Saturday, 5 January 2013

Blogger's block or Dido's Lament

The Death of Dido, marble by Claude-Augustin Cayot, 1711. Musée du Louvre. 
Image source: Web Gallery of Art

Some posts are linked so tenuously to matters of any weight or substance, that if I didn't know better, I'd suspect a case of Blogger's Block.

For instance, consulting a calendar of historical events makes me cringe because I despise anniversaries. Birthday, Smurfday. There's no date in the year with a better guarantee of a marital bust-up than a Wedding Anniversary. A calendar, as the Mayans knew better than we do, should be a strictly utilitarian device, not obscured with silly layers of superstition and nostalgia.

But, any excuse for a celebration is justified these austere January days, and who knows what happy coincidences we'll bump into if we start playing this game of almanac trivia, and see by how many Degrees of Separation we are brought back to this blog....
Today's date is the anniversary of the first performance on 5 January, 1649, of Francesco Cavalli's opera Il Giasone at Teatro San Cassioni in Venice. Both the show and the building have popped up on this blog before (Theatres of Power) and have Historical Significance in the development of opera as a popular rather than elitist art form.  

The theatre, a stone building opened in 1637 on the site of an earlier wooden one designed by Palladio that had burned down in 1629, was the first purpose-built public opera house in Europe. It was owned by the Tron family, mercantile princes and arts patrons in Venice for over seven hundred years, and was always intended as a commercial venture to entertain paying audiences, not to impress privately invited nobility.

Cavalli's company occupied it from 1639 until 1645. His scores were composed for a much smaller string orchestra than for the musical events at the princely courts, making the business of running a public theatre and taking productions on tour more viable, while keeping up the tradition of illusionistic scenery inherited from royal spectaculars. Giasone was his tenth opera produced at Teatro San Cassioni, and due to its huge box office success during carnivale, was snapped up by other theatres. It had a blend of ingredients that broadened the popular appeal of drama musicale that spread from Italy to the rest of Europe. The first English operas were created in the 1680s (by Blow and Purcell) but the form did not become popular in public theatres until the 1730s.

 The Muse Terpsichore by Eustache Le Sueur (1616/17-1655)
Oil on panel, 1652-55, originally part of the decoration of the Cabinet of the Muses in the Hôtel Lambert, now in the collection of Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image source: Web Gallery of Art

Cavalli, a friend and possibly a former student of Monteverdi, had sexed up the art form, by developing arias, separate from and far more emotionally engaging than recitative, that had the side effect of establishing the star system, and introducing elements of comedy and melodrama. The combination in Il Giasone of memorable melodies, earthy humour, dramatic action and sexual innuendo made it clear to the audience that Jason (originally played by a castrato) and his love interests were more like real 17th century men and women than allegorical ideals. The female characters, Medea and Isifile, driven and destroyed by their passions, are prototypes of the dramatic femme fatale mezzo and the more lyrical victim soprano. Laments, that in the average verse play would be too melodramatic or sentimental to move us, are made profound by the power of music to express the inexpressible. Baroque art, that we think of as large and shouty, was capable of unsurpassed subtlety and simplicity in the arias of tragic heroines of early opera.

At a time of gender inequality and oppression, when different moral codes were applied to male and female sexual behaviour, these laments, full of love and desire for the men who had abandoned them, have a dignity and candour that reach us like testimonies from four centuries ago. (For me, Purcell's 'When I am laid in Emblems of Eloquence: Opera and Women's Voices in Seventeenth-Century Venice by Wendy Beth Hiller,  an online preview of which I've just happily stumbled upon.

From Cavalli's own works, Ms Hiller singles out Hecuba's lament in Didone (1641) for its lyricism and tonal power. Hecuba is found, still lamenting, on this blog here and here and here.