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Claudio Monteverdi. Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in patria.
13 May 2008

On Venetian Opera: a new edition of Monteverdi's Ritorno, and Eleanor Selfridge-Field on Time and Opera in Venice.

Claudio Monteverdi. Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in patria. Edited by Rinaldo Alessandrini. Urtext. Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2007. BA 8791. A vocal score is available as 8791a.

Claudio Monteverdi. Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in patria.

Edited by Rinaldo Alessandrini. Urtext. Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2007.

BA 8791; 8791a (vocal score).

€29.95  Click to buy

Eleanor Selfridge-Field. Song and Season: Science, Culture, and Theatrical Time in Early Modern Venice and Song and Season: A New Chronology of Venetian Opera and Related Genres, 1660-1760. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2007.

Monteverdi’s operas have reached new heights of popularity in recent years, exponentially exceding performances that occurred during his lifetime. L’incoronazione di Poppea has long been prized for its sensuality, musical flexibility, and depiction of the misuse of political power; acceptance of Poppea as a masterpiece, perhaps, has led to more performances of his other two surviving operas, and Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (Ulysses’ return to his homeland, 1640/41) has increasingly been the subject of new stagings. Two new editions have been issued during recent years, and they will greatly aid in the study and appreciation of Monteverdi’s penultimate opera. The newer of the two, that published by Bärenreiter, is the one under review here; in order to better evaluate its approach, I will briefly discuss two earlier editions, those of Gian Francesco Malipiero (1930) and Alan Curtis (2002).

Malipiero thrust Monteverdi’s name and music into prominence with his collected edition of the composer’s works (Il ritorno was published as volume twelve in the series). Malipiero’s edition transmitted the “original” notation of the manuscript score, but the noted composer and musicologist also made numerous editorial interventions such as were common during the early twentieth century; for the most part, these suggestions appear as tempo suggestions (in parentheses) along with “piano” and “forte” and crescendo and decrescendo instructions in the realized continuo part.

Alan Curtis’s much later edition of Il ritorno, published in 2002 by Novello, follows along the same lines of his earlier edition of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea. Curtis’s preface, occupying some thirteen pages, covers the sources (one score, and twelve manuscript librettos), editorial procedures, and a wealth of performance suggestions. Curtis, in striving for accessibility to performers, regularizes bar lines (which were not consistent during the first half of the seventeenth century), and reduces by four the sections in triple time (originally notated with a basic movement of whole notes and half notes, now they move by quarter note). Curtis does not provide a realized continuo part, but he does occasionally suggest figures, and he helpfully places those already occuring in the manuscript in a box, thus clearly marking the separation between editorial and original figures. Finally, the sung text appears both in Italian and in English translation, with additional notes inserted in a smaller typeface to accomodate extra syllables in the translation. Curtis’s edition, then, is overtly modern in its presentation.

Bärenreiter’s new edition of the opera has been published in its Urtext series (editions featuring the “original” versions of musical scores). The edition, according to Bärenreiter’s high standards, is beautifully set, and easy to read. English readers have the benefit of the introduction as well as the critical notes appearing in English; a translation of the libretto into English and German is also included in the volume. Edited by Rinaldo Alessandrini, a performer and musicologist, the score provides a striking contrast to Curtis’s, precisely because it appears in the Urtext series. Alessandrini’s edition hews closely to the original manuscript both in terms of music and the libretto (many other editions of seventeenth-century opera modernize the Italian poetry; indeed, this will be the case in the new edition of the operas of Francesco Cavalli, to be published also by Bärenreiter). Outright notational errors have been corrected in the score, and the critical commentary (included at the end of the volume) provides the original versions as well as suggestions for other passages. In order to provide an “authentic” rendering of the score, neither the notation of the triple-time passages nor the barring have been modernized.

