalli's setting more than compensates for the unequal length of the two sections through the usual means of expansion of B: a change of meter, the addition of strings to the continuo accompaniment, new motivic material, extension by means of instrumental echoes between phrases, repetition of the text as a whole, and a concluding ritornello based on its distinctive material. All serve to emphasize the epitomizing function of the refrain, thereby imparting the affective essence of Aureli's text. The A section consists of two subsections, the first moving from the tonic, D minor, to the dominant, A, the second remaining in the relative major, F. With slightly unusual symmetry, the two B sections mirror one another, the first moving from tonic to subdominant, the second in the opposite direction. All the standard related keys are touched in this aria, but their sequence produces a somewhat atypical harmonic structure. The composer's emphasis on the refrain lends depth to the characterization, suggesting energy and self-control, qualities that will help Erismena achieve her objective of regaining Idraspe's affections.

The flourishing of the hipartite aria was essentially a musical phenomenon. The librettist could call for musical repetition by writing a refrain, or he could suggest musical contrast by juxtaposing strongly contrasting meters; but the repetition and expansion of the 13 section in AB arias were up to the composer.

Despite its conventionality, the ABB' aria never became completely divorced from its origins as a dramatic procedure for emphasizing a tag line. That is, if a text lacked an epigrammatic close worthy of emphasis, the composer did not feel compelled to write an ABB' aria. This is illustrated in an unusual aria from Argia (Apolloni/Cesti, 1669). Feraspe's "Aurette vezzose" (1.2) contains a four-line refrain of which Cesti repeats only the first two lines—those most essential to the meaning of the text—to different music (example 23):

Aurette vezzose,
Foriere del giorno
Ch'errate d'intorno
Con all di rose,
Volgetevi ,à mè ;
E dite dov'è
Coleì, che desia
Il mio Regno, il mio cor, l'anima mia .

Delightful breezes,
Harbingers of dawn,
That flit about
On rose-scented wings,
Turn to me
And say where is
She, who covets
My kingdom, my heart, my soul .


Stellanti zaffiri,
Ch'i mali influite,
Se mai compatite
D'un'alma i sospiri,
Volgetevi à mè . . .[18]

Starry sapphires
That influence wrongs,
If ever you pity
A sighing soul,
Turn to me . . .

Furthermore, the ritornello is not based upon the B section, as we would expect, but upon A. The musical form of this aria interestingly overlaps that of the poetry. The first two phrases of the A section encompass the whole first sentence of text (lines 1-5), including the first line of the refrain, and move from the tonic, A minor, through the relative major to the dominant; the third phrase of A treats the second line of the refrain, line 6, twice, and closes on the relative major. The B section sets the last two lines of the text, 7-8, expanding them somewhat by means of sequential repetition, and also ends on the relative major. The final section of the aria (C) repeats lines 5-6, running them together for the first time, to completely new music. In fact, then, although the text form clearly suggested a normal bipartite aria, Cesti wrote a tripartite one, choosing to emphasize the indirect question ("say where is she") in the middle of the stanza rather than the hendecasyllable at the end. That is, he emphasized the sense of the text over its form, ignoring the conventional refrain structure.

In some late bipartite arias the composer's liberty took a more aggressive turn. Reaching beyond extreme elaboration and variation, it extended to the writing of new music for the second B section. While such expansion often tended to increase the forward momentum of these arias, and was thus an extension of the ABB impetus, it also ran roughshod over the librettist's text by creating ABC forms out of AB material. In Flavia's "Cieca Dea la tua possanza" from Eliogabalo (Aureli/Boretti, 1668) 1.19, for example, Boretti repeated the text of B (lines 3 and 4) to music that is different—and not only harmonically, which would be expected, but also rhythmically and melodically (example 24):

Cieca Dea la tua possanza
Non m'afflige, e non m'atterra;
Con usbergo di costanza
Armo il sen per farti guerra.
[+ one more strophe]

Blind goddess, your power
Does not afflict me, does not prostrate me;
Shielded by constancy,
I arm my breast to wage war against you.

