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

13—Il ritorno d'Orfeo : The Decline of a Tradition

Tradition and Revival

The Venetian tradition consciously sustained itself in a variety of ways. Librettists' prefaces sometimes read like litanies or operatic curricula vitae. Most revivals and rifacimenti were clearly (and proudly) acknowledged as such, even on the title pages.[26] Such revivals and rifacimenti may well have been motivated by a shortage of new librettos or new subjects, but, rather than suffering for being derivative or unoriginal, they apparently claimed special status by virtue of pedigree, by the very fact of having had a past.

[25] See also the passage from Minerva , ch. 19, 423: "onde in ogni tempo apparisca il merito della Virtù ad esempio, ed eccitamento di chi n'avrà genio d'esercitarla à sua maggior gloria" (Appendix II.6dd).

[26] Sometimes the citation of earlier performances or sources was obviously intended to increase the impact of the work, as in the Faustini revivals already discussed, like Eritrea of 1661. See also the revivals of Ciro (1665), Orontea (1666), Giasone (1666), Dori (1667), Alessandro amante (1667), a "rifacimento" of Gli amori d'Alessandro magno, e di Rossane (1651), Seleuco (1668), Semiramide and Ercole in Tebe (1670), Dori (1671), previously heard in 1663 and 1667, and Scipione affricano (1678).


Many revivals involved the new setting of an old text. Scores, it must not be forgotten, were not published and so were less readily available than librettos. But old music was often reused as well, if it could be found. This is clear from a complaint regarding the difficulty encountered both in locating and in adjusting the original music of Cesti's Dori for a revival in 1667.[27] Since the work had been performed as recently as four years earlier at S. Salvatore, presumably the problem was not overwhelming. And since the previous performance had not been the first, there were probably multiple scores in circulation.[28] The difficulty must have been immeasurably greater in 1683, however, when Cesti's nearly thirty-year-old Orontea was revived at SS. Giovanni e Paolo: "At SS. Giovanni e Paolo they are rehearsing another new opera called Orontea , which, it is hoped, despite the fact that it was performed here years ago, will be successful, since it has quite a lot of humor and is the work of the reliable pen of Cesti."[29] Interestingly, although the reporter of this occasion expressed some concern about the antiquated nature of the score, he was reassured by Cesti's reputation, as well as by the humor in the libretto. Clearly, the underlying assumption here was one of stylistic continuity. While some operas underwent considerable alteration that involved aspects of dramaturgy, others could be brought up to date merely by the addition of new arias and sometimes, as we saw with Giasone , the excision of recitative passages as well.[30]

The relative stability of opera in seventeenth-century Venice, maintained through the persistence of powerful musical and dramatic conventions, is underscored by a comparison with a non-Venetian opera that was revived in Venice thirty years after its first performance, Monteverdi's Arianna . Modern, not to say pathbreaking, in the Mantua of 1608, the work was a complete

[27] "Si è incontrato molte difficoltà così nel trovare l'originale della musica, come nell'aggiustarlo" (La Dori overo lo schiavo reggio Dramma per musica da rappresentarsi nel Nobilissimo Teatro Grimano di SS. Giovanni e Paolo L'Anno 1667 [Venice: Nicolini & Curti], preface).

[28] This is an assumption confirmed by the comparatively large number of scores still extant. On the sources of Dori , see Carl B. Schmidt, "'La Dori' di Antonio Cesti: Sussidi bibliografici," RIM 11 (1976): 197-229, esp. 211-13 on the scores.

[29] "ASS Giovanni e Paolo si fanno le prove d'altro nuovo Dramma chiamato l'Orontea che sperasi non ostante che anni sono fù esso qui rappresentato riuscirà di comune sodisfatione il havere assai del ridicolo et essere compositione dell'accreditata penna del Cesti" (avviso of 13 February 1683, I-Vnm, It. VI, 460 [12104], Mercuri o Gazette settimanali). The original setting of Cicognini's libretto, in 1649, was the work of Francesco Lucio (see n. 31 below).

