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Copyright © 1998 Richard Somerset-Ward
All right reserved.
Opera didn't just happen. Its evolution can be traced back to many different sources--literary, dramatic, and musical. But the story of how the first "operas" came into being is well documented and clear enough.
It happened in Italy four hundred years ago, and it was no coincidence that it happened in the last years of the Renaissance, at a time when Italian arts and literature were being revived and "reborn" under the influence of classical models. It was one such model--Ancient Greek drama--that inspired tide first operas. The idea caught on surprisingly quickly--Partly because there was a readymade route through the Renaissance courts of northern Italy, but mainly because it became a commercial success in less than fifty years.
Its inspiration was not primarily musical. It was conceived as a literary device, as a method of improving the performance of drama. Many of the early librettos were described as dramma per musica (drama expressed through music), and that is still the phrase that best describes the idea of opera.
The very first "opera" was performed in Florence in 1598. How and why it happened can best be explained bybeginning the story a few years earlier, in 1589.
In that year, Ferdinand de' Medici, grand duke of Tuscany, was married. He was not a very pleasant gentleman. Two years earlier, he had almost certainly poisoned his predecessor, who happened to be his older brother. Now he had to surrender his cardinal hat in order to get married. But marry he must--and marry well--if he was to strengthen his position in the turbulent world of Italian politics. He found himself a worthy bride. She was a French princess, Christine of Lorraine, and the marriage once again united the Medici family of Florence with the powerful throne of France.
Because it was a dynastic marriage, and because it was essential that all the movers and shakers of Europe take note of it, the wedding celebrations of Ferdinand and Christine were of unparalleled magnificence. The Medici possessed ample means to achieve this. They had presided over the city of Florence for a hundred and fifty years, and the greatest of the Medici rulers--Cosimo the Elder and Lorenzo the Magnificent--had made Florence one of the workshops of the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo had done some of their finest work in the city, and the Medici had paid for much of it. Ferdinand's wedding celebration lived up to expectations, not least because he was able to call on the services of a very talented group of poets, musicians, and artists who enjoyed his patronage. The most spectacular entertainment they devised were known as intermedi. As their name implied, intermedi took place "in the middle" of another entertainment--during a tournament perhaps, or a stage play or sometimes just a feast. In 1589, the main event was a new play by Girolamo Bargagli--La pellegrina (The Pilgrim). It was in five acts, so a total of six intermedi were needed--one before the play and one after, with the other four somewhat shorter, being given between acts.
The play was meant to be the chief attraction, but it was the intermedi that caused the sensation. Ferdinand was so pleased with them that he had them repeated several times during the following days, and he took the unusual step of having the music and texts published--which is why we know what they sounded like, and (more or less) what they looked like.
By any standard, they were magnificent. They were tableaux rather than dramas, each of them based on a mythological subject and telling its story in a static, rather leisurely fashion. But the music was full of wonderful things--catchy dances, big choral numbers, florid solos, and occasional pyrotechnics for virtuoso singers--all of them perfectly designed to hold the attention of an audience that was probably moving about and stretching after sitting through a long act of Bargagli's play. And if the music did not hold every member of the audience, then the spectacle certainly did. Bernardo Buontalenti, one of Florence's leading artists, had spent eight months creating costumes and scenery, and adapting the Uffizi Theater to house the astonishingly sophisticated battery of platforms, flying machines, ropes, and pulleys that enabled him to amaze the audience with storms, wrecks, dragons, and all manner of theatrical effects. Engravings of the sets have survived to tell the tale.
These intermedi were not opera. They lacked the dramatic content that would be opera's defining quality. But the men who created them--the poets, intellectuals, and musicians--were the very same men who were already in the process of articulating the idea of opera. They were members of a Florentine society that had been formed in 1569. It was called the Accademia degli Alterati and it existed for the "alteration," or improvement, of its members "through the cultivation of elegant speech, good conduct, and a knowledge of all the arts and sciences." One of the arts that intrigued them was the performance of ancient Greek drama. They had read the recent works of Girolamo Mei, a classical scholar who lived in Rome, and they had taken note of his opinion (stated as fact) that the great Greek tragedies of antiquity had been written to be sung, not to be spoken. This was the art form they sought to rediscover.
