By Holger Schmitt-Hallenberg (translation by Dennis Collins)
When we talk about the birth of opera, we usually refer to the efforts of a group of Florentine noblemen around 1600 which began staging sung drama. However, they didn’t plan to “invent” a new musical genre, but tried to recreate the declamatory way in which they thought the ancient Greek drama was performed, and after which they modelled their own dramatic efforts. These were mainly guided by the ancient dramatists and theorist, in particular the writings of Plato and Aristotle, whose Poetics (ca. 335 BC) remained the single most influential book on the theory of drama throughout the baroque era. For Aristotle the purpose of all theatrical performance was ultimately ethical: The human affections (a Platonic concept) should be stirred and magnified in such an intense way that the spectator’s soul would be purified of these affections. This process he called catharsis, and it should be accomplished mainly by evoking fear and pity. For this purpose individual actions on stage need to be transcended into general principles, thus the main focus is not on the characters themselves, but their actions. The hero first rises through hybris (usually depicted as arrogance, overbearing or cruelty) to an apparent victory, but ultimately he (or she) is punished by Nemesis through a catastrophic event in order to achieve catharsis, both for him and the audience.
The application of these ideas into the field of opera was problematic from the start. Already the earliest librettists felt the need to distance themselves from Plato and Aristotle by acknowledging that opera is a different, independent artform from tragedy and therefore has its own requirements and purposes. The concept of expressing distinct affections through music was a central (though much debated) concept of baroque opera, but already in late baroque and enlightenment the aesthetics of opera shifted towards virtuosic entertainment and a much vaguer concept of affections. L. F. Hudemann (a friend of J. S. Bach) reasoned: “Who would pay money to be confronted with a terrible affect [on stage], when one has reason enough to shiver and mourn for free in the own house?” The decisive idea was now sensibility: “Music seeks neither sadness nor joy, neither pity nor rage, but we are moved nonetheless. So gently and unnoticed however that we do not know what we are feeling; that we cannot name the feeling” wrote the influential theorist J. A. Hiller.
Opera seria nonetheless kept several Aristotelean concepts, for example the unity of place, action and time, the heroic sujets or the commenting, aphoristic function of the arias which reflects the use of the choir in Greek drama. And in a way the serious opera kept also the educational and moralising aspects of ancient theatre, now mainly in a way of resolving the conflict between love and duty. And in this respect the concepts of hybris, nemesis and catharsis survived, enhanced by the emotional power of music.
One of the most important librettists who canonized the form of opera seria in this respect in the first half on the 18th century (together with Pietro Metastasio, his successor as Poet laureate in Vienna) was Apostolo Zeno. On his eponymous libretto from 1701 both Pietro Torri and Francesco Conti based their settings of Griselda. Torri wrote his dramma per musica for the court of Munich in 1723, Conti his setting two years later for Vienna. The story of its main hero King Gualtiero reflects the development from hybris to catharsis in a very typical way: He has renounced his wife Griselda in favour of a young foreign princess (in the particularly grim hybris-aria “Vorresti col tuo pianto”), but is ultimately humiliated by her love and loyalty (recitative and aria “In te sposa mi uccido... Cara sposa, col tuo bel core”). While Griselda has its roots in a classic Italian text, Boccaccio’s Decamerone, Georg Friedrich Handel’s Admeto goes directly back to the ancient Greek tragedy Alcestis by Euripides. It was adapted for the stage already in 1660, and on this old libretto Handel’s poets based their own version, which premiered in London in 1727. It was one of Handel’s biggest triumphs, not only because of a spectacular cast of singers, but also because of Handel’s convincing musical character studies. Admeto was sung by the castrato Senesino, whose talent for the pathetic expression made him perfectly suitable for this role. He received special praise for his performance of the opening scene, which is presented in its entirety (including the dramatic instrumental introduction on open stage) on this disc: King Admeto lies mortally ill in his bed, plagued by terrifying dreams and visions, trying to find peace of mind before his death. In typical Greek tragedy fashion, his wife Alceste is told by a statue of the God Apollo that Admeto can only be saved by the death of a close relative. Her resolve to die for him sets the story in motion. Handel writes a very expressive, large accompanied recitative for the tormented King, followed by the moving aria “Chiudetevi miei lumi”.
