15 Jul 2005

HELLER: Emblems of Eloquence — Opera and Women’s Voices in Seventeenth-Century Venice

In her awesome Emblems of Eloquence, Wendy Heller tirelessly investigates treatises, myths, libretti and letters to illuminate the natures of “real” and “imagined” women who reigned over seventeenth-century opera as subjects of musical portraiture. From Dido to Semiramide, Poppea to Calisto, Heller argues that women and women’s issues dominated the Venetian stage. Librettists struggled with issues of women’s sexuality, dominance, suppression of desire, overt desire, covert desire, homoeroticism and misogyny. And all at the time when, “Venice’s absolute exclusion of women in public life was written into the organization of the Republic.” This apparent contradiction is at the heart of her eminently readable text that displays Heller as a musicological Simon Schama.

The book is divided into seven chapters. The first two explore seventeenth-century treatises written about women by male misogynists and uppity female contrarians. Although these treatises, such as Venetian nun Arcangela Tarabotti's Tirannia paterna, ostensibly say little about women and music, they do give us a clear picture of misogyny practiced eloquently by members of the Accademia degli Incogniti, a center of erudition, who found women to be the cause of evil in the world. Heller provides excellent translations and each painful prejudice is clearly rendered. We read for instance from Francesco Loredano, the Incogniti founder, "Woman, most virtuous gentlemen, is an imperfect animal, an error of nature, and a monster of our species." At least, Loredano includes women in the same species as men; Aristotle argued otherwise.

In this incandescent debate, we find opera flourishing. Heller in the next chapters of her book examines archetypical female opera roles, warriors, courtesans, and lovers. All are essentially victims of their own desires, even if most of the operas end in the lieto fine. Women in Heller's book are a complicated collection of dualities, and we have subheadings such as, "Semiramide and Musical Transvestism" and "Didone and Female Eloquence."

Heller's micro-level descriptions of the music by Monteverdi (L'incoronazione di Poppea), Cavalli (La Didone, La Calisto), Ziani (La Semiramide), and Pallavicino (La Messalina) that accompany these women are also a pleasure to read. For instance, Heller paints the cross-dressing Semiramide: "The light syncopated character and clipped phrases as well as the key of G major are associated with the militaristic Semiramide, contrasting with the metrically regular cadences and E minor with which she expresses her amorous urges." Heller's prose is silky and thoughtful as she weaves a tableau of women's foibles.

Interestingly, while women dominated libretti, it seems that there were few well-known female performers during this time. Anna Rienzi, the first discussed, was a Roman singer for whom a collection of poems and prose was written lauding her. Furthermore, there is little evidence about the way audiences received these female protagonists. In fact, we have to go Padua, Venice's lowly sister, to find the name of the first woman to attend university, one Elena Piscopia (1646-1684), who played the keyboard and was the confidant of an organist and orphaned Venetian Maddalena Cappelli for most of her adult life. While Padua did not have a burgeoning opera, it did have women writers and artists in the early Baroque period. We need to wait for Verdi for women to be given great music and virtue. Perhaps this is one of Heller's important contributions to the history of ideas: more opera libretti and theoretical treatises about women flourish in ages when women are treated particularly poorly. What does that say of our time?

Eleonora Beck
Lewis & Clark College