Their premise--that Greek drama had been sung--was probably only partly true. There had certainly been some musical content. The word orchestra is derived from a Greek expression denoting the semicircular space in front of the stage where the chorus danced and sang. But there was no real evidence that the tragedies had been entirely sung. Nevertheless, these Florentine gentlemen were discussing the subject as early as 1576 in a group (a sort of subgroup of the Alterati) presided over by Count Giovanni de' Bardi. Bardi was a well-known patron of music and the arts, and acted as superintendent of court entertainments at Florence. But it was in 1592 that the discussions took a more practical turn. In that year, Count Bardi moved to Rome. In his absence, the meetings took place at the home of Jacopo Corsi. Corsi was a wealthy merchant with interests in wool, silk, and banking, but he was also a good musician--a harpsichordist and a composer. His colleagues included the best musicians in Florence--Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini; as well as the best-known poet, Ottavio Rinuccini. A club or society such as Bardi's original group or Corsi's later one (there was a considerable overlap in membership) was known as a camerata--from the word camera, meaning a chamber or private room, which was presumably where they met.
What these Florentine men were chiefly concerned about was drama. They wanted to make use of music, and thus to create dramma per musica, because they believed that, however good the text and however good the acting, the straightforward recitation of words was incapable, by itself, of rendering the emotions of great drama. But they had a problem. The prevailing style of music at the end of the sixteenth century was polyphonic--music of "many sounds" in which several simultaneous melodies were blended to produce an overall effect, as in madrigals (or, very often, in intermedi). It was a style that had been supreme in Italy since the thirteenth century, but its days were almost over. Two of its greatest masters, Giovanni Palestrina and the Flemish composer Roland de Lassus, died in 1594. In any case, it was not the solution for which the camerata members were looking. They wanted something much simpler, something that would complement and underline the words, not overwhelm them. Writing more than thirty years later, Count Bardi's son, Pietro, stated categorically that his father and his friends had been motivated by the "wretched state" of modern music. (How many more people, in different countries and different contexts, would make that same complaint during the next four hundred years!)
The man who is generally credited with solving the problem was Vincenzo Galilei. He was a music theorist and a composer for the lute, but he was also the camerata member most familiar with Greek and Latin music, and with Girolamo Mei's researches on the subject. It was Galilei, according to Pietro de' Bardi, who first articulated the new style of music with which opera was launched. This was monodic, rather than polyphonic, music. It was just a single line--a series of notes to which the actor-singer declaimed the text, with improvised accompaniment consisting of no more than occasional chords on a harpsichord or a lute. In a word, it was recitative--a "reciting line" designed to give the words extra impact and greater drama.
Galilei did not live to see the first "opera." He died in 1591 (by which time his son, Galileo Galilei, was already on his way to becoming the greatest astronomer of the day). But Vincenzo Galilei's ideas were not lost on his colleagues, and when Jacopo Peri set Dafne, a dramatic poem by Ottavio Rinuccini, the musical convention he used was recitative. What he was attempting, he wrote, was "a kind of music more advanced than ordinary speech but less than the melody of singing, thus taking a middle position between the two."
Dafne, which was the first "opera," was performed in Jacopo Corsi's house in Florence in February 1598. Afterward, the librettist, Rinuccini, wondered why it had taken so many hundreds of years to revive the glories of ancient Greek drama:
I used to believe that this was due to the imperfections of modern music, by far inferior to the ancient. But the opinion thus formed was wholly driven from my mind by ... Jacopo Peri, who ... set to music with so much grace the fable of Dafne (which I had written solely to make a simple test of what the music of our age could do) that it gave pleasure beyond belief to the few who heard it.
Very little of the music of Dafne has survived, but it seems safe to say that several hours of recitative, occasionally punctuated by a song or a chorus, must have been hard going. Nevertheless, news of the experiment quickly got around intellectual circles in Italy, and when the Medici staged their next big wedding celebration, in 1600, the camerata was able to use it as a showcase for its latest offering. The wedding was the biggest yet. Maria de' Medici was marrying no less a personage than the king of France himself, Henri IV. Ottavio Rinuccini wrote a brand-new libretto, Euridice, and both Peri and Caccini provided settings for it. Peri's was performed at the wedding. He sang the role of Orpheus himself, distinguished, as always, by his long golden hair, which was responsible for his popular nickname, "Il Zazzerino" (the longhaired one). But Euridice was, at best, a qualified success. The next time the Medici staged a wedding, in 1608, they commissioned intermedi rather than an "opera."
Nevertheless, the 1600 performance of Euridice had one very important consequence. In the audience was the ruler of Mantua, Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga, and it is likely, though we do not know for certain, that he was accompanied by the most promising musician on his payroll at Mantua: Claudio Monteverdi.
