Cavalli’s Il Xerse was one of the most successful operas of its day. Now, the turbulent, semi-tragic, semi-comic work is published in its Italian and Paris versions as part of the Cavalli edition.
Il Xerse, a “Dramma per musica” by the librettist Nicolò Minato and composer Francesco Cavalli, premiered in Venice in 1655, is a historical opera. Based on the classical writer Herodotus’s History, it tells the story of the 5th century BC Persian king who prepared, in vain, to conquer Greece. With this, the opera followed the fashion at the time for the exotic, but at the same time it contained a political message, for the (historical) Greeks and Persians could be identified with the (contemporary) Venetians and the Turks with whom Venice found itself at war from 1645 onwards. However, in this opera the historical framework is to a large extent combined with a web of intrigue borrowed from a piece by Lope de Vegas. In this, King Xerse and his brother Arsamene are shown in a romantic entanglement with three women at the same time, with the addition of another freely-invented plot about the servants. In line with the early Venetian opera aesthetic, the tragic and the comic are combined here, with the amusing element not stopping with the upper classes. We see right at the beginning of the opera how Xerse falls in love with a tree, and allows it to be decorated and protected by subterranean powers. This episode is rooted in historical fact and was probably the expression of a widespread cult of nature at the time of Xerse. However, it is transformed into the ridiculous in the 1655 libretto. A further political message was the unmasking of the monarchy to which the Venetians were happily and confidently opposed, with their constitution as a city republic.
The dramaturgy of the libretto of Il Xerse is based on the confrontation between reality and illusion (in the form of disguises, misdirected and misunderstood letters, etc.), on sudden contrasts (such as heart-rending laments alongside the servants’ yawns), on the spectacular (such as a collapsing bridge over the Hellespont) and a witty repartee in a sometimes exuberant tempo. Cavalli’s music is ideally matched to this dramaturgy with a supple and flexible recitative style, the ultimate aim of which is a minutely-detailed portrayal of emotions, and which can therefore merge seamlessly into an arioso style. With short sections of dialogue rapidly following on from each other, it repeatedly allows these to overlap, so that the characters seem to talk through each other. Furthermore, the composer works with a subtle allocation and gradation of the arias (with and without obbligato instrumental accompaniment). These are interwoven into the sequence of the plot and can be fragmented for dramatic reasons, as, for example the first aria of Romilda, the prince’s daughter, who we hear gradually approaching from a distance.
Il Xerse was one of the most successful operas of the 17th century, shown in many ways including the fact that it was very quickly put on both in various other Italian cities, but even in Paris in 1660, on no lesser occasion than the wedding of the French King Louis XIV. As was usual with revivals in other places, the opera was also altered for Paris (and in this case, quite drastically). What is special here is that, because of the excellent source material – with two Italian full scores and numerous printed editions of the libretto, and in respect of the French a copy of the full score and a scenario – the Paris revision can be reconstructed in detail revealing all the typical signs of how the French reacted to it. The distinguishing features of this revision include the transposition of the title role (originally sung by an alto castrato) to the bass register, a division into five (instead of three) acts, a drastic pruning of the comic element (including the complete removal of an independent servants’ plot), the cutting or addition of text to numerous coloraturas in arias, together with a radically new version of the recitatives. In the Paris version these were speeded up over long passages by the shortening of note values, but were also adapted rhythmically so that the characters’ talking through each other mentioned above is avoided. Taken together, these revisions might well be interpreted as acknowledgement of a public largely without a command of the Italian – the recitatives became more transparent, but passed by more rapidly – whilst the other alterations could be seen as a response to the predominant French taste.
In any case, with the Paris version of Il Xerse we have a fascinating, novel and independent type of dramaturgical-musical structure; this has been barely been given serious consideration by scholars or in performance practice until now, nor has it been staged. The surviving Paris copy admittedly has its difficulties, which makes the publication of a historical-critical edition highly desirable. Firstly, there is the transposition of the role of Xerse into the bass register: although this might seem straightforward at first glance – for the most part it concerns a simple octave transposition downwards – on closer inspection there are compositional and part-writing problems which cannot simply be ignored in a historical-critical edition. These have therefore been addressed for a transposition downwards with suggestions in certain passages for the basso continuo. Secondly, there are differences between the Paris sources (scenario and full score), which evidently reflect various stages of reworking the opera, with the reworking of the full score predating that of the scenario: only in a later stage than that documented in the full score were particular scenes cut for Paris and some of the roles differently conceived. These include the servant Elviro who, according to the full score (and this also applies to the surviving Venetian copy) was disguised as flower-seller, but in the scenario is disguised as a Turk (as a result of which the Turkish references in the Paris version seem to have been emphasized even more strongly). Differences like this are included in the present edition, which includes the libretto – and thus the scenario in the case of the Paris version. These have been documented and made explicit, so that they can be used, not least in performance practice: modern productions can, for example, adopt the cuts in the scenario. As with, for example, the Italian-French double version of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orpheus opera, in the future it will be possible to offer two versions of Cavalli’s Il Xerse based on the composer’s intentions, to compare these in detail and to choose between these versions for performance.
from: [t]akte 2/2015