If you've ever been to the opera, you might be familiar with supertitles (introduced by the Canadian Opera Company in its 1983 production of Elektra), which project a translation or summary of the sung text. But while this is a relatively recent innovation in the history of opera, reading in conjunction with the performance is not. Reading, in fact, has always been a central aspect of the audience's engagement with opera. In the past, libretti facilitated this interaction between performer and spectator. The Fisher Library holds an extensive collection of Italian libretti printed before 1900, and the collection offers a singular insight into the origin and development of opera. Soon, these items will be digitally available to scholars around the world via the Internet Archive.
In his bibliography of the baroque libretti, Domenico Pietropaolo divides the earliest items into two predominant categories: the beautifully designed and illustrated libretti produced under court patronage, and the more modest items produced for consumption in the commercial theatre. Even between these two categories, libretti have undergone considerable evolution alongside the artistic form to which they are intended to lend support and clarification. The libretti of the 17th century in particular demonstrate a high degree of both textual and musical variability of baroque opera, While the physical dimensions of the object approached standardization, the content tended to indicate the "significance of the contribution made by each of the collaborating arts." It wasn’t until the late 17th century that now-familiar features such as the cast list, the verbal text, and the production credits were common. Even so, the study of libretti might allow scholars and musicians to better understand the production history of opera. Claudio Sartori speaks directly to this important component of performance research, noting that prior to the 19th-century libretti would be printed to correspond with a particular production of an operatic work, meaning that subsequent versions of the printed text may be markedly different from the original. By studying first and subsequent editions of early libretti, scholars are able to "reconstruct historical aspects of the various musical events" as they note additions, omissions and other changes to the original work.
But, in a collection such as this, it is certainly a daunting task to select one item which adequately represents the depth and breadth of the Fisher Library's holdings. So, this exploration starts with two selections and the age-old advice to begin at the beginning. Among the library’s holdings are two of the earliest printed libretti (click on the titles for the link to the libertti on the Internet Archive): Dafne and L'Euridice, both composed by Jacopo Peri, with text by Ottavio Rinuccini. The former, composed in 1598 and printed in 1600, is among the first works that might be considered operas. The story is drawn from Ovid's Metamorphoses, which tells the story of Apollo and Daphne. Apollo mocks the bows and arrows of Eros, the god of love. In retaliation for his jest, Eros shoots Apollo with a gold-tipped arrow of love, making him fall in love at first sight with the nymph Daphne, herself shot with a lead-tipped arrow of hatred. As Apollo pursues Daphne, she calls out for help from the gods and is transformed into a laurel tree. Apollo, unable to have Daphne, instead tends the tree and uses his powers to prevent the leaves from wilting.
Much of the music of Dafne has been lost, though several excerpts exist in manuscript form in Florence and Brussels. In addition, there are early two arias which are attributed to Jacopo Corsi and incorporated into the score by Peri. Historical records indicate that Dafne was a massive success, premiering during the carnival season of 1598 and remounted in the three subsequent seasons, with three performances in 1600 alone and several productions mounted until at least 1614.
L'Euridice, also a love story drawn from Ovid's Metamorphoses, interprets the myth of Orpheus's journey among the dead to retrieve his wife Eurydice. Pluto and Proserpina, rulers of the underworld, allow him to take Eurydice on the condition that he walks ahead of her and does not look back until they are both in the upper world of the living. Once Orpheus is above ground, his excitement makes him forget the warning that they must both be out of the underworld, and he looks back at her when he reaches the surface. Eurydice vanishes before his eyes and is forever out of his reach.
L'Euridice premiered and was printed in 1600. Unlike its predecessor, this work has survived in its entirety. Peri's text, borrowing some elements of Orfeo (1480), a Renaissance drama by Angelo Ambrogino, known as Poliziano, takes some creative license with the original story. This piece integrates pastoral components such as a band of shepherds and the anthropomorphization of nature. Additionally, Peri altered the ending of the story, making his Orpheus successful in his journey and without the look back at Eurydice that resulted in their second parting.
While this fundamentally transforms the character of the original myth, these revisions were necessary in light of L'Euridice's original production context. Performed at the wedding of Maria de 'Medici and Henry IV of France, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice was made into a celebration of marriage. From the prologue, in which the personification of Tragedy “adorn[s himself] for the Royal wedding/ and temper[s his] song with happier notes” to the joyous conclusion, L’Euridice is maintains a celebratory tone that would be suited to the occasion of a wedding.
The Orpheus legend would be interpreted in opera many times starting with Peri, and in fact, many literary or historical narratives have been re-imagined for the operatic stage. Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Richard III, Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Biblical Saul, and the historical figures of Mary Stuart and David Riccio have all received their musical turn in opera’s long history. As the Fisher Library continues to digitize it collection of Italian libretti, we will highlight some of the most unique items in our collection – one that is unsurpassed in North America – as we move ahead in this exciting and valuable project.
The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library is grateful for the funding support of The McLean Foundation which enabled the digitization of our Italian Libretti Collection.