Every Monday we feature an Internet Archive Book of the Week, which highlights an item from the ~25,000 Fisher items that are freely available on the Internet Archive. This week, Samantha Summers takes a look at Italian libretti and the classic tale of Romeo and Juliet.
Have you ever been to a ballet and not been entirely sure what is taking place onstage? While ballet is a beautiful art form, and we in Toronto are lucky to have a world-class ballet company, not everyone is blessed with the gift of understanding the meaning of every pirouette and plié. Similarly, if you ever find yourself taking in an opera without surtitles (a live translation of the lyrics broadcast over the stage), you might find yourself wondering what exactly is being lamented in an aria.
This problem is not exclusive to modern theatre-goers. For centuries people have been enjoying productions put on in languages they do not speak (or which contain no spoken or sung words, as in ballet) and looking for ways to understand them. Interestingly, people also often have difficulty understanding opera performed in a language they do understand, as the operatic voice is so different from the speaking voice. Today when watching media on a screen we might turn on subtitles, but for live theatre that hasn’t always been an option. In the 17th century, libretti (singular: libretto) entered the scene, effectively solving the problem of keeping track of the plot and dialogue of a different-to-understand performance.
Libretti contain character lists, dialogue, and plot summaries of the action happening onstage, allowing viewers to keep up with the production as they watch. This particular libretto was published to accompany a combined opera-ballet production of Giulietta e Romeo (Romeo and Juliet), composed in 1796 by Italian composer Niccolò Antonio Zingarelli. This production was put on at the famed La Scala theatre in Milan during the 1796 Carnevale and its libretto was published by Giovanni B. Bianchi. We can see here that this production was dedicated to the Archduke Karl Ferdinand of Austria-Este and his wife Maria Beatrice d’Este, Duchess of Massa. Shortly after the 1796 Milan Carnevale, which takes place annually just preceding Lent, the Archduke and the Duchess would be forced to flee Milan upon Napoleon’s invasion.
Although this opera is based on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, this libretto is much shorter than the published play. As a general rule operas are shorter than the plays upon which they are based, partially because it puts more strain on the throat to sing than to speak. Therefore, plays would be abridged and re-written in order to decrease the quantity of the dialogue. The composer would have to decide which lines to preserve and which to alter, being careful to not change the plot of the story. Additionally, the text in the libretto would rarely be a perfect match to the actual lyrics of the pieces in the opera. While a piece may use musical tropes such as repeating lines or verses, to repeat these lines sometimes did not make sense in text or might be considered a waste of space or ink. Therefore, the librettist (the individual who wrote the libretto) would have to make decisions about which lyrics to include and which repeating lyrics to exclude from the libretto. What this means is that the viewer or listener who did not understand the performance without the aid of the libretto would only know the librettist’s interpretation of the composer’s interpretation of the original story.
This particular copy of this libretto can also help us understand the way in which the binding was done for libretti. On page 23 of this copy, “B4” is stamped on the bottom of the page. Prior to the commercial bindings of today, the text of any published work would be printed out on massive sheets of paper which were then carefully folded and cut in order to ensure the text appeared in order. Every sheet of paper which was printed and then cut would be marked with a unique letter, and the pages into which that sheet would be cut were marked with that letter and a number (such as “B4”). These would be used to ensure that the text was compiled in order prior to being stitched together. In this libretto, these codes go as high as “D4” (p. 53), so we can assume only four full sheets of paper were needed to create this text. Studying binding like this can teach us a lot about book technology and the amount of materials required for mass-published texts like libretti. Additionally, they can help us catch errors in book construction (though none exist in this copy).
We are lucky today to have subtitles and surtitles to help us understand live performance, but we have not completely abandoned the libretto. The programs handed out at the beginning of performances, which usually included plot summaries and character lists, are reminiscent of libretti. Next time you go to the theatre (once they open up again!) take a close look at your program. Then, swing by the collection of libretti in the Fisher Library’s Internet Archive holdings. Take a moment to appreciate your program as the descendant of the libretto, and stop to take note of what similarities and dissimilarities there are between them. Which do you think is more helpful to the theatre-goer? Why do you think these changes developed? Let us know!
-Samantha Summers, Fisher TALInt Student