Serpent & Fire



Captive queens, all-powerful slaves, cruel lovers and all too tender enemies: with their frenziedly proffered flesh they nourished the brand-new genre of opera. Ever since its birth in Italy and its commercial success in Venice, it has fed on the grandiose female figures offered by Antiquity. Music and singing brought the great theatre of the world a new strength, an irresistible momentum and immediacy. In Dido and Cleopatra, Anna Prohaska has associated the two magnificent queens of Africa, with their larger-than- life destinies, and followed them all over Europe during the first century of opera, from the 1640s to 1740. Both women struggled, using every weapon available to them, in a world of men and in distant, fascinating lands that inevitably seemed barbarous. There is nothing of the eternal feminine here, unless one accepts the central contradiction that the two heroines are very different and impossible to mistake for each other. The one with the more improbable destiny is the one who actually existed, Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, mistress of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Dido, the purported founder and first queen of Carthage, is a mythological figure: initially princess of Tyre, she was chased from her realm by her brother Pygmalion, who murdered her husband Sychaeus. Preferring exile to war, she took ship with her entourage and chose to settle on the Tunisian coast. There she repelled the advances of Iarbas, son of Jupiter and king of the Maxitanians or Gaetuli. But she yielded to Aeneas, son of Anchises and Venus, a hero of the Trojan War and future founder of Lavinium. Dido owes her posterity above all to Virgil, who gives a lyrical account of the love at first sight between the two exiles, their separation and her death. Hence it is hardly surprising to meet her in the very early days of opera, since the Didone of Cavalli and Busenello received its premiere in 1641 at the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice, the first public opera house, opened in 1637. Francesco Caletti-Bruni, who had taken the name of Cavalli in honour of his patron, became effectively its artistic director in 1639 and composed most of the works performed in the theatre. Busenello collaborated several times with Cavalli, but also with Monteverdi on L’incoronazione di Poppea. Even though the subject of Dido is essentially tragic, Busenello adapted it to suit the more colourful and contrasted Venetian style. He created a host of secondary characters, and the story ends with a lieto fine, the marriage of Dido and larbas. The latter is the addressee of ‘Re de’ Getuli altero’, Dido’s entrance aria in the second act, in which she firmly asserts her fidelity to Sychaeus’ memory. The grandeur of Venetian opera is heard at once: the intensity of the declamation of the text is the very spirit of the music.


It would be harder to imagine a greater contrast with this than Dido and Aeneas, Purcell’s only true opera. Composed for a boarding school for daughters of the gentry in Chelsea, it seems to have been given only once, in the spring of 1689. At the opposite extreme from Cavalli’s carnivalesque opera, it concentrates on the two lovers and depicts the destruction of their happiness with cruel precision. Here there is no concession to virtuosity or to decorative elements: the libretto by Nahum Tate, adapted from Virgil and Tate’s own tragedy Brutus of Alba, displays a rare economy of resources, devoid of exaggeration or mannerisms. The recitatives are simple and sensitive, combining poetry and nobility in a manner that foreshadows Gluck. Although she dominates the whole work, making Aeneas almost a secondary character, Dido is the protagonist who speaks least. But her silences are sublimely eloquent. At the end she accomplishes the only gesture in the opera, that of dismissing Aeneas at the very moment when she could have saved her love, but it would have remained imperfect. No imprecation, no vengeance, no regret, but the heartrending plea to remember her.


After this, the Didos of Graupner and Hasse take us to eighteenth-century Germany. The year 1678 had seen the opening in Hamburg of the first public opera house in the German-speaking countries, and this Oper am Gänsemarkt was to play an essential role in the history of the genre. The operas presented there were fairly close in spirit to those of Venice, blithely mixing tragedy and comedy. It was there that the young Handel discovered opera. In 1707, Christoph Graupner was engaged as a harpsichordist, and soon his first opera, Dido, Königin von Karthago, was given there. The recitatives of Heinrich Hinsch’s libretto are in German, to allow the audience to follow the highly eventful plot. Dido is characterised with authority: while ‘Agitato da tempeste’ is powerfully dramatic, ‘Infido Cupido’ touches the heartstrings with its simplicity. Hasse’s Didone abbandonata, premiered in its final form in Dresden in 1743, comes closer to Italian usages. It is one of the many adaptations of a libretto by Metastasio, this time wholly serio. Here Anna Prohaska exchanges Dido’s costume for that of Araspes, Iarbas’ confidant, to sing his virtuosic aria di tempesta.


Cleopatra’s posterity has been still greater, for her personality has broken out of the confines of tragedy and has fascinated even Hollywood. And, in the twentieth century, Samuel Barber made an opera of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. For their part, Sartorio and Handel, using the same libretto but at a distance of half a century, evoke the encounter between Cleopatra and Caesar. Composed for Venice, Sartorio’s music is enchantingly youthful: the two arias included here sketch a portrait of the heroine as both delightful and mischievous, and necessarily dangerous. With Handel, the character takes on a quite different dimension; he wrote the role for Francesca Cuzzoni, one of his muses. Although he shrewdly chose to reuse Bussani’s libretto, he stripped it of everything accessory and turned the many arias into prodigious moments of music and poetry, as may be heard here in the ineffable ‘Se pietà’. Finally, in his Cleopatra premiered during the 1662 Carnival season, the Venetian composer Castrovillari gives his heroine pathetic and moving tones at the moment of her death, following in the tradition of Cavalli and Monteverdi. The vocal line closely follows the movements of a heart that is slowly ceasing to beat and a breath that becomes more halting. At the moment when Handel was triumphing in London, another German, Hasse, was in Naples, where he wrote a serenata, a work intended not for the stage but for the concert and the sheer aesthetic pleasure of bel canto. Following the usages of the time, the role of Mark Antony was written for the contralto Vittoria Tesi and Cleopatra for a very young Farinelli. This time, the farewell to life provides the opportunity for a dazzlingly heroic aria. A new age of opera, claiming the right to artifice, has begun.