From Madrigal to Opera: Monteverdi's Staging of the Self

From Madrigal to Opera: Monteverdi's Staging of the Self

by Mauro Calcagno

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This pathbreaking study links two traditionally separate genres as their stars crossed to explore the emergence of multiple selves in early modern Italian culture and society. Mauro Calcagno focuses on the works of Claudio Monteverdi, a master of both genres, to investigate how they reflect changing ideas about performance and role-playing by singers. Calcagno traces the roots of dialogic subjectivity to Petrarch’s love poetry arguing that Petrarchism exerted a powerful influence not only on late Renaissance literature and art, but also on music. Covering more than a century of music and cultural history, the book demonstrates that the birth of opera relied on an important feature of the madrigalian tradition: the role of the composer as a narrative agent enabling performers to become characters and hold a specific point of view.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520267688
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 04/18/2012
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 334
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Mauro Calcagno is Associate Professor of Music at SUNY, Stony Brook.

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From Madrigal to Opera

Monteverdi's Staging of the Self

By Mauro Calcagno


Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95152-5


Text, Context, Performance

Within early seventeenth-century courtly entertainments and festivities, theatrical vocal music was no longer restricted to a mere framing device for a spoken play, as in sixteenth-century intermedi. In the new genre, la musica took center stage. But as a genre entering the crowded and competitive artistic arena of late Renaissance Italy, opera was, from the beginning, in need of articulating a discourse regarding its aesthetic and moral dignity, in order to fully sustain the comparison (paragone) with literature, theater, and visual arts. In the earliest operas, created and performed in the Italian courts of Florence and Mantua around 1600, the choice of mythological characters known for their musical prowess—Apollo and Orpheus—undoubtedly served a legitimizing purpose, justifying music as an art that could fully hold the stage for an entire performance, fulfilling Aristotelian requirements of verisimilitude.

In addition to emphasizing ethical and aesthetic meanings implicit in the myths of Apollo and Orpheus, operatic plots capitalized on these two narratives also in order to highlight male progeny, since Apollo was thought of as Orpheus's father. Such discourses, articulated through mythology, would have been perceived as conveying the values of the north Italian nobility that patronized the arts, including opera. Early operas—the texts they produced, the values they conveyed, their uses of literary and mythological sources, and the discourses they advanced about subjectivity—were inextricably linked to an early modern patronage system in which artworks functioned as symbols of nobility's social rank. As Claudio Annibaldi observed in singling out Marco da Gagliano's definition of opera as "a true princely spectacle" (spettacolo veramente da principi, in the preface to the published score of his 1608 Dafne), "few theatrical genres exemplify better than opera the anthropological norm according to which every social group elaborates its own sonorous countermarks." Nobility did so by producing not so much written documents such as scores, but sonorous events—performances—which "symbolized the rank of the patron through a musical style that had edifying, ceremonial or recreational aims." Performances were aimed at displaying the innate moral superiority of nobility, a superiority signified by elevated musical style and sheer magnificence in the productions, and that justified nobility's social and political power. According to traditional views of early modern patronage, the first operas, like music and spectacles in general, were devised to celebrate the rulers as enlightened patrons and/or were aimed at increasing their political power. But, as important as these celebratory and practical functions were, they resulted less in a politicization of the aesthetic sphere than in an aestheticization of the political sphere, in particular, an aestheticization of the moral supremacy of nobility.

As far as early opera is concerned, patronage issues provide a context that entangles with issues of text and performance. Preliminary to any investigation of performance is that of the "context of destination of a given musical event." In the texts related to a performance—scores and librettos—historians can find signs of their dependence on such a patronage context. Provided that, as Annibaldi claims, performances are events unfolding in time and thus were better suited than mere object-texts like scores and librettos to symbolize the social rank of patrons, what was the relationship between performances and texts? In this chapter I discuss Monteverdi's Orfeo as a case study that illustrates characteristics unique to the genre of opera in its being constitutively both text and performance, and I raise the issue of subjectivity as being relevant to the nexus among text, context, and performance.


The immediate sponsor of the first two operas in history, La Dafne (1598) and L'Euridice (1600), was a Florentine pro-Medici nobleman, Iacopo Corsi, who involved musicians Iacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini and poet Ottavio Rinuccini in these productions. In an effort to please Grand Duke Ferdinando de' Medici and maintain social and political influence at court, Corsi offered to stage the "nobile favola" Euridice as part of the nuptial festivities for Maria, the Grand Duke's niece, and Henry IV of France. Seven years later, in Mantua, Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga and Prince Francesco sponsored an academy called the Invaghiti to stage Striggio and Monteverdi's Orfeo during Carnival, when the preparations for Francesco's wedding in the following year were underway. Since Duke Vincenzo's wife, Eleonora, was Maria de' Medici's sister, the couple was present at the 1600 festivities and even lent Mantuan artists. In relationship to these performances, the scores and librettos of both Euridice and Orfeo were published, following a pattern inaugurated by the 1589 Florentine intermedi, staged during the nuptial festivities of the Grand Duke himself.

