Xerse, Italian opera
music by Francesco Cavalli
libretto by Nicolò Minato

Ballet de Xerxès, ballet entrées
music by Jean-Baptiste Lully

performed in Paris in 1660 on the occasion of the wedding of Louis XIV and Maria Theresa of Spain

Download the dossier as a PDF
Rent the score from Bärenreiter publishers


Xerse: three key dates
From Xerse to Xerxès
Roles and tessitura
Seventeenth-century press reviews

Some perspectives on Cavalli’s stay in France and the background of the Parisian Xerse
The rising Sun: Xerse and the King of France
A king among kings: Xerse and the Louvre’s Galerie haute

From Herodotus to Minato’s ‘dramma per musica’:
‘Xerse’’s Thousand Years
Dramaturgical and musical aspects of the Parisian version of Xerse

Sung words, from Venice to Paris
From Venice to Paris: The History of Xerse as Told by its Manuscript Score
Number of performers and pitch
Notes on Performance Practice in Minato & Cavalli’s “Xerse”:
the “business” of Appoggiatura

4/4 – Xerse 2015

Xerse: three key dates

Venise, 1655

First performed in Venice on January 12, 1655 in the Santi Giovanni e Paolo theatre, Xerse is one of Venetian master Francesco Cavalli’s most successful works, after Egisto (1643) and Giasone (1649), and is the result of a collaboration between Cavalli and a promising young librettist, Nicolò Minato. The work was an immediate success and was reprised in the largest Italian cities (Milano, Rome, Genoa, Naples, etc.) during the second half of the century, and in a revised form in Paris in 1660, for the wedding of Louis XIV and Maria Theresa of Spain.

During the 1650’s, Venetian opera aesthetic changed. On one hand, poets gradually abandoned mythologically inspired subjects in favour of stories from Ancient history. This new trend had two advantages. Firstly, the heroes had a human side, and therefore changing moods, which contrasted with the rigidly confident mythological figures. Secondly, since the protagonists were warriors and soldiers, there were possible parallels to the contemporary political context. On the other hand, they started to develop comic scenes in parallel with the main plot, scenes that were performed by secondary characters like valets, servants, nurses, etc. The libretto of Xerse is structured such that these scenes are independent from the unfolding of the main action, an aspect that will be exploited when the opera is adapted for the 1660 Paris opera performance on the occasion of the royal wedding.

Paris, 1660

The revival of Xerse in Paris in 1660 takes place during the celebration of Louis XIV and Maria Theresa of Spain’s marriage. Since the 1640’s, Cardinal Mazarin had been very involved in the efforts to establish Italian opera at the French court, and he had hoped to invite Francesco Cavalli to Paris to mark this event, since Cavalli was already a famous composer at this time and the author of more than 20 operas.

Cavalli was tasked with writing the music for L’Ercole amante, a new opera meant to celebrate the wedding. Its author, Francesco Buti, had written almost all the Italian librettos that had been put to music in France during Mazarin’s ministry. The Ercole amante performance was tied to the completion of the Salle des Machines in the Tuileries palace, the construction of which took much longer than expected (indeed, the opera was not premiered until 1662); it was therefore decided that Xerse would be reprised instead, especially since it was at that time a big success in the major Italian cities. However, they also wanted to acknowledge the Court love of dance, and particularly the King’s love of dance, and so entrusted a Florentine musician with the composing of a Ballet de Xerxès, a ballet whose entrées were to be performed during the opera; at the time, that musician was still going by the name of … Giambattista Lulli. Xerse was performed on November 22, 1660 in the Louvre’s Petite Galerie, which was not designed for such a performance. This choice effected the way the work was performed; since it was not a true theatre, the opera did not benefit from a staging in the true sense of the word. According to the sources, a temporary theatre was constructed, one that used tapestries for the scenery. So although the performers all wore costumes, it was not possible, for practical reason, to use theatrical machinery.

Lille, 2015

In 2015, the Parisian version of Xerse was revived. This work, unique in the context of seventeenth-century Italian opera, is produced by the Lille Opera and its coproducers, the Centre de musique baroque de Versailles and the Caen Theatre. Guy Cassiers directed, with musical direction by Emmanuelle Haïm, leading the “Concert d’Astrée” ensemble.

For more information

From Xerse to Xerxès

The opera tells the story of Xerxes I of Persia, based on Herodotus’ account (Historiae, Book VII): after succeeding his father Darius, King Xerxes continues the military campaign against the Athenians. He also oversees the construction of  a bridge of ships on the Hellenspont, which remains his most ambitious and famous undertaking. Herodotus also recounts that one day, Xerxes was struck by a tree’s beauty, so he had it decorated with precious stones. In Minato’s rendering, the story is enriched with new characters and plot twists that do not appear in Herodotus’ version: the king falls in love with Romilda, his brother Arsamene’s fiancée, even though he had already promised to marry the princess Amastre, King Otane’s daughter. Romilda’s sister, Adelanta, is also in love with Arsamene, and she tries to use trickery in order to separate him from her sister. After several twists and turns, the opera ends with a double wedding: Xerxes marries Amastre and Arsamene marries Romilda.