Senesino received at least as much praise for his embodiment of the title role in Attilio Ariosti’s Caio Marzio Coriolano, which premiered in London 1723. The score contains a magnificent prison scene (a very typical cathartic situation) for Senesino, about which John Hawkins wrote in his General History of the Science and Practice of Music (1776): It “is wrought up to the highest degree of perfection that music is capable of, and is said to have drawn tears from the audience at every representation.” (Accompagnato and aria ”Voi, d’un figlio tanto misero”)
In Giuseppe Maria Orlandini’s dramma per musica Adelaide (Venice 1729) we not only find a typical hybris-aria in the virtuosic “Già mi sembra al carro avvinto” for the main hero Ottone (again written for the star-castrato Senesino), but also an example of a Nemesis-aria, in which Everardo (alto castrato Antonio Baldi) sees the destructive forces of destiny at work in a comparison of the fall of a tyrant with a tree struck by lightning (“Alza il ciel“). Georg Frederic Handel attended at least one performance of this successful work in Venice, and used the libretto (attributed to Antonio Salvi) as the basis for his opera Lotario, which he composed immediately after his return to London.
The aria d’ombra (shadow aria) “Gelido d’ogni vena” is originally found in Pietro Metastasio’s libretto Siroe, and in this opera Antonio Vivaldi set the aria originally (1727) for a tenor. The opera is lost, but the aria became such a celebrated piece that Vivaldi reused it in one of his favourite and most successful operas, Farnace. (An authentic transposition by Vivaldi for alto castrato is found in his opera Argippo.) This gripping aria appears at a crucial, cathartic moment, when Farnace learns that he is responsible for the death of his son (who unknown to him was only hidden away, and not murdered). In a chilling vision he sees his lifeless shadow.
Temistocle is one of Pietro Metastasio’s less popular libretti, but still it received about 25 different settings. The first of these was by Antonio Caldara, maestro di capella at the prestigious court in Vienna, at whose theatre the opera received its premier in 1736. The story is set in ancient Persia: General Temistocle is exiled from his home town Athens and must take refuge at the court of King Serse. A tragic conflict arises between gratitude towards an enemy of Greece and loyalty towards his country. At the beginning of the third act he sees no other solution than to kill himself (“Ah, frenate il pianto imbelle”).
Domenico Sarro is a typical representative of the Napolian opera and links the generation of Alessandro Scarlatti with more progressive composers like Leo and Vinci. His Valdemaro (on an older libretto by Apostolo Zeno) is set in Scandinavia (“At the court of Upsala”) which was for an Italian audience at least as exotic as countries in the Far East. Valdemaro is the (fictuous) son of Ricimero, a romanized Germanic King, who died in battle in service of the Roman empire in 472. Valdemaro is married to the Norwegian Princess Rosmonda, but secretly in love with someone else. At the culmination of this triangle drama, Valdemaro (the castrato Gaetano Berenstadt) sings the mocking aria “Quando onor favella” towards Rosmonda.
The concept of hybris and catharsis is of course not limited to ancient mythology and drama. Stories with resembling morals appear in many biblical writings both from the Old and New Testament, one important example is the conversion of Saulus in the Book of Acts. A similar narrative can be found in the famous autobiographical Confessiones of Aurelius Augustinus (354 - 430). This book was transformed into a play, which became the basis for the libretto of Johann Adolf Hasses’s oratorio La conversione di Sant’Agostino (Dresden 1750). Its main focus is not the conversion of Augustinus, but his total submission under God’s will. The aria “Or mi pento” is the culmination of a huge monologue in the second part of the oratorio, which ends with his resolve to abandon all earthly pleasures. Hasse describes this inner turmoil and peace with “noblest simplicity and quiet grandeur” (C. F. Rellstab), perfectly in the spirit of the new age of sensibility in the middle of the century, where the audience wanted to be moved, but not terrified.