The early Florentine and Mantuan operas were embedded in a larger "cycle" of festivals taking place in central and northern Italy, the result of a seemingly contradictory mix of artistic competition and collaboration between the Medicis and the Gonzagas. Beginning in Florence in 1565, the cycle climaxed in both Florence and Mantua in 1608. The earlier date marked the wedding of Ferdinando de' Medici's brother, the heir Prince Francesco, for which the festivities were organized by their father Cosimo I, the first Gran Duke of Tuscany. The year 1608 saw two related weddings: one in Mantua of Crown Prince Francesco Gonzaga (to Margherita of Savoy), organized by his father Duke Vincenzo; the other in Florence, of Crown Prince Cosimo II de' Medici to Maria Magdalena, niece of the Habsburg emperor, organized by Gran Duke Ferdinando.

This broad multi-decade cycle involved festivities themselves devised as mini-cycles spanning several days, the order, location, and public of the performances arranged hierarchically, according to the perceived importance of the works performed. In keeping with a strategy of alliances carefully pursued by both the Medicis and the Gonzagas and accomplished through dynastic marriages, festivals took place not only in Florence and Mantua but also in Turin (ruled by the Savoy family), Modena/Ferrara (Este family), and other Italian courts. The performances presented within this large cycle often involved the same or family-related artists, their works featuring similar uses of mythology. Negotiations between the courts to obtain and circulate artists involved the rulers themselves and often turned into complicated diplomatic affairs, revealing high stakes in matters of prestige. Documentation survives, for example, concerning the lavish 1608 Mantuan festivities for Prince Francesco's wedding, showing that Florence's generosity in lending its own artists to Mantua had to be restrained by the fact that a few months later the Medicis were to celebrate the wedding of their own crown prince. The aim of each of these competing families was "to do earlier, to do more, to do better than the others."

Within this economy of "conspicuous consumption," one of the main functions of the larger festivity cycle was to perform acts symbolizing the rank of the sponsoring dynasties. As a means of self-representation, the nobility patronized artists and organized spectacles—including operas—in which mythology was used to relate the "stage in the world" to "the world on the stage." In this context, however, opera was probably rather inconspicuous, relatively speaking. North Italian court festivals included an enormous wealth of performance genres bearing a variety of names similar to those used by Polonius to introduce "the best actors in the world": tragedie, commedie, tragicommedie, drammi pastorali, etc. but also intermedi, balli, mascherate, tornei, barriere, battaglie navali. Performed indoors and outdoors, each having its own specific function and always featuring music, these spectacles were produced not only during weddings but also on the occasion of births, deaths, carnival, major religious feasts, and entrate of dignitaries. The nobility ensured that the memory of these ephemeral events was preserved through permanent, material products; for example, published descriptions known as descrizioni or compendi, often including the entire verbal texts of the productions. For opera, printed musical scores represented, as already mentioned, a further form of commemoration. Descrizioni and scores, however, not only documented events but also provided models on which other courts based their own festivities. We shall see that this double status as a descriptive and prescriptive text (the latter in more than one sense) is one of the distinctive features of the score of Monteverdi's Orfeo.

The spectacular events staged during the late Renaissance festivity cycle taking place in northern Italy can be subsumed under the semantic umbrella of "performances," a term initially employed by today's scholars to cover contemporaneous artistic manifestations that do not easily fall into traditional genres. As Richard Schechner observes, the concept of performance encompasses four different realms of culture within societies: entertainment, education, ritual, and healing. All of these domains can in effect be ascribed to a work such as Monteverdi's Orfeo. (As we shall see, by "work" I refer not only to the 1607 first performance, which was probably followed by one or two repeats, but also to the modified incarnation of it re-presented by the score published two years later.) I mentioned some of the aesthetic and ethical implications of the opera's plot. "Ritualistic" is the fact that the 1607 performance occurred at a specific time, Carnival, the occasion celebrated by an all-male academy (the Invaghiti) in a room specifically intended for its gatherings, rather than in a regular theater. "Healing," an aspect related to rituals, pertains to Orpheus's transformation during the opera, his emotional Bildungsreise culminating in the overcoming of his identity crisis (as mentioned in the introduction to part I?). As in early modern societies in which boundaries between mythological and contemporary narratives were perceived as permeable when ascribed to nobility—particularly, as we shall see, in late Renaissance Mantua—Orpheus would have been seen as an allegory of the ruler, specifically Prince Francesco Gonzaga. Reflected in the demigod's crisis, the audience witnessed the principe's process of increased self-knowledge, a transformation mirroring his gradual assumption of power and implying his virtuous control of Nature and Passion, thoughtful observance of Law, and sensible use of Mercy.