The Parisian version of Xerse has two main sources: a manuscript score, copied in 1695 by Louis XIV’s librarian, François Fossard, and a printed script published in 1660 by Robert Ballard. The reworking of the opera shows that it has clearly been “frenchified”: the reviser of the libretto divided it into five acts (instead of the three acts of the Venetian version), like the five acts of a French classical play, and wrote a new prologue (a common practice in the reprising of an opera in a different context), of which only the text remains. The comic scenes were condensed or deleted and young Lully was entrusted with composing six entrées for the Ballet de Xerxès, to be performed during the opera’s acts. Musically speaking, the most substantial reform, reflecting a desire to adapt to the French context, concerns the opera’s title role, whose tessitura is transposed from alto to baritone. Originally, the role of Xerse was sung by an alto castrato, which did not seem appropriate at the time, since the character was associated with Louis XIV himself. Consequently, they transposed the role an octave lower so that the king was represented to the courtly audience in a dignified way. Xerse therefore marks the first time in sung French theatre that a deep masculine voice was used to fashion the sovereign’s image; this choice would be made not only in Ercole amante, the other Italian opera that Cavalli wrote for the court, in 1662, but also in Lully’s first lyrical tragedies, like Cadmus et Hermione (1673) and Alceste (1674). The main masculine roles were written for basse-taille, the French equivalent of the baritone voice.

Roles and tessitura

According to the manuscript score (copied in 1695):

Xerse, king of Persia, bass
Arsamene, Xerse’s brother, alto
Ariodate, the prince of Abydos, Xerse’s favourite and the general of his armies, tenor
Romilda, Ariodate’s daughter, Arsamene’s lover, soprano
Adelanta, Romilda’s sister, in love with Arsamene, soprano
Eumene, Xerse’s capitan of the guard, and his confidant, soprano
Elviro, Arsamene’s servant, alto
Amastre, daughter of the king of Susia, in love with Xerse and disguised as a man, soprano
Aristone, Amastre’s squire, bass
Periarco, the ambassador of Otane, the king of Susia, bass
Clito, Romilda’s page, soprano*

* Mute role in the printed script (Ballard, 1660)

  • Before-Sources de Xerse
    After-Sources de Xerse
    BeforeSources de XerseAfter



[text only, music has been lost] In praise of the royal couple

1st entrée
Bourrée for the Basques
Rondeau for same

Acte I

As soon as he sees her, Xerse falls in love with Romilda, who is the daughter of Ariodate, a general in Xerse’s army. He asks his brother Arsamene who the beautiful unknown woman is. Arsamene, who loves and is loved backed by Romilda, pretends not to know her. Adelanta, Romilda’s sister, is also in love with Arsamene and is worried about Arsamene’s penchant for her sister. Xerse declares his love to Romilda, who refuses him on the pretext that she is not worthy of his proposal. Xerse surprises Arsamene with Romilda and then, fuelled by jealousy, he banishes Arsamene from court. Romilda refuses to change her mind and encourages Arsamene to leave the palace quickly so that his life is not in danger. Amastre, the daughter of the king of Susia, arrives disguised in men’s clothing to claim her due: she is Xerse’s betrothed and she is determined to marry him.

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2nd entrée
Entrée for the Peasant Men and Women

Acte II

Ariodate returns victorious from a battle against Xerse’s enemies. To reward him, the king offers to give one of Ariodate’s daughters a husband of royal rank. He is of course thinking of marrying Romilda himself but his speech gives Amastre the wrong impression, that she is the king’s chosen fiancée. Amastre’s servant Aristone tries to persuade her to give up her claim and advises her to return to her homeland, since she is exposing herself to great danger, dressed as she is as a soldier. Arsamene gives a letter meant for Romilda to Elviro, the page. Meanwhile, Ariodate reflects on what Xerse said and concludes that Xerse was speaking about Arsamene. Adelanta tries to convince Romilda to marry the king. She pretends to consent to the marriage, then Adelanta reveals that she is in love with Arsamene. Romilda makes fun of her, thus unleashing Adelanta’s rage.

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3rd entrée
For the Doctors, Trivelinos, Pulcinellas, and Scaramuccia
Air for Scaramuccia’s antics
Air for the Doctors, Trivelinos, and Pulcinellas

Acte III

Amastre learns from Elviro that the king is in love with Romilda, and this knowledge throws her into despair. Elviro gives Arsamene’s letter to Adelanta, believing her to be loyal. She uses it to make Xerse believe that Arsamene wrote the letter to her. Xerse agrees to a marriage between Arsamene and Adelanta. Xerse continues trying to seduce Romilda, but she refuses his proposal yet another time. Arsamene is worried since he has not received a response to his letter from Romilda. He is in such despair that he wants to die. Xerse reassures him by telling him that his wish will soon be fulfilled, but in doing so he makes reference to Adelanta and her inclination. Arsamene refuses this proposal and Xerse tries to discourage Adelanta from loving Arsamene.

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4th entrée
For the dancing slaves
For the sailors playing the tromba marina
For the slaves and the dancing monkeys

Acte IV

Amastre claims her due to Xerse, but the king does not recognize her since she is wearing a soldier’s uniform; annoyed by her insistence, he orders that she be put in prison. Romilda arrives and defends Amastre. Periarco, sent by the king of Susia, thinks that he recognizes Princess Amastre but she manages to keep her disguise. After having been deceived by Adelanta, Romilda and Arsamene fight then reconcile. Xerse proposes marriage to Romilda again, and she again declines. Having understood that Xerse wants to marry Romilda, Periarco rushes to see Xerse to remind him of the promise he made to his master, the king of Susia, that he would marry Amastre. Xerse again tells Ariodate that Romilda will marry a prince, and that Ariodate will learn who it is when he goes to Romilda’s room, where her future husband awaits. Ariodate is sure that Xerse is referring to Arsamene. After Romilda’s umpteenth rejection, Xerse condemns Arsamene to death. Romilda is crushed and asks Amastre to warn Arsamene.