For all their pioneering spirit, the members of the camerata did not have the talent to translate their ideas into a popular art form. It took the genius of Monteverdi to do that. Nevertheless, Count Bardi, Jacopo Corsi, and their colleagues had laid the groundwork for what became a four-hundred-year odyssey--a never-ending search for ways and means of creating dramma per musica. Within forty years, it had become an art form in its own right, and had acquired a name that became universal: opera in musica, quickly shortened to opera.
But the original description, il dramma per musica, was always a better definition, because what made opera unique, and gave it its peculiar quality, was the tension it generated between words and music, on the one hand, and between music and dramatic values, on the other. The story of opera is the story of how, in the course of four centuries, creative people in many countries have taken the camerata's original idea and developed it in many different directions in order to produce their own variations of dramma per musica. Composers, singers, and conductors; poets, dramatists, and librettists; stage directors, designers, and impresarios; and audiences, too--all of them have played a vital part.
Could they see it in retrospect, those Florentine gentlemen of the camerata would find it very hard to connect their original "invention" with some (indeed, most) of the things that have since transpired. They did not anticipate the use of an orchestra--and certainly not the hundred-strong orchestras of Wagnerian opera. They always gave primacy to the words: they would be deeply shocked by the carefree way in which so many of their successors have allowed the words to be drowned out. They believed that the addition of music was simply a way of emphasizing the drama: they would be amazed (but not necessarily horrified) if they could see how much of opera's drama is actually created by, and carried in, the music.
The basic idea of dramma per musica, the combination of words and music to produce drama, is intrinsically powerful. It enables artists from different disciplines to combine their talents to create a uniquely powerful form of drama, one that is capable of affecting audiences at many different levels simultaneously--musically, poetically: emotionally, dramatically. At its best, when all these elements come together in a creative whole, opera is capable of being the supreme dramatic art form, the one that is peculiarly able to move the spirit and to touch the soul.
Several members of the Florentine camerata lived to see the beginnings of this dream come true. In February 1607, they traveled to Mantua for the premiere of Monteverdi's first opera, La favola d'Orfeo (The Legend of Orpheus). The first thing they heard--the great trumpet toccata with which Monteverdi began the opera--must have startled them, and deeply impressed them. It announced a score for thirty-eight instruments, chorus, ballet. and eleven principal singers led by the tenor Francesco Rasi in the title role. The Prologue and two female parts were taken by castrati. It was a far cry from Peri's Dafne and Euridice of just a few years previously. It was also the moment when opera became a composer's medium.
The members of the camerata were not entirely unprepared for this development. They had had their own arguments about the role of music in dramma per musica, and one of them, Giulio Caccini, had already moved some distance from the original idea of an austere recitative by adding ornaments and trills to show off the singers' voices. Caccini was doubtless motivated by the fact that his two daughters, Francesca and Settimia, were among the leading singers of Florence. But Monteverdi had now taken the role of the music, and therefore of the composer, a giant step forward.
Claudio Monteverdi was nearly forty years old when he wrote Orfeo. A supremely gifted musician from Cremona (a century before the Stradivari and Guarneri families made the town famous for the manufacture of violins and stringed instruments), Monteverdi published a set of madrigals when he was fifteen. In his early twenties, he found employment as a musician at the Gonzaga court in Mantua, rising eventually, but not without difficulty, to become maestro di cappella, the official in charge of all musical activities at the court. He was a popular and well-known composer of both sacred and secular music. His fifth book of madrigals was a phenomenal bestseller in 1605. To the Gonzaga family, however, he was just a musician. In the custom of the time, he was therefore treated as a servant.
The Gonzagas, like the Medici of Florence, were one of the great princely families of Italy, but less established than the Medici and consequently more ambitious. The duke who employed Monteverdi, Vincenzo Gonzaga, sought to ingratiate himself in the complex European balance of power by marching his small army from one side of the continent to the other--from Hungary in the east to Flanders in the west--to assist whatever causes he thought might win him powerful allies. Because he was genuinely a lover and patron of music, he sometimes took his maestro di cappella with him on these martial expeditions. Back home, the Gonzaga court, where Peter Paul Rubens was one of the painters in Monteverdi's time, was generally admired for its magnificence and its cultural sophistication. Not least, it was admired for its maestro di cappella. The duke showed his gratitude by paying Monteverdi a pittance, and frequently forgetting to pay it on time.
