Scentual Sunday

L’Arianna (SV 291), composed in 1607–08, was the second opera by the Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi. One of the earliest of the Baroque period and indeed of any operas, it was first performed on 28 May 1608, as part of the musical festivities for a royal wedding at the court of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga in Mantua. All the music is lost apart from the extended recitative known as “Lamento d’Arianna” (“Ariadne’s Lament”). The libretto, which survives complete, was written in eight scenes by Ottavio Rinuccini, who used Ovid’s Heroides and other classical sources to relate the story of Ariadne’s abandonment by Theseus on the island of Naxos and her subsequent elevation as bride to the god Bacchus.

The opera was composed under severe pressure of time; the composer later said that the effort of creating it almost killed him. The initial performance, produced with lavish and innovative special effects, was highly praised, and the work was equally well received in Venice when it was revived under the composer’s direction in 1640 as the inaugural work for the Teatro San Moisè.

Rinuccini’s libretto is available in a number of editions. The music of the “Lamento” survives because it was published by Monteverdi, in several different versions, independently from the opera. This fragment became a highly influential musical work and was widely imitated; the “expressive lament” became an integral feature of Italian opera for much of the 17th century. In recent years the “Lamento” has become popular as a concert and recital piece and has been frequently recorded. A new completion of the “Lamento”, which includes a setting of the surviving texts of the choruses to new music by Scottish composer Gareth Wilson (b.1976), was performed at King’s College, London University, on the 29th of November, 2013, the 370th anniversary of Monteverdi’s death.

The lament was saved from oblivion by Monteverdi’s decision to publish it independently from the opera: first in 1614 as a five-voice madrigal, then in 1623 as a monody, and finally in 1641 as a sacred hymn, Lamento della Madonna. The five-voice adaptation was included in the composer’s Sixth Book of Madrigals; there is evidence that this arrangement was made at the suggestion of an unnamed Venetian gentleman who thought that the melody would benefit from counterpoint. In 1868 the lament was published in Paris, and in 1910 the Italian composer Ottorino Respighi issued an edited, orchestral transcription.

In her analysis of the lament, the musicologist Suzanne Cusick asserts that:

[T]o a large extent Monteverdi’s fame and historical status rested for centuries on the universal appreciation of his achievement in the celebrated lament [which] was among the most emulated, and therefore influential, works of the early 17th century.

In Cusick’s view Monteverdi “creat[ed] the lament as a recognizable genre of vocal chamber music and as a standard scene in opera … that would become crucial, almost genre-defining, to the full-scale public operas of 17th-century Venice” and she concludes by noting that the women of Mantua would have recognised the transformations enacted in the lament as representative of their own life stories. Monteverdi, she believes, sought to represent in music the eventual triumph of female piety over promiscuity: “Arianna’s gradual loss of her passionate self in the lament constitutes a public musical chastening of this incautious woman who dared to choose her own mate”. In her study The Recitative Soliloquy, Margaret Murata records that laments of this kind became a staple feature of operas until about 1650, “thereafter more rarely until the total triumph of the aria around 1670”. Mark Ringer, in his analysis of Monteverdi’s musical drama, suggests that the lament defines Monteverdi’s innovative creativity in a manner similar to that in which, two-and-a-half centuries later, the “Prelude” and the “Liebestod” in Tristan und Isolde announced Wagner’s discovery of new expressive frontiers.

In its operatic context the lament takes the form of an extended recitative of more than 70 vocal lines, delivered in five sections divided by choral comments (which, alongside the “Dorilla” sections, also lost, are restored in the new version by Wilson). Some of the wording is prefigured in the immediately preceding scene in which the First Envoy describes Arianna’s plight to a sympathetic chorus of fishermen. The lament depicts Arianna’s various emotional reactions to her abandonment: sorrow, anger, fear, self-pity, desolation and a sense of futility. Cusick draws attention to the manner in which Monteverdi is able to match in music the “rhetorical and syntactical gestures” in Rinuccini’s text. The opening repeated words “Lasciatemi morire” (Let me die) are accompanied by a dominant seventh chord which Ringer describes as “an unforgettable chromatic stab of pain”; Monteverdi was one of the first users of this musical device. What follows, says Ringer, has a range and depth “comparable to Shakespeare’s most searching soliloquies”. The words “Lasciatemi morire” are followed by “O Teseo, O Teseo mio” (O Theseus, my Theseus”); the two phrases represent Arianna’s contrasting emotions of despair and longing. Throughout the lament indignation and anger are punctuated by tenderness, until the final iteration of “O Teseo”, after which a descending line brings the lament to a quiet conclusion.

Among other composers who adopted the format and style of Arianna’s lament were Francesco Cavalli, whose opera Le nozze di Teti e di Peleo contains three such pieces; Francesco Costa, who included a setting of Rinuccini’s text in his madrigal collection Pianta d’Arianna; and Sigismondo d’India, who wrote several laments in the 1620s after the monodic version of Arianna’s lament was published in 1623. Monteverdi himself used the expressive lament format in each of his two late operas, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria and L’incoronazione di Poppea, for the respective characters of Penelope and Ottavia. In 1641 Monteverdi adapted Arianna’s lament into a sacred song with a Latin text, “Pianto dell Madonna”, which he included in Selva morale e spirituale, the last of his works published during his lifetime.

The action is preceded by a brief prologue, delivered by Apollo. Venus and Cupid are then discovered, in conversation, on a desolate seashore. Venus informs Cupid that Duke Theseus of Athens, together with Ariadne, will soon be arriving on the island of Naxos on their way to Athens. They are fleeing from Crete, where the pair have been complicit in the slaying of Ariadne’s monster half-brother, the Minotaur, in the labyrinth below the palace of her father, King Minos. Venus is aware that Theseus intends to abandon Ariadne on Naxos, and to proceed to Athens alone. Cupid offers to rekindle Theseus’s passion for Ariadne, but Venus has decided to unite her with the god Bacchus, and asks Cupid to arrange this.

Cupid conceals himself, as Theseus and Ariadne arrive on the island a short distance away. Ariadne muses over her disloyalty to her father, but declares her love for Theseus. She departs to find shelter for the night, after which a fishermen’s chorus compares her eyes with the stars of heaven. Theseus, alone with his counsellor, discusses his abandonment of Ariadne, and is advised that this decision is justified, as she will not be acceptable to the people of Athens as their ruler’s consort.

A chorus greets the dawn as Ariadne, after a troubled night’s sleep, returns to the shore with her companion, Dorilla, to find that Theseus has departed. Dorilla offers her comfort. In despair at the thought that Theseus will not return, Ariadne nevertheless decides to go to the landing area to wait for him. In a pastoral interlude a chorus sings of the joys of rural life, and expresses the hope that Theseus will not forget Ariadne. Primed by an envoy with the news that Ariadne is alone and sorrowing, the chorus again sings in sympathy with her. On the beach, Ariadne sings her lament for her lost love and prepares to kill herself. At this point fanfares are heard heralding an arrival, causing Ariadne to hope that it is Theseus returning. In another interlude the chorus expresses hope on her behalf, but a second envoy announces that it is Bacchus who has arrived, having taken pity on Ariadne. A sung ballo celebrates the anticipated betrothal of Bacchus and Ariadne. In the final scene Cupid reappears, and Venus rises from the sea before Jupiter speaks his blessing from the heavens. The union is sealed as Bacchus promises Ariadne immortality in heaven, and a crown of stars.

(all info via Wikipedia)

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