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5th entrée
First air for the Matassins
Second air for the Matassins, who are miming a fight

Acte V

Amastre warns Arsamene, then Romilda arrives and confirms that Arsamene is in danger. Ariodate appears and when he sees Romilda with Arsamene, he concludes that Xerse was referring to Arsamene when he spoke about Romilda’s marriage. Xerse refuses Periarco’s suggestion that he marry Amastre. Ariodate wants to thank Xerse for his generosity; once Xerse understands his error, he wants to kill himself, but not before seeing Ariodate, Arsamene, and Romilda die. Arsamene, unaware of Xerse’s decision, goes to see him to thank him. Xerse commands him to kill Romilda and gives him the dagger with which he is to commit the crime. Amastre arrives and rips the dagger out of Arsamene’s hands. She wants to kill herself. This extreme reaction touches Xerse, and he finally realises who Amastre is, comes to his senses, and agrees to marry his betrothed. He also allows Romilda to marry Arsamene.

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6th entrée
For Bacchus accompanied by Sylvains, Bacchantes, and Satyrs
Rondeau for the same

If the plot seems complicated to you, consult the cartoon version here.

Seventeenth-century press reviews

La Gazette, November 27, 1660, n. 138 :

On the 22nd a comédie en musique was performed in the presence of Their Majesties, in the haute galerie at the Louvre, and it seemed to be a sufficiently worthy diversion for our Monarch, as its subject comes from the story of a great king, and as it lacked none of theatre’s pomp, for the Crown’s richest tapestries were hung, and as it lacked nothing in its performance, executed by the most beautiful voices from Italy and the best instrumentalists. This magnificent performance was also accompanied by six ballet entrées during the interludes, executed by the most skilled dancers in France, such that it marvellously satisfied the whole audience, which included Monsieur, Mademoiselle, the three princesses her sisters, the Prince and Princesse de Condé, and the entire court, as well as a great number of people, who were all the more delighted with the performance since this sort of entertainment follows peace and a wedding, produces much enjoyment and all the good things that lead to our kingdom’s happiness, among which we must not forget the freeing of a great number of prisoners. The King thus wanted the most wretched to feel that the happiest of seasons had returned under his reign, but we cannot partake of it without adding, to our praise of the greatest Prince of Europe, our praise of the greatest Minister in the world, who created all these miracles for us.

Jean Loret, La Muze historique, December 4, 1660 :

Xerxes, the dramatic poem
That is only told through music,
Was performed several times
In His Majesty’s abode;
With all its marvels, it was unable
To charm my eyes or ears,
Because I myself was not able
To go there to see it.
But Barons, Marquis, and Counts
Gave me beautiful accounts of it,
And the theatre alone
Is so superbly constructed
That one could not see this spectacle
Without exclaiming that it was miraculous.
Gold, silver, azure, and brocade
Gleamed there, everywhere
And thanks to the many chandeliers
Its illustrious decorations
Sparkle so impressively
That this age
Has never seen such splendours
Not even in royal abodes;
And yet, I have heard it said
That this is only a glimpse
Of the adornments that constructs and has constructed
That extraordinary machine-maker
Who since May, June, or July
Has been working for the grand Ballet.

Gold, silver,
azure, and brocade
Gleamed there,

Jean Loret, La Muze historique, December 11, 1660 :

I have finally seen Xerxes,
Which I found to be excessively long;
However, my eyes and ears
Noticed a hundred marvels in it
Not including the thousand other attractions
Which I did not comprehend
Since I only understand my own language
And do not understand the Italian one at all;
But I was sitting near others
Who were not of the common people
Of sharp mind and of good birth,
Who demonstrated, through their expressions
And by joyously applauding,
What delighted them so.
Each dance was marvellous,
The music was miraculous,
The theatre was striking
In its rich, inestimable radiance;
The beautiful, airy vault,
covered in embroidered gold that made it shine;
The numerous torches
Made everything seem beautiful;
The pilasters, festoons, and friezes
Were such exquisite objects;
The actors’ diverse talents
Were deemed quite excellent;

Their grace, mutual understanding, and blending
Earned them much praise;
But one was especially praised:
The lovely Signora Anna,
Who played her character well,
And whose song and face
Rivalled to enchant our senses the most,
The song enchanted the ear, and the face, the eyes.
Lastly, I must say:
The ballets and the comédie
Might call themselves
A diversion fit for a King,
But, speaking frankly,
I needed a great deal of patience
Because I, Monsieur Loret,
Was sitting on a rather hard seat,
And had to make do without food or drink
For well over eight hours.