Florence and Mantua were about a hundred and fifty miles apart. The artistic elements of the two courts kept in touch with each other, and Monteverdi, whether or not he attended the 1600 performance of Euridice with Duke Vincenzo, was certainly well informed about developments in Florence. One of the people who kept him in touch was Alessandro Striggio the Younger. He was chancellor of the Mantuan court, and therefore Monteverdi's immediate employer. Striggio came from Florence. He had played an instrument in the 1589 intermedi alongside his better-known father, and he had certainly been present at the 1600 performance of Euridice in Florence. Now he was Monteverdi's librettist for Orfeo.
There is no doubt that Monteverdi used the Florentine blueprint as his model, but he developed it beyond recognition. He made use of recitative in Orfeo, but only in moderation. He was the greatest madrigalist of the age, a composer of beautiful and intricate choral music, and a considerable expert on dance music. All this was evident in Orfeo, as was his mastery of what was for those times a large orchestra, and a wind band besides. There was nothing we would recognize as an "aria," but there was much that was tuneful. It dearly delighted its audience. Unfortunately, no firsthand description of the production has survived, so we cannot know what it looked like. But the score and libretto were both printed, and Orfeo remains the oldest opera still regularly in production.
Monteverdi's greatest ally in getting Orfeo produced at the Mantuan court was the duke's son, Francesco, and the following year, 1608, Monteverdi was commissioned to write another opera, this time to celebrate Francesco's wedding. Once again, the librettist was a Florentine, Ottavio Rinuccini. The new work, Arianna, was an uneven greater success than Orfeo, but, for Monteverdi himself, it was surrounded by tragedy. First, he had to write it in the immediate aftermath of the death of his young wife, whom he clearly adored. Then, only days before the premiere, twenty-year-old Caterina Martinelli, who had lived with the Monteverdis for seven years, and who was to have created the title role, died in a smallpox outbreak and had to be replaced by Virginia Ramponi.
Only one piece of music survives: "Arianna's Lament." It was the first "hit tune" in opera, touchingly performed by Signora Ramponi. "No one hearing it was left unmoved," wrote the court archivist, "nor among the ladies was there one who did not shed a few tears at [Arianna's] plaint." For Monteverdi, it must have been one of the most truly heartfelt pieces of music he ever wrote.
Arianna was the centerpiece of Prince Francesco's wedding celebration, but it was only a part of it. In the course of eight days between May 28 and June 5 in that summer of 1608, the Mantuan court staged five musical-dramatic works, all of them specially commissioned, all of them premieres. It was probably the first "opera festival" ever held--and one that would tax the resources of any modern festival. As maestro di cappella, and regardless of whatever personal problems he might have had, Monteverdi was responsible for all the music--its rehearsal and performance, as well as much of its composition. In addition to Arianna, he wrote music for a play by Giovanni Battista Guarini, and he composed an opera-ballet to a text by Rinuccini (it was called Il ballo della ingrate--The Prudes' Ball, as it might loosely be translated). The other major composer on display was Marco da Gagliano. He was a Florentine, but too young to have been a member of the camerata. Nevertheless, by 1608, at the age of twenty-six, he was one of the foremost practitioners of the stile rappresentativo the new device of recitative developed by the camerata), and the setting of Dafne that he created for the Mantuan festival was much admired by Peri. It was important for another reason: Gagliano wrote a preface to the score in which he advised singers (and directors, had they existed) on how best to perform the work. It was, in fact, a production manual--the earliest one to survive in the history of opera, and probably the first to have been written in such detail before livrets de mise-en-scene were compiled for the Paris Opera in the 1840s. Already, a century and a half before Gluck, Gagliano was advocating dramatic reality as being more important than the showing off of a singer's voice.
As for Monteverdi, he was left with two young sons to bring up, and an inadequate and often unpaid salary. He was a proud man, reduced to writing begging letters to his employer. But when Duke Vincenzo died in 1612 and was succeeded by his son Francesco, patron of Orfeo and Arianna, it seemed that Monteverdi would finally get the recognition he deserved. Instead, within weeks, he was dismissed. With his two sons and all his worldly possessions, he went wearily home to Cremona.
Three decades later, in the last year of his life. Monteverdi returned to Mantua--whether out of nostalgia or bitterness is not known. He found much of the city in ruins, and the rest of it still recovering from the ravages of the imperial troops who had sacked the city in 1630 after Francesco and his brother had failed to provide a male heir to ensure the Gonzaga succession. Somewhere amid the rubble (Monteverdi must have known) were the remnants of twenty years of his life--the unpublished manuscripts of much of the music he had written for the ungrateful Gonzagas, reduced to ashes and lost to posterity.