[30] On the modifications to Erismena of 1655 for a production in 1670, which were quite substantial, see Powers, "Erismena," 259-324; see also id., "Il Mutio tramutato, Part I: Sources and Libretto," in Venezia e il melodramma nel seicento , ed. Maria Teresa Muraro (Florence, 1976), 227-58. A number of other operas that were revived over several decades lend themselves well to the study of revisions. These include Cesti's Orontea, Dori (the subject of exhaustive study by Carl B. Schmidt: "Antonio Cesti's La Dori: A Study of Sources, Performance Traditions, and Musical Style," RIM 10 [1975]: 455-98, and" 'La Dori' di Antonio Cesti: Sussidi bibliografici"), and Argia . Even those operas revived within a few years of their first performance, however, such as Ziani's Antigona delusa da Alceste or Le fortune di Rodope e Damira , reveal interesting changes that affect the proportion of recitative and aria, the structure of dramatic units, and even the portrayal of character.


anachronism in the Venice of 1640. The alterations made in the libretto, such as the elimination of choruses, could not possibly have brought it into line with contemporary Venetian practice. Only Monteverdi's enormous reputation at the time could have sustained Arianna in Venice. In its new context— surrounded by such works as Strozzi's and Manelli's Delia , Busenello's and Cavalli's Gli amori d'Apollo e di Dafne , or Ferrari's Il pastor regio , and especially Monteverdi's own, only slightly later Il ritorno d'Ulisse and L'incoronazione di PoppeaArianna must have stood out as an anomaly, constructed for a different kind of audience at a very different phase in the evolution of opera. The libretto of Orontea , however, performed in 1649, 1666, and 1683—even with much of the same music—could remain essentially unchanged.[31]

Indeed, the preservation and appreciation of their own tradition by the Venetian public, and the availability of old music, are wonderfully illustrated in the prologue to a revival of Cesti's Argia in 1669. It is set in a library of musical scores, a variation on the scene in the music room. These Apollo, Piacere, and three Muses remove one after another from the shelves to evaluate them for possible performance and to sing arias from them, including one from the more than ten-year-old Hipermestra (Cavalli/Moniglia, 1658).[32]

It was this very continuity, self-consciously developed and maintained, that constituted and confirmed the generic identity of Venetian opera. Regularity of demand, dependability of economic support, and predictability of audience, all of these features, unique to seventeenth-century Venice, had combined to sustain the establishment of the new, distinct, and permanent art form, one that carried within itself all the premises of its future development. Once firmly established—in fact, even before then—opera began to spread from its Venetian matrix. The Febiarmonici, always on the move, transported it up and down the

[31] The Orontea librettos are discussed in Holmes, "Giacinto Andrea Cicognini's and Antonio Cesti's Orontea, " 108. Morelli and Walker convincingly ascribe the first (1649) setting of Cicognini's libretto, a score that is now lost, to Francesco Lucio ("Migliori plettri," CXXXlV-CXL). Cesti's setting was the second, composed for Innsbruck in 1656 and revived in Venice in 1683.

[32] The two other scores from which arias were sung seem to have been more recent, however. They were Fabio Massimo and Il ratto delle Sabine , which, according to Apollo, "d'un istessa penna ambi son parti." The latter may refer to a work by Draghi and Minato that was not performed until four years later in Vienna. But Minato's preface to that work indicates that it had originally been written for Venice. As for Fabio Massimo , the title does not correspond to any known Venetian opera or any work by Draghi and Minato; but perhaps Fabio Massimo refers to a prominent character in another opera, such as L'amor della patria superlore ad ogn'altro (Sbarra/Kerll, Munich, 1665), or Marcello in Siracusa (Noris/Boretti, Venice, 1670). Since the music for this prologue has not survived, and since the texts of the borrowed arias are not given in the libretto, we cannot be sure which arias were actually sung, although several are described m some detail in the libretto by the second muse: the one from Fabio Massimo is a love song sung by Fabio "a Regia donzella"; and one of the two from Il ratto delle Sabine is sung by Mirena and Heraclea, the other by Romolo "ch'assalito ad un tempo dal Tracio Nume, e dal Bambin di Gnido, Teme il Guerriero Dio men di Cupido."