Their grace,
mutual understanding,
and blending
Earned them much praise

Some perspectives on Cavalli’s stay in France and the background of the Parisian Xerse

Michael KLAPER – 2015.08

The traditional view of Cavalli’s stay in France can be summarized as follows: having been asked by the First Minister of France, cardinal Mazarin, in the summer of 1659, to come to Paris to conduct the musical events on the occasion of the wedding of Louis XIV and the Spanish infanta Maria Teresa, Cavalli agreed to do so, only months later, and reluctantly, because of the salary. When he finally arrived in Paris, it was only to witness the complete failure of his operas (Xerse, and Ercole amante) in front of an hostile French public. His disappointment was so great that, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that he was generously rewarded for his service to the king of France, he never again wanted to write operas the rest of his life. On the basis of new research, we will show that all these common assumptions have to be questioned and re-evaluated.

As is clear in letters written by Giovanni Bentivoglio, a great patron of the arts residing in Paris, Cavalli’s journey and the 1660 Parisian performance of Xerse had a longer prehistory. Cavalli had already been contacted for a possible opera commission for Paris in 1655, though this came to nothing (at least partly since he had demanded a considerable sum of money). Cavalli’s fame as an outstanding composer of operas had reached a first apex then, and it is therefore not surprising that the Paris court (and especially, it seems, Queen Anne of Austria) had a great interest in his music, such that in subsequent years Giovanni Bentivoglio frequently asked his brother Annibale, papal nuncio in Florence, to send some of Cavalli’s arias to France (what Annibale eventually did). Since as late as 1658 Giovanni even tried to obtain the complete score of one or more of Cavalli’s operas. Whether this happened with a public performance in mind is unclear, because the private chamber (or ‘concert’) performance of operas, or parts thereof, seems to have been quite common in the mid-seventeenth century. An opera that is explicitly named in this context is Il Ciro, which had been performed in Naples in 1653 with music by Francesco Provenzale and had been revived in Venice in 1654 with newly composed numbers by Cavalli.

Giovanni contacted Cavalli directly in 1659, and could finally announce on November 12 from Saint-Jean-de-Luz (where Mazarin was staying in order to negotiate a peace treaty with Spain) that he had received the score of Cavalli’s Xerse – originally performed in Venice in 1655 – from the composer himself. Therefore, a copy of this opera was available in France even before (and independent of) Cavalli’s trip there, given that Mazarin wrote about Cavalli’s resolution to come to France only four days later, and the composer left on his voyage in April or May 1660 at the earliest.

In the meantime, beginning in the spring of 1659, Mazarin had started the preparations for a wedding opera (Ercole amante), for which he started trying to hire Cavalli in August 1659. Also this time the composer seems to have had high demands, and he refused the commission on August 22 because of his poor health and his duties in Venice. These reasons did not ultimately prevent him from accepting, though it obviously was a question not only of salary, but also of politics, since (as Mazarin had clearly seen from the outset) Cavalli needed the permission of the Republic of Venice to accept. He was granted this permission in April 1660 and it is estimated that he arrived in Paris by June of the same year.

Through letters written by the singer Atto Melani it can be deduced that, in any case, they had started preparations for a performance of Xerse in France. They first planned to have it performed in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, during the winter of 1659/60, and then in Fontainebleau, in the summer of 1660. In February of that year it was already evident that it would be impossible to get Ercole on stage earlier than the following winter (1660/61), while the wedding ceremonies would take place during summer. Plans for a performance of Xerse must have been rather concrete from early on: as Atto writes, there had been rehearsals for this opera, and he knew already in February that he would personify one of the main roles – as he indeed would do for the singer of the second male protagonist, Arsamene – but then no one spoke anymore of it, and the performers forgot their respective parts.

When Atto related these details to his patron Mattias de’ Medici on 10 September 1660, Cavalli had already been in Paris for over a month, although no decision had been made at that point concerning Ercole (such as the assigning of roles to the respective singers) because Mazarin had fallen gravely ill. After his recovery, Mazarin urgently pursued plans for a performance of Xerse, this time in his own palace. Preparations for this opera went on during September and October, to Ercole’s detriment. On October 22, 1660, the plans were concrete once again: on that day one hears for the first time of the intention to erect a temporary stage in the picture gallery of the Louvre, where Xerse would be staged, with at least three performances between November 22 and the beginning of December. For contemporaries, therefore, Xerse was now playing the role of an Ercole substitute during the royal wedding year.

Représentation du mariage de Louis XIV et de Marie Thérèse d'Autriche : [estampe] - Bnf Gallica

Représentation du mariage de Louis XIV et de Marie Thérèse d’Autriche – Bnf Gallica

It is very likely that Cavalli was involved in the final adaptation of Xerse for Paris, and that he directed the performances from the harpsichord (as he was used to doing in Venice). Other duties included, naturally, the composition of the Ercole libretto (which he began, according to Atto Melani, in the autumn of 1660), and most probably the conducting of the performances of this opera in 1662, when a new theatre building in the Tuileries (the Salle des Machines) was finally ready. But tracing his other activities during his two-year stay would be much more difficult.

It is well known that in August 1660 Cavalli met the French organist and composer François Roberday, to whom Cavalli gave a musical subject that was then elaborated and included, as Roberday affirmed, in his publication Fugues, et caprices … (Paris 1660). Therefore, Cavalli was in contact with French musicians other than Lully (who wrote the ballet music for Xerse as well as Ercole) and the singers and instrumentalists who performed his operas. Less well known is the fact that, as Hendrik Schulze has observed, Cavalli was involved in the solemn services following Mazarin’s death, which occurred on March 9, 1661; on March 29, the Gazette relates that there was a pontifical Mass in his honor in the Theatine church Sainte Anne la Royale (the Theatine order had been established in Paris by Mazarin himself in 1644), and this Mass “fut chantée par la Musique Italienne, sous la condüite du Sieur Cavallo.” Similarly, on April 6, a sort of commemorative service was held at the prompting of the “Clercs Réguliers Théatins” in their own church; for this occasion, the pontifical Mass was accompanied “par la Musique du Sieur Cavallo”. Although this suggests that Cavalli wrote religious works, most likely tailored for the occasion, nothing further is known of the music itself.

