L’incoronazione di Poppea
Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria
It was a brilliant idea, and must have required a managerial tour de force, for the Brooklyn Academy of Music to bring together the three surviving operas of Claudio Monteverdi in productions from Amsterdam, Aix-en-Provence, and Chicago, dating from 1993, 2000, and 2001 respectively. Attending all three in a row was a wonderful experience, vertiginous even for the seasoned opera-goer, and would have been so even if the three productions had not been so very different.
The works themselves belong to two early phases of operatic history, the famous “birth of opera” in the late Renaissance courts of Northern Italy and then the weaning of opera from court life, phases separated by thirty years and a total change of social milieu, but held together—and this makes the story so satisfying—by the same great composer. Opera was developed by a revisionist and highly vocal group of Florentine courtiers, scholars, and singers, the outgrowth of a long tradition of princely entertainments, the masque-like intermedi. It was only institutionalized much later, when the great families of Venice transformed it into a potent draw for the free city’s especially free carnival season. To say that the story is held together by Monteverdi is no historical abstraction, for the third of the Venetian commercial theaters that went over to opera, the Teatro San Moisè, owned by the Zane family, marked its new course in 1640 by reviving his Arianna, composed for the Gonzaga court of Mantua in 1608.
This BAM could not give us, for the music of Arianna has disappeared except for its hit number, Ariadne’s lament, which was widely copied and published in various forms, and said to be in the library of every mid-century music-lover. In any case, the Arianna revival must have been a very strange occasion, for toddler opera was quite unlike the newborn babe. Monteverdi’s Orfeo of 1607, the masterpiece of early court opera, casts the Orpheus myth into eight simple scenes (by my count) with minimal dialogue. Orpheus remains on stage almost continuously, with the other characters as walk-ons who never appear in more than a single scene, except Eurydice, who appears in two scenes and sings for less than two minutes. The librettos of its Venetian counterparts Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria and L’incoronazione di Poppea, both first performed in Venetian theaters, are long, elaborately plotted plays drawn from epic or history, in which we follow more than a dozen characters through nearly two dozen scenes. Early court opera behaves much of the time less like a drama than like a masque or a ritual. Venetian opera was already racing on what Jane Glover has called “the ferocious treadmill of operatic showbusiness.”
Ritorno, in fact, is quite a show. Monteverdi had moved from Mantua in 1613 to become maestro di capella at San Marco, and little is known about any operas he wrote or may have written in the interim. Certainly none was conceived under such a spotlight …