Friday, November 4, 2011

Hallie shows the correct 17th cent. etiquette as she curtsies to York U's Laura Pietropaolo

Yesterday had Hallie and me doing a lecture demonstration at York University for Laura Pietropaolo in the Italian Department on the early opera libretto. I played the chitarrone (or chittarone, it’s spelt both ways) or theorbo as it came increasingly to be called in the beginning of the 17th century.

We started with Dovrò dunque morire from Giulio Caccini’s Nuove Musiche of 1601. The poem, by Ottavio Rinuccini, has the poor/lucky protagonist protesting about his imminent death several times in the 2 ½ minute long song. This showed the dramatic force of the ‘new music’ at the beginnings of the Baroque.

We continued on with the Prologue to Dafne, which is sometimes called the first opera. Well a good chunk of it is recycled from one of the intermedi from a play for a Medici wedding and is very masque-like (that is to say, more about the spectacle and dancing rather than being a music-drama). The words for this were also by Rinuccini. Jacopo Peri sets the prologue, where the poet Ovid addresses the audience to the accompaniment of his lyre, in a much less dramatic style than the Caccini we had done. Indeed, the prologues to early operas are very often like that. The immortals and goddesses and personifications who populate the prologues are one dimensional (though I’m sure they had fabulous costumes and scenery): Ovid here, explaining that the opera will be in the ‘ancient style’, and the explanations of what is to follow that Tragedy and Music give at the beginning of  Peri and Caccini’s Euridice and Monteverdi’s Orfeo.

From this we moved to Monteverdi’s Lamento d’Arianna from his opera for the Gonzaga court. All the music that has survived from L’Arianna is this lament, and even that is missing the punctuations of a chorus of fishermen who comment on Ariadne’s fate and a string ritornello. Monteverdi explains why he is able to provide such dramatic music for Arianna (now she’s angry for being dumped by Teseo, now she’s sad about being away from her parents, now she’s scared of the wild animals) in a letter to another librettist. She was a woman, not a disembodied personification or force of nature. Monteverdi writes –

‘I have noticed that the interlocutors are winds…And that the winds have to sing!... How, dear sir, can I imitate the speech of winds, if they do not speak? And how can I, by such means, move the passions? Arianna was moving because she was a woman, and similarly Orfeo because he was a man, not a wind.’

After performing this (with me playing a short passacaglia bass as a little ritornello to replace the fishermen) we sang the beginning of a contrafactum of the same piece this time with words making it a Lament of the Blessed Virgin, from a collection of Monteverdi’s sacred music.  So the opera libretto and its depictions of the passions of a jilted woman, influences a Counter-Reformation motet text. To prove this ‘operafying’ was not a one off, we sang a setting of Song of Solomon snippets set by Monteverdi’s vice-maestro at St. Mark's, Alessandro Grandi. Grandi’s dramatic love song wouldn’t be out of place in an early opera, except its being in Latin.

We then sang an aria by Stefano Landi, sung by Thetis, announcing the birth of the wine god Bacchus. Landi has got around the dramatic problem of the one-dimensional personalities of gods and goddesses by adopting a characteristic that was creeping into opera as it became a commercial entertainment, rather than a courtly one. Thetis’s air is just a beautiful tune, rather than cleaving close to the intellectual ideal of imitating speech as Ovid had done a few numbers earlier. Though Landi’s song was not for a commercial performance, it’s such a good tune it would certainly have sold tickets and put bums on seats.

And we finished  the operatic portion with another lovely tune from Sartorio’s Giulio Cesare the libretto of which was recycled into Handel’s opera of the same name. The Sartorio aria Pietà del mio languir is in the form of a tiny high Baroque aria (ABA or Da capo) except without a big orchestral ritornello and accompaniment.

For fun we finished off with a couple of non-operatic airs on ground basses (the standard chord patterns of grounds were increasingly used in mid century operas by Monteverdi and Cavalli).  S l’aura spira by Frescobaldi was a special request for Laura (the breeze-l’aura/Laura pun goes back to Petrarch’s girlfriend of that name) and is built on the Italian Folia. The funky Cantata sopra la Ciacona by Sances is always just plain fun. It’s been a long time since we’ve done that with the theorbo rather than the guitar.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a terrific leacture to have attended....a reel, song and dance. Sorry to have missed it. Looking forward to another opportunity.