From Utrecht: The First Opera

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Program: #04-43, Air Date: 10/18/04

NOTE: All of the music on this program is from a sold-out performance in the Vredenburg at the 2004 Holland Early Music Festival at Utrecht.

 It features the ensemble L'Arpeggiata conducted by Christina Pluhar in the first complete extant work by a single composer to be called an "opera." We have included the cast list and Christina Pluhar's own notes. The program is supported in part by Radio Nederland and the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Soloists: Marco Beasley: Corpo, Tempo
Johannette Zomer: Anima
Dominique Visse: Piacere
Jan Van Elsacker: Intelletto
Stephan MacLeod: Consiglio
Nuria Rial: Angelo Custode
Beatrice Mayo-Felip: Vita Mondana
Celine Vieslet, Elisabeth Dobbin, Laureen Armishaw: Anime Beate
Matthew Baker, Nicolas Achten: Anime Dannate
Harm Huson, Jürgen Banholzer, Stephan van Dyck, Vincent Lesage:
Quatro del coro
Dancers: Anna Dego: Vanitas
Ferdinando Gagliardi: Morte
Pietro Gagliardi: Vita Eterna
Christina Pluhar: theorbo, conductor
Eero Palviainen: archlute, baroque guitar
Charles Edouard Fantin: theorbo, lute, baroque guitar
Reinhild Waldeck: baroque harp
Elisabeth Seitz: psalterium
Paulina van Laarhoven: lirone, viola da gamba
Atsushi Sakai, Israel Castillo, viola da gamba
Alessandro Tampieri, baroque violin
Gebhard David: cornetto, viola da gamba
Simen van Mechelen: trombone
Wouter Verschuren: dulcian
Richard Myron: violone
Haru Kitamika: organ
Romano Giefer, Francesco Turrisi: organ, harpsichord
Michele Claude: percussion
Stage direction: Christina Pluhar
Lighting: Jean-Philippe Corrigou
Choreography: Anna Dego, Ferdinando & Pietro Gagliardi
Italian language coach: Francesco Turrisi

1. Rappresentatione di Anima, e di Corpo - Emilio de' Cavalieri
(Rome 1600) (ca. 1550-1602)

Medieval religious drama in Italy, known as lauda spirituale, was strongly influenced by the lauda popolare. After a period of religious hysteria and flagellation processions, the Franciscans introduced religious drama in Perugia around 1260. The laude spirituali were plays consisting of vocal as well as verbal elements, staged in churches and accompanied by visual effects exuding quite a distinctive, at times highly dramatic atmosphere. The plays were performed throughout the liturgical year on the occasion of feasts such as Christmas, as mystery plays and especially during the Passion Week.
The term rappresentazione sacra has applied to this genre ever since the fifteenth century and was used in particular in sixteenth-century Florence. The Italian or Latin text was usually written in ottava rima, a poetic form consisting of stanzas of eight lines of eleven syllables, rhyming ‘a-b-a-b-a-b-c-c’.

The stories themselves were derived from biblical tales but they also contain secular, mythological, allegoric and even comic elements, as a consequence of which the whole becomes only very remotely reminiscent of the actual theme of the spectacle. Melodic forms were applied for reciting poetry interspersed with laude, frottole, canzoni and madrigals resembling the intermedii, dramatic interludes which were performed between two scenes, providing a certain broadening of and diversity in the play.

The combination of spectacle and music must have been quite impressive. A Russian visitor of the Florence Council described a certain production in 1439 as follows: ‘God was surrounded by angels and children carrying musical instruments. The Archangel Gabriel was sent to the Virgin Mary while singing holy songs...’. The plays, which were usually organized by friars, constituted magnificent productions with machineries, music, costumes and dance.

An account has been handed down to us of a sixteenth-century rappresentazione - namely the Rappresentazione di Santa Uliva - which lasted no less than two days. Sources indicate an exuberant production, magnificent costumes and machineries, musical entr’actes and a widely elaborate choreography. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries some hundred rappresentazione sacrae texts were printed. Among them are titles such as Sacra rappresentazione di Santa Caterina, Sacra rappresentazione di San Lorenzo, Sacra rappresentazione di San Giovanni, Rappresentazione del Giudicio universale, Rappresentazione del Figlio Prodigo, Rappresentazione della Vita e Morte... The Roman Jesuit colleges even put on performances of rappresentazioni in which children were employed as actors, on some occasions devising the most outrageous of productions.

As tradition is still strongly adhered to in Italy one can to this day attend performances of plays characterized by the style and the tradition of medieval laude popolari: During Holy Week everywhere in southern Italy, Sardinia and Sicily passion plays take place. Most of the acting is done by the villagers themselves carrying the cross and acting out the tale of the passion. The audiences participate and are totally absorbed by it, they comment, lament and identify the actors with their parts.

The Roman nobleman Emilio de’ Cavalieri was a key figure in the musical revival of his time. He wrote his Rappresentazione di Anima, et di Corpo (Rome, 1600) in order to stimulate interest in rappresentazione sacrae, which were at that time slowly getting out of fashion. The publication of his work which was written in a new style at the same time gave birth to the genre of recitar cantando, marking the most important stage in the development of opera and oratorio.

In 1584 Cavalieri found himself in Florence where he was responsible for the spectacles at the court of the Medici. He served as a choreographer of the wedding party of Ferdinando di Medici and Christine de Lorraine and made arrangements for the intermezzo La Pellegrina to be put on for that occasion. Upon returning to Rome he finally staged his own spectacle: the Rappresentazione di Anima, et di Corpo. The date was February 1600. The scene of the action: the church of Santa Maria de Vallicella in Rome. Witnesses of the production, such as Pietro della Valle, were elated by it and praised the spectacle because of its great expressiveness, emotionality and festive character.

The foreword to Cavalieri’s work conveys the splendour and typical atmosphere of the Baroque. According to that same foreword the reciters and dancers have the task of bringing to life the strongly Baroque contrasts of the text and the music and of creating a total spectacle which does not leave any human sense untouched. Cavalieri explains just how necessary the dancers are and how the dancers can spark off all emotions of the listener by way of their expressivity and musical and technical command of the art of singing. Gestures are to be applied in order to enhance the emotions. By deploying singers in different positions the space in the church is used to the full. The listener feels himself lifted into an other reality where the immaterial is revealed to him by way of all possible technical means of the time.

- Christina Pluhar

Composer Info

Emilio de' Cavalieri (ca. 1550-1602)