peninsula for occasional performances, beginning as early as 1640 in Bologna. Eventually, stable theaters, with their own regular repertories, mostly borrowed from Venice, began to emerge in centers like Florence, Milan, Bologna, Genoa, Rome, Naples, and Palermo, none of them remotely resembling Venice in their social structure.[33] But by then opera had been fully formed; it no longer required the nurture of the Venetian hothouse environment.

What had been worked out by the middle of the century in Venice had become permanent. Yet it was never taken for granted. The issues that both challenged and inspired generic definition—questions of verisimilitude, distinctions between speech and song, propriety of style and language, play with illusion and reality in the three dimensions of music, words, and setting—were repeatedly addressed and resolved, in Venice and elsewhere, throughout the seventeenth century and beyond.

Orpheus's Venetian appearance in 1673 confirms the persistent relevance of these issues. As the character with the most legitimate claim to musical speech and action, his antiheroism in Venice is a direct challenge to operatic verisimilitude. His refusal to accept his role, to be himself, reaffirms the vitality of the operatic paradox. His subsequent appearances elsewhere, in other guises, under other conditions, would revive the same basic issues. From Gluck's and Calzabigi's eighteenth-century Vienna to Offenbach's nineteenth-century Parisian Underworld to Harrison Birtwistle's twentieth-century Thatcherized Britain, he boldly proclaimed his identity, raising and resolving anew the question of the legitimacy of opera.

Although Venice maintained its position as the major operatic center of Italy to the end of the eighteenth century, with the largest number of active theaters, by the end of the seventeenth it had yielded its operatic hegemony. New works were regularly being created elsewhere. But Venice left a permanent imprint on the genre. Responsive and relevant, exploiting the ambiguous power of multiple means of expression combined, the genre that so fascinated audiences in Venice, that was so effectively nourished by the Venetian climate, still lives. The creative ambiguity that was formally recognized and concretized

[33] The situation is somewhat more complicated. Courtly patronage persisted in Medici Florence, for example. Also there had been operatic activity before the Febiarmonici in Florence. This situation is outlined in Bianconi, Seventeenth Century , 190-204. The diffusion of Venetian opera through Italy is discussed in Bianconi and Walker, "Dalla 'Finta pazza.'" For Florence, see Weaver and Weaver, Florentine Theater ; for Naples, Bianconi, "Funktionen des Operntheaters in Neapel"; for Turin, see the various studies of Mercedes Viale Ferrero, including "Repliche a Torino di alcuni melodrammi veneziani e loro car-atteristiche," in Venezia e il melodramma nel seicento , ed. Maria Teresa Muraro (Florence, 1976), 145-72; for Bologna, see Corrado Ricci, I teatri di Bologna (Bologna, 1888); for Rome, Alessandro Ademollo, I teatri di Roma nel secolo decimosettimo (Rome, 1888), and Per Bjurström, Feast and Theater in Queen Christina's Rome (Stockholm, 1966); for Genoa, see Remo Giazotto, La musica a Genova nella vita pubblica e privata dal XIII al XVIII secolo (Genoa, 1951), and Ivaldi, "Gli Adorno," 87-152.


by terminological consensus in the acceptance of dramma per musica in midseventeenth-century Venice has continued to animate opera. The same self-questioning, self-assertion, and self-definition are inherent in virtually every subsequent descriptive subtitle affixed to the genre: opera seria, opera buffa, tragé-die lyrique , grand opera, melodrama, azione teattale, dramma lirico, Musiktheater , even Gesamtkunstwerk —all recapitulate the aesthetic issues first elaborated in the opera workshop of seventeenth-century Venice.


13—Il ritorno d'Orfeo : The Decline of a Tradition

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