B' begins to resemble B only at the final melisma on guerra , but the melisma is expanded sequentially the second time over a harmonic structure drawn from the end of A, of which it sounds like an embellished variant. Despite its text,

[18] This aria comes from the Venice 1669 score but was probably also part of the original setting for Innsbruck (1655).


then, B' actually shares as much with A as it does with B, and the ritornello strengthens the unified effect: a composite of A (mm. 1-5) and B' (mm. 16-19). Boretti created a rounded aria whose form was not suggested by Aureli's text.[19]

Ziani treated a number of aria texts in Le fortune di Rodope e Damira (Aureli/Ziani, 1657) with similar freedom. Lerino's "Voglio un giorno innamorarmi" (2.7) is built on a six-line stanza, the last two lines of which form a refrain (example 25):

Voglio un giorno innamorarmi
Donne belle, mà però
Con tal patto, che lasciarmi
Lusingar da voi non vò.
Sò, che amando tradite, e scaltre ogn'hora

Voi la fate sù gli occhi à chi v'adora .

Far le morte, o spasimate
Con me nulla gioverà,
Perche l'arti vostre usate
Mi son note un tempo fà.
Sò, che amando . . .

Some day I should like to fall in love,
Beauteous ladies, but only
On one condition, that I won't let you
Flatter me.
I know that, as you love, you betray, and, ever wily ,

You play your game in full view of him who adores you .

To play dead , or yearning,
Will gain you nothing with me,
For your much-used artifices
Were known to me long ago.
I know that, as you love . . .

The composer did not emphasize the refrain in the conventional way. Instead, he first repeated the music of lines 3-4, which had closed in the relative minor, this time ending it on the tonic; then he proceeded with the refrain, repeating only its last line extensively in the normal way and carrying forward its motive to the following ritornello. Rather than bipartite, the form might be described as a miniature ABB'CC'. It seems as if Ziani's musical conception needed two additional lines of text before the refrain.

Rodope's aria "Luci belle, se bramate" (1.8), another six-line strophic form with a distinct refrain, is also expanded in the middle (the music of lines 3-4 transposed and extended), and again only the final line of the refrain is repeated, after which its material is taken up in the ritornello; the form, once more, is ABB'CC', or even ABB'CDD' (example 26):

Luci belle, se bramate
Di saper quant'io v'adori,
Osservatelo a gl'ardori,
Che nel sen voi mi vibrate.
E direte, che in amarvi
Posso struggermi ben, mà non lasciarvi .

Beauteous eyes, if you desire
To know how much I love you,
Read it in the ardor
Which you have kindled in my breast.
And you shall say that, loving you ,
I may well consume myself, but never leave you .

[19] Boretti had no obvious dramatic reason for modifying the librettist's form. There are several examples of this same kind of modification in Sartorio's Orfeo .


Lumi cari se volete
Penetrar i miei martiri,
Dicerneteli à i sospiri,
Che dal cor uscir vedete,
E direte . . .[20]

Beloved eyes, if you wish
To penetrate my martyrdom,
Discern it in the sighs
You see issuing from my heart.
And you shall say . . .

Both arias represent a departure from the ABB' form, with its heavy emphasis on B; they allow the illusion of through-composition despite the text. The illusion is enhanced in the second aria by the motivic relationship between A and B, which disappears with the varied repetition of B.

This kind of textually unjustified expansion and variation, inspired as it may have been in certain instances by dramatic considerations, was a general sign of the loosening of the bonds between music and text. There were other signs as well, including the inappropriate application of melismatic decorations and the emancipation of ritornellos from their arias.[21] But it was also a function of the flexibility of the bipartite form itself, of the essential compatibility of that form with dramatic progress, its ability to disappear or become subsumed in a natural action. Even when reiterated strophically, the ABB' form was decisive, active, progressive; an action could be taken during its course. And even if it did not mark a character's exit, it could still maintain forward momentum, allowing the stage action to continue after just a brief punctuation.

10—Il diletto : Aria, Drama, and the Emergence of Formal Conventions

Preferred Citation: Rosand, Ellen. Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice: The Creation of a Genre. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991.