A shimmering, exotic atmosphere, a plot full of mystery, magnificent melodies: that’s Francesco Cavalli’s opera Veremonda, which receives its first performance in Germany in April at the Schwetzingen Festival.
The straits of Gibraltar on a moonlight night…The Moorish Queen Zelemina waiting for her lover Delio, the General of the Spanish army, while her faithful maid pretends to fish near by. Delio is at war with her people; his army will emerge victorious at the end of the opera, due in large part to the efforts Queen Veremonda and her band of amazons, who fought the Moors with King Alfonso pursued his astrological studies.
This is the exotic backdrop for one of Cavalli’s most unique operas, one of the relatively few inspired by medieval rather than ancient history and myth. Indeed, when Queen Zelemina sings movingly of her willingness to convert to Christianity, accompanied by a pair of viols that create an evocative sonic halo, the audience will surely recognize that the religious conflicts with which the opera engages were as relevant in seventeenth-century Venice and Naples as they are today.”
In fact, there is no other Cavalli opera that presents as many mysteries and anomalies as Veremonda l’Amazzone di Aragona (1652). There are two different surviving librettos from the opera – one printed in Naples and the other Venice; yet we are still debating whether or not the first performance took place in Venice in January of 1652 or in Naples in December of that year. Evidence from the only extant manuscript of the score, housed at the Biblioteca Marciana, suggests that the Venice version was given first; yet we have no firm evidence of a performance at any Venetian theater, while the Naples performance in December of 1652 can be firmly documented. The name of the actual librettist also creates a mystery. He is identified on the title page as Luigi Zorzisto, which is in fact an anagram for the well-known Venetian poet Giulio Strozzi, who died quite suddenly in March of 1652. Why would it have been necessary or desirable to disguise Strozzi’s identity?
A third mystery concerns the libretto’s pre-history: it is not a newly invented libretto, but rather a heavily revised version of Giacinto Cicognini’s Celio, first performed in Florence in 1646 with music by Bacio Baglioni. But where Celio deals with underlying moral and theological issues in a quite sober and serious manner, Veremonda is playful, irreverent, and full of the kind of eroticism that we so readily associate with Venice and carnival. And what about the messy musical manuscript? The are so many corrections, paste-overs, and illegible passages that the editor is faced with quite a challenge, but the musical and dramatic treasures it yields are more than worth the effort in bringing this masterpiece back to life. The balance between aria and recitative – action and reflection – is nearly perfect in this work. It is also full of sensuous love duets, such as the one between Zelemina (soprano) and Delio (alto) that opens Act III. Scored for two viols and continuo, it features Cavalli’s most complex contrapuntal writing: the voices and viols intertwine, creating poignant dissonances, while the delayed resolutions and expansive melodic lines vividly represent the lovers’ passion.
Like Monteverdi’s well-known Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi, Veremonda gave Cavalli an opportunity to contrast love and war. We hear the cannons firing in a madrigal-style trio, and when Veremonda’s amazons attack the theater while Zelemina and her people are celebrating the Moorish festival of the bulls, the Queen’s voice is all but swallowed up in the vivid battle sounds created by the orchestra. Veremonda – full of humor, eroticism, gorgeous music and opportunities for extravagant scenic display – is also one of the rare works of the period in which the tensions between East and West are presented in terms that are distinctly modern. It is surely time for Veremonda to regain her place on the stage.
(from [t]akte 1/2016)