In the summer of 1662 Cavalli was back in Venice. It is difficult to know how he felt about his stay in France, since no written descriptions remain, with the possible exception of a letter addressed to his librettist Nicolò Minato, on August 8, 1662, concerning the requests made by the impresario Marco Faustini for the following opera season. Faustini obviously insisted on receiving two new operas from the composer, while Cavalli declared that he was only able to provide him with one, after mentioning that he had returned from France with a firm resolution not to write music theatrical works anymore. This has been commonly interpreted as a sign of frustration and disappointment in view of his allegedly bad experiences in France, though it has to be emphazised that the contemporaneous French references to Xerse or Ercole do not say anything particularly bad about the music. So it is possible to interpret Cavalli’s letter to mean that he was extremely fond of his Parisian opera, admired the conditions of courtly opera production there, and therefore regretted being forced to return to Venice and being subjected to the unpredictability of a free opera market once more.

Bibliographical references

  1. J. Williams Brown, « Il ritorno di Cavalli in patria: Francesco Cavalli’s trip to Paris and the composition of Scipione Affricano (Venice, 1664) », I musicisti veneziani e italiani a Parigi (1640-1670). Atti della giornata di studio (Paris, 2014) [http://www.vcbm.it/public/research_attachments/I_musicisti_veneziani_e_italiani_a_Parigi_-_Atti_della_giornata_di_studio.pdf], p. 74-83
  2. A. Fabiano, « Un maestro veneziano alla corte di Luigi XIV. Cadute e ricadute dell’opera di Francesco Cavalli », La cappella musicale di San Marco nell’età moderna. Atti del convegno internazionale di studi Venezia, Palazzo Giustinian Lolin, 5-7 settembre 1994, éd. Francesco Passadore/Franco Rossi, Venice 1998, p. 443-450
  3. D. Fabris, « Relazioni musicali tra Venezia e Parigi da Orfeo a Xerse: il ruolo dei Bentivoglio », I musicisti veneziani e italiani a Parigi (1640-1670). Atti della giornata di studio (Paris, 2014) [http://www.vcbm.it/public/research_attachments/I_musicisti_veneziani_e_italiani_a_Parigi_-_Atti_della_giornata_di_studio.pdf], p. 6-15
  4. B. Glixon, « ‘Poner in musica un’opera’: Cavalli and His Impresari in Mid-Seicento Venice », Francesco Cavalli. La Circolazione dell’Opera Veneziana nel Seicento, ed. Dinko Fabris, Naples 2005 (I Turchini Saggi 2), p. 59-75
  5. S. Mamone, Mattias de’ Medici serenissimo mecenate dei virtuosi. Notizie di spettacolo nei carteggi medicei: Carteggio di Mattias de’ Medici (1629-1667), Florence 2013 (Storia dello spettacolo. Fonti 11)
  6. S. Monaldini, L’Orto dell’Esperidi. Musici, attori e artisti nel patrocinio della famiglia Bentivoglio (1646-1685), Lucca 2000 (ConNotazioni 5)
  7. T. Walker, « Cavalli », The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie, vol. 4, London 1980, pp. 24-34

The rising Sun: Xerse and the King of France

Barbara NESTOLA – 2015.08

Fifteen years after the performance of the first Italian operas at the French court, the revival of Cavalli’s Xerse for the wedding of Louis XIV was an attempt to represent the King of France on the operatic stage. The process of turning a Venetian opera into a courtly one changed the audience’s perception of the character Xerse, converting the exotic (and extravagant) Persian ruler into the King of France. The libretto was revised so as to fit into five acts (instead of three), a new prologue was composed and several scenes were cut. The surviving score shows that the most significant musical changes concerned the vocal range of the title role: Xerse, written for a male contralto in Venice, became a baritone, to enhance the comparison between the character and the King, and probably to avoid the embarrassing situation of a castrato representing the King.

The reviser of the libretto wrote a new prologue recalling the occasion of the revival, the royal wedding, and reorganized the opera into five acts. He omitted most of the comic scenes in which the two pages Elviro and Clito appear. This, too, was a bow to French classical theatre, in which the serious and the comic belonged to separate genres. It is important to note that the substantial reform of the libretto consisted in cutting lines and scenes, instead of adding new material, except for the prologue and a few lines of text. This was probably due to a lack of time, but it also confirms that the Xerse libretto already met the reprisal’s needs in its original forme.

One might wonder why Cavalli and Minato’s Xerse would be chosen, a work that premiered in Venice in 1654. Among Cavalli’s earlier operas, Egisto (1643) or Giasone (1649) had proved very popular, receiving successful revivals, and could thus have been chosen. I argue that Xerse meets practical, aesthetical and political expectations better than Cavalli’s other works.

