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Bianca de'Rossi as Play, Ballet, Opera: Contours of "Modern" Historical Tragedy in the 1790s Marita Petzoldt McClymonds The 1790s, a decade in which Italy attended to profound political and military changes, witnessed a transformation of the opera seria no less swift and nearly as remarkable. The libretto plots, which in the earlier half of the century had drawn on classical mythology and ancient Roman history, began in the 1760s to locate their action in medieval and early modern times— that is, in a world of Christian kings and lesser nobility which often seems little different from that of the late eighteenth century .1 And as terror and violence became the unexpected fruit of enlightened optimism at the century's end, so the new librettos startled their audiences with culturally consonant action: powerful characters were much more likely to commit acts of treachery, villainy, or cruelty. In conventional opera seria plots, the individual in the highest position of authority was usually a king functioning as a father figure—misguided, upholding an untenable tradition, desiring a political marriage, but capable of recognizing his mistakes and rectifying them. It fell to characters of lesser rank, on the other hand, to scheme and resort to cruelty, for such baseness was unsuitable in an enlightened ruler. In the librettos after 1760 a lesser authority figure was likely to be the highest ranking character in the plot, and his excessive and unmodified behavior often led to tragedy—e.g., Cortez and Pizzarro in the Americas. But by the late 1780s even a king proved capable of unmodified villainy. The first such king is Alfonso II of Spain in // conte di Saldagna who pretends to fête a marriage while successfully poisoning and killing the unsuitable groom in the finale. As republics took the place of monarchies throughout Italian cities, such opera seria kings more often paid for their tyranny with death, as in La morte di Mitridate (1797). But even though medieval Europe was becoming a fashionable location for opera plots, librettists largely avoided narratives 158 Marita Petzoldt McClymonds1 59 taken from Italian history: Vittorio Trento's opera Bianca de' Rossi, produced at the Teatro San Benedetto during the season of Carnivale in Venice in 1797, was an early exception. The libretto for Bianca, which has been attributed to Mattia Botturini,2 cites the story of Ezzelino da Romano's love for Bianca de'Rossi, the wife of Battista dalla Porta. Bianca's renown was based on her steadfast conjugal fidelity and the extraordinary way that she found to commit suicide at her husband's tomb. The libretto acknowledges the existence of a tragedy of the same title written by the Abate Pierantonio Meneghelli which had been published in Padua by Giovanni Antonio Gonzati and performed in Venice as well as in other Italian cities. It also cites a bailo pantomimo of the same title by Giuseppe Trafieri which had been performed at the Teatro San Benedetto during Carnivale in 1793.3 The play was published in Venice in 1798 in the "Il teatro moderno applaudito" series with unsigned "Notizie StoricoCritiche ." According to these notes Paduan chroniclers recorded the story in 1253 A.D. The horrifying tale stands out for the inhuman cruelty of Ezzelino and the extraordinary bravery of the object of his irrational love, a woman who managed to dislodge the prop holding up the lid of her husband's tomb which fell on her and killed her—"Esempio unico nei fasti délie virtù" ("a unique example in the annals of virtue"), declared the anonymous critic.4 More than this, however, the critic also expressed his great pleasure in presenting a tragic plot that can be called "modern," confirming the novelty of Meneghelli's subject matter: Noi annuziamo con incredibil piacere un argomento trágico, che si puö dire moderno. E perché non si accostano i nostri poeti ai tempi presentí? perché far l'eco al rancidume? Disse Orazio fin dalla sua età, che gli uomini creatori dovrebbono abbandonar le greche vestigia, e celebrare gli eroi più vicini alla nostra memoria. La novità in teatro è una benevolenza già conciliatasi dall'autore, annunziando il nome del protagonista. Su tal punto mérita pi...


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