In this respect, Orfeo, like the Florentine and Mantuan operas performed during the broader festival cycle, represented not only mere entertainment but a "rite of passage" aimed at accomplishing a publicly displayed transformation of identity through performance. The fact that the producers, sponsors, audience, and performers of Orfeo belonged to an elite that identified itself in a work featuring a transformation and performed in a well-defined setting and at a specific time inscribes the work within those practices that both Schechner and Victor Turner call "performances." Performances are characterized by both a "restored behaviour"—a "strip" of previous experience decontextualized and then recreated by performers—and by "liminal" situations—settings removed from ordinary activities, in which conventional structures are both challenged and reaffirmed.

Orfeo, however, was not only intended by its patrons as a unique staged event destined for those few present at the premiere. Through the publication of libretto and score—publication intended in the sense of "being made public"—the work acquired the status of an ideal object, each time materializing and reiterating itself in the minds and ears of the libretto readers as well as in those of the performers of and listeners to the score. If the term "performance" is intended in one of its etymological meanings—as something that "awaits completion" (from the French word parfournir) and as therefore ab origine incomplete and unexecuted—these materializations can also be termed "performances." Libretto and score are devised in fact not only to be completed, in the traditional sense, by reading, staging, and musical performance, but are also meant to prolong and enact the effectiveness of the symbolic values conveyed through the premiere. These include, in the early modern period, the self-representation of nobility accomplished through the display of the highest artistic—and, by association, moral—qualities. In the case of Orfeo, symbolic value was conveyed through the enactment of the "rite of passage" undergone by the protagonist of the opera, in a mise-en-scène of Prince Francesco's process of increased self-knowledge, showing the acquisition of virtues considered natural to nobility. The elite academic members present at the premiere mirrored themselves in this process. The score, as the material reiteration of the values embodied in the performance, transferred this process into the public domain.

For the early modern period, then, Schechner's four realms of performance—entertainment, education, ritual, and healing—were complemented by a domain that can be called the self-representation of early modern nobility accomplished, in the case of Orfeo, through both the first performance and its printed iterations. In a work like Monteverdi's, as well as in the early Florentine and Mantuan operas, the choice of mythological subjects and the ways in which their plots unfolded were not only functional to discourses concerning the subjective role of the artist or the aesthetic and ethical dignity of the performance medium, in competition with more established arts. Works were created also to articulate political discourses that functioned to represent nobility as a collective self, this too according to patterns presented by more established arts. Paintings such as "Cosimo de' Medici as Orpheus" by Agnolo Bronzino (Philadelphia Museum of Art) or frescoes such as the stories of Orpheus and Psyche illustrated by Andrea Mantegna and Giulio Romano (Mantua, Ducal Palace and Palazzo Te, of which more later) used the same mythological narrative as the operas, for similar symbolizing purposes.

In the operas, however, in contrast to the exclusively figurative works, converging symbolic actions originating from both artists and patrons conveyed meanings residing at the intersection of text and performance—opera being a two-stage art, like spoken theatre. In creating and sponsoring ephemeral operatic performances, artists and patrons were unaware of establishing a "canon" in the modern sense (they could not imagine today's performances of Orfeo in contemporary opera houses). Yet both a drive to compete and a need to symbolize rank and power led to permanent products such as commemorative descriptions, printed libretti, and scores—all products that in turn facilitated the elevation of these works to the status of exempla. In being both permanent and ephemeral, both texts and performances, early operas such as Orfeo displayed a double mode of existence—a feature that, since then, has marked, at various times and in different degrees, the history of the genre.


Monteverdi and Striggio's Orfeo was first performed on February 24, 1607, in a private room of the Ducal Palace of Mantua at the time when Vincenzo Gonzaga was the Duke and his son and successor Francesco was about to marry. A correspondence survives between the Prince and his brother concerning the preparations for the premiere, informing us of a second performance on March 1st. From another letter, written by a courtier called Carlo Magni, we know that the room of the Ducal Palace in which the opera was performed was very narrow (angusta). The great novelty of the work will be, as Magni writes, that "all the interlocutors will speak musically" (tutti gli interlocutori parleranno musicalmente), a statement revealing that the ordinary expectation, in the context of the Mantuan festivities, would have been to attend a spoken play.


Excerpted from From Madrigal to Opera by Mauro Calcagno. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Part One. La Musica and Orfeo
1. Text, Context, Performance
2. Liminality, Deixis, Subjectivity
3. Performing the Dialogic Self

Part Two. Constructing the Narrator
4. From Petrarch to Petrarchism: A Rhetoric of Voice and Address
5. Ícaro|Ícaro|Ícaro|In Search of Voice: Musical Petrarchism in the Sixteenth-Century Madrigal

Part Three. Staging the Self
6. Monteverdi, Narrator
7. The Possibility of Opera

Epilogue: Subjectivity, Theatricality, Multimediality

Appendix 1: Tables of Contents of the Madrigal Books
Appendix 2: Monteverdi, Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda: Text and Translation

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