Among the leading roles of Cavalli’s previous operas, Giasone would not fit the requirements, as he is depicted as an effeminate and decadent hero. Nor could Egisto represent Louis XIV, as his madness would not appropriately reflect on the King. Xerse, on the other hand, although exotic and extravagant, somewhat resembled the young King.

The Venetian version of Xerse was not conceived as an opera a chiave. Composed for a public theatre, the Santi Giovanni e Paolo, it was dedicated to marchese Cornelio Bentivoglio, a nobleman from Ferrara. Its originality came from the fact that it brought historical characters from the exotic Middle East to the stage. When we look at the plot of Xerse, we see a triumphant king who accumulates military victories, and yet obstinately pursues the wrong woman (Romilda, his brother’s fiancée) instead of recognizing his legitimate fiancée, Amastre. Armaste was the daughter of a king, and when he was younger, Xerse had actually promised to marry her; but after meeting Romilda, he forgot about duty. However, at the end of the opera, Xerse recognizes his mistake and marries Amastre. The opera was capably transformed into a political document.

It is well established that the royal wedding did not prevent the King from having love affairs and mistresses. Before marrying Maria Theresa of Spain, the young Louis XIV was in love with Maria Mancini, one of Mazarin’s nieces, who left France in 1661 to marry Lorenzo Onofrio Colonna. Despite the fact that Maria was a member of his family, the prime minister was shocked at the idea that the King of France might choose a woman of lower rank who was incapable of offering any further political strength to either him or the King

Xerse’s libretto reminds us at several points that Romilda, the woman Xerse is in love with, is not noble enough for a king: “A un re non lice/ erger al trono chi non è regina” (Arsamene, I, 3); “Xerse però dovrebbe/ sposa di regio sangue, e non vassalla,/ sceglier delle sue nozze al sommo onore.” (Elviro, III, 1); even Ariodate, Romilda’s father, a general of Xerse’s army, declares his astonishment when Xerse tells him that his daughter will marry someone “della stirpe di Xerse, a Xerse eguale”: “Così arditi fantasmi/ nel pensier non ammetto” (II, 2); “No, figlia, no; il pensier troppo alto sale:/ altra cosa è l’istesso, altra l’eguale.” (II, 9).

Desperate to win back Xerse’s love, his fiancée Amastre, disguised as a soldier, arrives in his palace, accompanied by her faithful servant Aristone. The royal origin of Amastre is constantly mentioned, as Aristone always refers to her as “prencipessa,” and in some cases comes dangerously close to revealing her true identity, like in III, 8: “Andiamo, prencipessa./ Ahimé, che dissi”.

Romilda and Amastre therefore resembled Maria Mancini and Maria Theresa of Spain. Xerse’s role, on the contrary, needed to be modified. The most striking change concerns his vocal range: originally written for alto voice (male castrato), the role was transposed for baritone, one octave lower. This was not only due to aesthetic reasons (so as to avoid having a castrato perform the title role of an opera given at the French court, for the royal wedding) but also to the intention of identifying Xerse with the young Louis XIV. Cavalli’s Ercole amante is also written for a baritone, as are the main male characters of Lully’s first operas, Cadmus et Hermione (1673) and Alceste ou Le Triomphe d’Alcide (1674). In all these works, the leading roles are intentionally and openly identified with Louis XIV himself. This supports the argument that Xerse introduced the practice of associating the low male voice with the figure of the King.

The Parisian revival also downplayed Xerse’s extravagant behaviour, which Minato derived from Herodotus’ account. According to the latter’s report, the Persian king was impressed by the beauty of a tree. The first scene of Act I shows him pleasantly talking to the tree and singing the well-known aria “Ombra mai fu”. But the second scene was cut out; in it, two sorcerers join him for a magic ceremony meant to protect the beloved tree while Xerse was away to fight. The scene might have been considered too esoteric, but it is also possible that they wanted to avoid speaking about war at the French court after years of political instability and struggle. More broadly, all the references to fights and battles were omitted, including the training of Xerse’s army (I, 14), the fight with the Ethiopians (I, 20), and the burning of the ships on the Hellespont (II, 8). The only exceptions are military victories, like the return of Ariodate announcing the defeat of the Moors, which was kept (I, 11 in the Venice version; II, 1 in the Paris version). In the subsequent scene, Xerse expresses his gratitude to his faithful general, who probably represented Mazarin. More generally, deprived of concrete references to the historical context, the plot focuses on the obstinate love Xerse has for Romilda, until the final admission of Xerse’s fault (V, ultima): “Torno: ma so che indegno,/ bella, son di perdono e di pietade.” These lines are followed by Amastre’s forgivesness and her recognition as Xerse’s legitimate bride-to-be: “Amastre è questa, mio rinato foco,/ mia sposa, mia regina.” The opera ends with the celebration of both the royal couple and the second couple, Romilda and Arsamene.

Why were the King’s love affairs at the core of an opera intended to celebrate his marriage? To find the answer we should also study Cavalli’s second opera, Ercole amante, whose libretto was specifically written by Buti for the royal wedding. It also tells the story of an unreasonable passion – that of Ercole for Jole, his son’s fiancée. Moreover, Ercole is already married to Dejanira, which makes his position even more complex. At the end of the opera, Ercole dies and becomes immortal through an apotheosis, the only way to freed from earthly passions. Then, symbolically, he marries Beauty. In this case, Jole is to be associated with Louise de La Vallière, the King’s new mistress. Although Mazarin had died in the meantime (1661), the message was still eloquent: political power should in any case not be compromised by the King’s unreasonable behaviour.