In his introduction (much briefer than Curtis’s), Alessandrini discusses seventeenth-century performance practice, and urges performers not to over-orchestrate the sinfonie and ritornelli, as Monteverdi’s late operas were conceived under patently different circumstances than those operating in Mantua for his Orfeo (1607), which featured a large and specialized orchestra (the orchestra for this opera features two violin parts, two viola parts, and a basso continuo line). For Ritorno and Poppea, small string orchestras with appropriate continuo instruments should be the norm (i.e., no organ, which has frequently been used in recordings over the past several decades). As Alessandrini does not explain the proportions that govern the movement from duple to triple meter, performers will have to judge for themselves–or seek out musicological advice–regarding proper tempi; performers using this and similar scores must, then, accustom themselves to the notion of fast-moving whole notes.

The most controversial feature of this edition may well be Alessandrini’s adaptation of the continuo line. While it does not contain a full realization, in some sections nearly every bass note sports a figure of some kind. Indeed, I have never seen such a continuo line for editions of this repertoire. While Alessandrini’s suggestions are enclosed within bold brackets, the distance between the opening and closing of the bracket is often more than a single system (sometimes as many as three systems), so that one almost forgets that the figures on the page are not Monteverdi’s. Many of the added figures are simply not necessary, especially those that follow a “picardy-third” cadence. On a related matter, Alessandrini claims that the figures have been added according to the practice described in theoretical treatises contemporary with Monteverdi, but the editor seems to have often erred in the direction of modernity; the figures often give more of a sense of “dominant” harmony than may be appropriate for this style of music, and on occasion, some of the figures just seem wrong. While the added figures presumably would make the realization more accessible to an inexperienced keyboardist, they lead to an incredibly cluttered page, and also suggest a more consistently rich harmony than may have been prevalent during Monteverdi’s time. In the vocal score, these indications have been transmitted to the realization, so that the page bears no clutter, but Alessandrini’s harmonies, rather than those most likely implied by Monteverdi, are guaranteed to enter the consciousness of the singers learning the roles.

The year 2007 also marked the long-awaited publication of Eleanor Selfridge-Field’s two related books, Song and Season: Science, Culture, and Theatrical Time in Early Modern Venice and A New Chronology of Venetian Opera and Related Genres, 1660-1760. The books appear under the series title The Calendar of Venetian Opera. Both books are the product of decades of research.

Song_Season.png Song and Season is a wide-ranging work that draws on a detailed examination of Venetian cultural and theatrical history and its intersection with concepts of civic and sacred time in the city. Selfridge-Field charts the different methods of time-keeping current in Venice, and the resulting effects on its well-known entertainments. For the first time we can clearly see the different theatrical seasons practiced in the city, and how different types of entertainment tended to be offered in different, short seasons (up until now we have tended to refer to the Venetian theatrical seasons as either autumn, Carnival, or Ascension). The author helpfully has a separate chapter devoted to each of the theaters active in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Venice. Moreover, she discusses reciprocity that occurred between Venice, the first great operatic center of Europe, and other regional venues associated with trade fairs in the Veneto such as Padua, Rovigo, and Vicenza. Selfridge-Field ably demonstrates how understanding the “seasons” of opera in Venice helps us to understand also how opera functioned outside the city and, indeed, outside of Italy.

In the third section of Song and Season, the author delves into issues regarding the chronology of the Venetian opera repertoire. Operas have previously been chronicled according to the dates that appear on their librettos. This can often be problematic, especially because Venice had two calendars: its own, which began on March 1, and the other, more typical one, which began on January 1 (standard “modern” style). Official Venetian documents used the calendar that began on March 1, while the Church usually used January 1 as the new year. Librettos might go either way, and, indeed, some had it both ways, bearing “Venetian” and “modern” dates on different pages of the libretto. Selfridge-Field’s exhaustive study of dispatches and news summaries, however, provides a much more accurate dating for nearly all of the operas mounted in Venice, and it shows that on occasion the dates that appear on librettos are entirely wrong as to the year of the performance. Thus, her research results in a “new chronology,” that which forms the basis for the second volume of The Calendar of Venetian Opera, A New Chronology of Venetian Opera and Related Genres.

