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

2—Dramma per musica : The Question of Genre


Another apparently clear-cut choice for early librettists involved the use of a chorus. Its presence in ancient tragedy was axiomatic; both Aristotle and Horace were clear about its importance, ascribing to it several different roles within the action.[37] The pastoral, too, made use of choral passages, which, however, were usually more tangential to the plot than those of tragedy. Opera, insofar as it was considered a revival of Greek tragedy, was thus bound to include choruses. And yet modern taste dictated otherwise, at least in Venice. Indeed, one of the conventional distinctions between Venetian opera and its predecessors hinges on the importance of choral episodes. Florentine, Mantuan, and Roman operas of the first half of the century employed them extensively, both within and between acts, where they served musical and dramatic purposes. In some of the earliest of these operas, choral passages provided the primary articulations within an otherwise nearly continuous flow of recitative, and thus contributed importantly to the shape of the works.[38] Venetian operas, on the other hand, are notable for their lack—or paucity—of choruses. They concentrate instead on soloists, using a variety of vocal styles to project the drama.[39]

An illustration of the contrast in the use of chorus between early opera and the Venetian dramma per musica is provided by a comparison of Monteverdi's early and late operas, a comparison already made with respect to their orchestral usage. In the tradition of the pastoral, and following the Florentine precedent, Orfeo contains multiple choruses—of nymphs and shepherds, of infernal spirits—that frame and comment on much of the action. In L'incoronazione di Poppea , however, there are only two choruses: Seneca's followers reacting to his decision to die, which requires only three singers for its performance (it is essentially a chorus of soloists), and Nerone's courtiers celebrating Poppea's coronation. A still more striking contrast is offered by the two versions of

[37] See Weinberg, Literary Criticism , 914-16. Aristotle, Poetics , ch. 18 (1456a): "The Chorus too should be regarded as one of the actors; it should be an integral part of the whole, and take a share in the action" (Complete Works of Aristotle , ed. Barnes, 2: 2330). Horace, Ars poetica , ed. Kraemer, 403-4: "The Chorus should discharge the part and duty of an actor with vigor, and chant nothing between the acts that does not forward the action and fit into the plot naturally. The Chorus must back the good and give sage counsel; must control the passionate and cherish those that fear to do evil; it must praise the thrifty meal, the blessings of justice, the laws, and Peace with her unbarred gates. It will respect confidences and implore heaven that prosperity may revisit the miserable and quit the proud." Extensive description of the chorus is absent in Horace's discussion of comedy (p. 406).

[38] In Peri's Euridice and Cavalieri's La rappresentazione di Anima e di Corpo , for instance. The chorus certainly played an important role in later Roman operas based on the model of tragedy. See Margaret Murata, "Classical Tragedy in the History of Early Opera in Rome," Early Music History 4 (1984): 101-34.

[39] The absence of choruses is analogous to the reduced importance of the instrumental movements in Venetian, as opposed to early court, opera. See Donald J. Grout, "The Chorus in Early Opera," in Festschrift Friedrich Blume , ed. Anna Amalie Abert and Wilhelm Pfannkuch (Basel, 1963), 151-61.


Rinuccini's Arianna , the original one for Mantua in 1608 and the revision for Venice in 1640. The libretto printed in 1640, as already observed, differs significantly—though subtly—from the original one. In addition to lacking the generic subtitle tragedia , it places many of the original choruses between virgolette . It would seem, then, that the designation tragedia was associated with extensive choruses. The changes in the 1640 version brought Arianna more closely into line with the increasingly conventionalized Venetian dramma per musica —though it was still far from typical.

Not even the most classicizing of the early Venetian librettists included many choruses in their dramas, and those they did include occurred within, rather than at the ends of, acts. As usual, they felt self-conscious enough to call attention to their lapse. The author of Le nozze d'Enea gives a characteristically thorough, and learned, defense:

The chorus was an integral part of ancient tragedies, entering not only as a character, but singing, mainly between the acts, accompanied by gestures and dancing, and with those characteristic lamentations and outbursts. But in modern plays it is less important, and in some it does little more than separate the acts. Since I have introduced even several choruses within each act, I have not used them at the ends; because given that the entire tragedy is sung, singing the choruses as well would become too monotonous; and thus to give the audience greater satisfaction with variety, ballets have been introduced, derived in some way from the plot, just as the ancient choruses danced to sung tetrameter, a meter very well suited to the movements of the body. (Appendix I.9h-i)

Here the complete musical setting of the drama served as a double excuse, both for not writing choruses between the acts and for including ballets instead, which, in addition to providing that essential commodity, variety, could, by stretching classical theory a little, actually be justified as an extension of the ancient practice of choral dancing.

Bissari, too, in the preface to Torilda , defends his substitution of ballets for choruses between acts with a similar excuse: the choruses danced.

In the divertissements [scherzi ] and dances that are woven into modern performances, ancient practices are revived . . . which made their tragedies less monotonous. . . . Because the new stagings are embellished with these things, it cannot be said that they lack the customary choruses, especially since the choruses appeared mainly in dances: and those dances, to which song will be added, will not be dissimilar to that hyporchema of which Atheneus writes, which was distinguished by being sung and played. (Appendix I.25c)[40]

[40] Most operas of the 1640s contained ballets at the ends of their first and second acts. True to classical precedent, these were usually linked in some way, however loosely, to the dramatic events of the operas. For a summary of the changing function of these ballets in seventeenth-century opera, see Katherine Kuzmick Hansell, "Il ballo teatrale e l'opera italiana," in StOpIt , 5 (Turin, 1988): 177-92.


2—Dramma per musica : The Question of Genre

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