To rule the country and guarantee its welfare, the King had to overcome his personal affairs and act like a responsible monarch. Symbolically, the extravagant though ultimately discerning Xerse projected the image of a politically strong king who was able to recognize his faults, and was therefore wise and responsible.

Bibliographical references

  1. M. Klaper, « Vom Drama per musica zur Comédie en musique: Die Pariser Adaption der Oper Xerse (Minato/Cavalli)  », Acta musicologica 77 (2005), p. 229-256
  2. B. Nestola, « Quelle Italie pour la scène lyrique française ? Adaptation et influence du répertoire d’opéras italiens à la cour (1645-1662) », communication non publiée (Versailles, 2011)
  3. B. Nestola, « Cavalli’s Ercole amante, the first tragédie en musique? », Readying Cavalli’s Operas for the Stage. Manuscript, Edition, Production, éd. Ellen Rosand, Ashgate, 2013, p. 353-373
  4. B. Nestola, « From Public Stage to Private Court: The Representation of the King in the Parisian Version of Minato/Cavalli’s Xerse (1660) », communication non publiée (Philadelphia, 2014)
  5. D. Restani, « Le fonti classiche per Orfeo e Ercole amante», Francesco Buti tra Roma e Parigi: diplomazia, poesia, teatro, Atti del convegno internazionale di studi, Parma, 12-15 dicembre 2007, éd. F. Luisi, Roma, Torre d’Orfeo, 2010, Vol. II, p. 457-469.

A king among kings: Xerse and the Louvre’s Galerie haute

Barbara Nestola – 2015.08

In 1660, the Sun had not yet risen over the French court. France had fought wars without interruption the first half of the century, and the events of the Fronde (1648-1653) belonged to a recent past. Nevertheless, thanks to Mazarin’s diplomatic skills and negotiations, the Thirty Years’ War ended in 1659. The Treaty of the Pyrenees, which sealed the peace deal between France and Spain, led to the wedding of Louis XIV with the Infanta Maria Theresa of Spain. This achievement gave the young King remarkable stability and a diplomatic advantage.

The 1660’s were crucial for the “fabrication” of Louis XIV, to quote Peter Burke’s well-known expression. After Mazarin’s death in 1661, a triumvirate formed by Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Jean Chapelain and Charles Le Brun worked actively to mould the image of the King, a process that led to, among other things, the identification of the young monarch with the Sun god. In 1660, however, the shadow of the prime minister was still perceptible in every court ceremony concerning the King. For instance, on August 22, 1660, the King and Queen made a royal entrance into Paris, in a ceremony orchestrated by Mazarin, in which the cardinal openly praised his own diplomatic efforts.

Opera performances were also part of Mazarin’s effort to influence the taste of the court towards the new theatrical genre from Italy. When the King was only nine, in 1647, the court saw a performance of Buti and Rossi’s Orfeo. After the Fronde, in 1654, it was the turn of Buti and Caproli’s Le Nozze di Peleo e di Teti. The royal wedding also called for suitable entertainment, and this time Mazarin invited the renowned Francesco Cavalli from Venice. Mazarin planned to build a theatre equipped with machinery in the Tuileries Palace specifically to stage the new opera commissioned for the celebrations, Ercole amante. However, the project took longer than he expected, and as a consequence he decided that in the meantime Xerse, an earlier opera by Cavalli opportunely revised for the occasion, would be produced. In order to please the French audience, Mazarin knew that dance should be incoroporated into operas, and so the young Jean-Baptiste Lully, at this time not yet first royal composer, was asked to write the incidental dance music for both Xerse and Ercole amante.

Beyond aesthetical reasons (see the previous article, “Raising Sun”), practical reasons probably influenced the choice of this work. The ephemeral theatre in the Galerie haute at the Louvre did not allow set changes and the use of machinery, as there were no flat wings, no flies, and no traps. This meant that underworld or supernatural scenes (like those in Giasone or Egisto) would be impossible to stage. The action of Xerse does not call for the use of machines and mainly takes place in a royal palace. Appropriate cuts could easily remove references to other locations and establish the unity of place, a fundamental rule of French classical theatre. Lack of time also had an impact on the performance of the work: given the limited possibilities of the ephemeral theatre, the opera was produced in a semi-staged version. Tapestries were used instead of sets, but we know from contemporary accounts that the costumes were sumptuous and attracted the attention of the audience.

Aesthetics played a role in shaping the opera’s main character. One of the aims of the revival was to identify the King with the hero, emphasising the connection between his marriage and his recent increase of political power.

To better understand the meaning of the Parisian version of Xerse, we also have to consider the place where it was staged. As previously noted, the performance took place at the Galerie haute in the Louvre. Today, this place is called Galerie d’Apollon, whose walls and ceiling are graced with Lebrun’s well-known paintings. In 1660, the decoration was completely different. A fire destroyed the gallery a few months after Xerse, in 1661, during the representations of L’Impatience, a ballet de cour by Isaac de Benserade and Jean-Baptiste Lully. The ballet was performed in an ephemeral theatre, probably the same one on which Xerse had been staged, while Cavalli was still working to complete Ercole amante.