New_Chronology.pngSelfridge-Field’s New Chronology goes far beyond what previous authors have been able to produce. She opens the book with an ample introduction that covers the basic principles argued in Song and Season, perspectives on the repertory, and a guide explaining the format of the book. For each decade in the chronology, the author provides an overview forecasting any change in trends or important political or meteorological events that may have affected the entertainment sector of Venice. Regarding the chronology itself, for each libretto listed she not only provides the librettist, composer, theater, and dedicatee (these items are usually the most that one can hope for in a catalogue), but she also gives a brief synopsis of the plot, and refers to any known archival documents that reveal the performers or any disputes that arose between the performers and the managerial staff.

Among the valuable aspects of the book are the numerous supplements that appear at the end of the book. They include unproduced and undatable works (because they are undated they cannot appear in the chronology itself); musical satires, intermezzi, private or special entertainments; works for ducal entertainments; works for academies, moral and sacred dramas; and dramas performed in Venice’s famed ospedali. The extraordinarily helpful appendices include a listing of leaders, including doges, popes, and Patriarchs of Venice (the head of the Venetian church); currency values; operas listed by theatrical venue; and operas listed by theatrical period. The later appendices let the reader gain a bird’s eye view by theater and season, whereas in the chronicle itself one gains the perspective of the year’s offerings. Perhaps even more importantly, the data from the supplements is interleaved into the larger chronology, so that we can get a sense of how these more occasional events fit into the theatrical system at large. Finally, a series of concordances facilitates the comparison of the Selfridge-Field chronology with those previously published for this repertoire.

Both books in this set feature handsome illustrations, and the endpaper of A New Chronology reproduces an old French map of Venice that includes the locations of the various theaters; these features add beauty and interest to the publications. The sources consulted for these volumes are numerous indeed, and many readers will find new books and articles to peruse. Inexplicably, Michael Talbot’s “Ore Italiane: The Reckoning of the Time of Day in Pre-Napoleonic Italy,” which has guided several generations of scholars through the complexity of Italian time-keeping, does not appear. Also missing are the works of some younger scholars of seventeenth-century Venetian opera such as Jennifer Williams Brown and Mauro Calcagno.

The volumes, unfortunately, are marred by a number of typographical and other sorts of errors. I would suggest that readers verify proper names (and bibliographical entries) in other sources before citing them in their own work. A number of factual errors evidently originate in works of previous authors; in these cases one presumes that Selfridge-Field did not consult the primary sources, or have the occasion to question some of the conclusions of these authors. In other instances, however, Selfridge-Field has misinterpreted primary documents that she herself has presumably examined. This happens especially regarding the opera papers of the impresario Marco Faustini, my own specialty. Moreover, in at least two instances, when introducing material previously unknown to the musicological community (regarding the entry for Orontea on page 83, and for Alessandro amante on page 91 of A New Chronology), Selfridge-Field has clearly misinterpreted the primary sources.*

To sum up, Selfridge-Field has given us two books of inestimable importance. They open up new vistas of understanding, and the sheer volume of information transmitted is astonishing. Her new chronology of opera presentations in Venice, based on eyewitness accounts, will help numerous scholars better comprehend theatrical trends and traditions in the city. Perhaps as a result of this massive attempt to include thousands of helpful details, a number of errors have crept into the text. I enthusiastically encourage all those interested in European culture and operatic history to study these volumes. I would also warn readers, however, that it will sometimes be hard to perceive the islands of error among the vast ocean of accurate and fascinating detail.

Beth L. Glixon
University of Kentucky

* The musician and archivist Duane Rosengard has kindly supplied me with a copy of the document in question regarding Alessandro amante, and my examination of it revealed a number of errors in Selfridge-Field’s interpretation of the document.


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