Luckily for us, however, Monteverdi's parting with the Gonzagas turned out to be a godsend. In 1613, within months of being dismissed by Duke Franscesco, he was selected to fill the most important and influential post in Italian music--maestro di cappella at San Marco in Venice. That was where he spent the last thirty years of his life. But it was not until 1640, when he was seventy-three years old, that he once again became passionately involved in opera.
Florence and Rome
In the meantime, news of the camerata's experiments in Florence, and of Monteverdi's spectacular demonstrations in Mantua, had spread through northern Italy. The intellectual ferment of the Renaissance was still alive, if somewhat muted, and wealthy patrons were keen to show their neighbors that they were on the cutting edge. But none of them could boast a composer like Monteverdi. Moreover, court entertainments were meant to glorify the princes, dukes, and noblemen who were their patrons: il dramma per musica was not the ideal medium for this, and certainly not as effective as intermedi. So the experience of "opera" in the first forty years of the seventeenth century was at best erratic. Court extravaganzas in places like Parma, Padua, Turin, and Ferrara were as sumptuous as ever, and several cities without courts (Bologna was the most important)joined in by commissioning works that were undoubtedly inspired by events in Florence and Mantua. Examples of recitative began to appear in pageants and intermedi and semidramatic musical works. But there were only two cities--Florence and Rome --where the experiment with dramma per musica was generally sustained.
In Florence it continued to depend on the Medici. Their power and prestige meant that they did a lot of entertaining, but large-scale musical-dramatic works were commissioned only for major state occasions. One such occasion was in 1625. The prince of Poland was the visitor, and one of the productions with which the Medici entertained him was an opera-ballet called La liberazione di Ruggerio dall'isola d'Alcina. The composer was Francesca Caccini--the same Francesca for whom her father, Giulio, had written the trills and ornaments that had so annoyed some of his colleagues in the camerata. It is thought to be the first opera written by a woman.
Not even Florence, however, could match Rome's enthusiasm for dramma per musica. In this, as in so much else, Rome owed its primacy to the Church. It began its love affair with the new art form in earnest in 1623, when a member of the powerful Barberini family was elected as Pope Urban VIII. The Barberini established their ascendancy in a number of very visible ways, with grand new buildings and opulent entertainments, and none more so than the 1632 inauguration of the Great Hall of the Palazzo Barberini. It was probably for that occasion that Stefano Landi composed a dramma per musica on the suitably sacred subject of Alexis, a fifth-century saint. A description of the stunning production has been pieced together by the modern critic and scholar Rodolfo Celletti:
The designs for Sant'Alessio included forests, gardens, scenes of Hell, angels who flew while singing and an immense great cloud that opened at the finale to reveal the splendors of Paradise. It was a triumph of both theatrical mechanics and lighting. Illumination was provided by wax and tallow candles and movable oil lamps; smoke was drawn off by ventilation holes onstage. Lighting depended largely on reflecting materials used in the scenery. These included mirrors, pieces of glass and metal and phosphorescent powders.
Landis librettist for Sant'Alessio was a young priest called Giulio Rospigliosi. History knows him as Pope Clement IX, but his progress to the Throne of Peter was marked by singular contributions to the development of opera--not least the introduction of comic characters to lighten the mood from time to time. This must have provided welcome relief, most notably in Rospigliosi's own librettos, which erred on the side of length. His 1642 opera Il palazzo incantato, written with the composer Luigi Rossi, was reputed to have a running time of seven hours. Nevertheless, Rospigliosi saw the potential of dramma per musica earlier than most. He peopled his plots with large numbers of characters, many of them with their own subplots, and it was he, a leading churchman, who led the way toward more secular subject matter and less dependence on mythology. A composer of Monteverdi's genius might have turned them into great opera. As it was, Rospigliosi's texts were generally set to fast-paced recitative, occasionally interrupted by a chorus, and even more occasionally by a melody for a solo voice.
Roman opera had one other notable peculiarity. It was generally a male affair. In deference to the Vatican, women were strongly discouraged from appearing on the stage, so female parts, as well as the customary male leads, were normally sung by castrati.
Venice had no such inhibitions. The city in which Claudio Monteverdi lived the last three decades of his life was unique. Nowhere else could opera so quickly have escaped the elitism of court patronage and become a public phenomenon.
Excerpted from The Story of Opera by Richard Somerset-Ward Copyright © 1998 by Richard Somerset-Ward. Excerpted by permission.
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