The Galerie haute was programmatically devoted to French monarchy. It occupied the first floor of the Petite Galerie, which connected the main building of the Louvre to the Grande Galerie:

  • Before-Vue du palais du Louvre XVIIe siècle
    After-Vue du palais du Louvre XVIIe siècle
    BeforeVue du palais du Louvre XVIIe siècleAfter

Beginning in 1652, the young King, who was just back to Paris after the Fronde, wanted to make some changes. According to Colbert, he found that the apartments were “not worthy of the king’s majesty”. In order to enhance the grandeur of those places, the architects started working around the Petite Galerie. Historically, the only access to the gallery was from the North and from the King’s apartment, which actually lacked significant space. Louis Le Vau, first architect at the court, suggested a substantial renovation: the construction of the Oval Salon, which functioned as a frame for the King’s official entries. Between the Oval Salon and the King’s apartment, Le Vau built the Grand Cabinet, a salon where the King used to receive the ambassadors. This way, the King could easily move from a private to a public space. In 1654, Queen Anna of Austria, Louis XIV’s mother, decided to establish her summer apartment at the ground floor of the gallery. These transformations totally changed the gallery: from its former state as an isolated building, it became the core of the Royal palace in just a few years time, and was occupied by the King and his mother.

Dubreuil Toussaint Un Prince 2

Dubreuil Toussaint, Un Prince

The decoration of the Galerie haute is also important if we are to understand its political weight. Unfortunately, there is no extant iconography, with the exception of a few sketches. However, contemporary accounts provide significant information about it. The decorating was begun around 1605, at the instigation of Henri IV. He was the first king of a new dynasty, the Bourbons, succeeding the previous one, the Valois, and it was crucial, to grant political stability to the kingdom, to establish a continuity between the two. The vault was devoted to mythological and religious subjects (Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Old Testament), and it also represented Henri IV surrounded by his court. Even more significant were the walls. They were decorated with the portraits of the kings and queens of France (starting from St. Louis), along with princes, princesses, noblemen and noble ladies. Fourteen full-size portraits of kings dressed according to their era hung on the West side of the gallery, facing fourteen portraits of queens on the East side. Princes and noblemen of smaller size completed the decoration on the kings’ side, while princesses and noble ladies were on the queens’ side.

Under the watchful eye of his ancestors, and under his court’s real gaze, Louis XIV legitimately joined the kings of the Galerie haute. The path to immortality was about to be written.

Bibliographical references

  1. G. Bresc-Bautier (éd.), La galerie d’Apollon au palais du Louvre, Paris, Gallimard, 2004
  2. P. Burke, The Fabrication of Louis XIV, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1992
  3. C.-P. de Chennevières-Pointel, Notice historique et descriptive sur la galerie d’Apollon au Louvre, Paris, Pillet fils, 1851
  4. B. Nestola, « Cavalli’s Ercole amante, the first tragédie en musique? », Readying Cavalli’s Operas for the Stage. Manuscript, Edition, Production, éd. Ellen Rosand, Ashgate, 2013, p. 353-373
  5. B. Nestola, « From Public Stage to Private Court: The Representation of the King in the Parisian Version of Minato/Cavalli’s Xerse (1660) », communication non publiée (Philadelphia, 2014)

From Herodotus to Minato’s ‘dramma per musica’: ‘Xerse’’s Thousand Years

Sara Elisa Stangalino – 2015.08

 The story of Minato’s Xerse can be summarized thus: the king of Persia attempts to conquer a noble girl, Romilda. The story takes place in Abydos, on the Asian shore of the Hellespont. Both Xerse and his brother Arsamene love Romilda, who loves Arsamene in return but cannot openly reject the king’s courtship. However, Arsamene is also being courted by Adelanta, Romilda’s sister, who seeks to squelch Romilda’s penchant for Arsamene, in the hope she might give in to the lure of Xerse and forget Arsamene. After suffering a series of hardships, Romilda refuses the crown of Persia, Xerse acknowledges that the two lovers’ bond has won out, and he takes Amastre as his bride; she is the princess of Susia and, having been betrothed to him, landed in Abydos in disguise in a (successful) attempt to win back the king’s love.

The source given at the bottom of the “argomento” is Herodotus, Historiae, VII. Minato was inspired by Herodotus to create the setting – the Persian expedition against Hellas – as well as some of the most spectacular episodes of the opera, i.e. “scene della meraviglia” (scenes of wonder). But we know that in designing the plot Minato did not look so much to ancient sources as to contemporary theatrical sources.

In a 1992 article, Luigi Cataldi identified the source of Minato’s Xerse as a play written by Lope de Vega, the great playwright of the siglo de oro: Lo cierto por lo dudoso (1625). At the heart of Lope’s comedia is a bloody historical event involving Pedro I, king of Castile and León, called “Pedro the Cruel” (born in 1334, he reigned from 1350 to 1369) and remembered for the battles he waged against the kingdom of Aragon and as a participant in the Hundred Years’ War. Pedro had a bloody rivalry with his slightly older half-brother Enrique de Trastámara (1332-1379). Enrique was the illegitimate child of the same father (Alfonso XI of Castile) and supported by the House of Aragon and the kingdom of France. He rebelled against the crown and conquered almost all of Castile. Pedro was taken prisoner and attempted in vain to escape: Enrique killed him and took the throne of Castile under the name of Enrique II. But the story told by Lope in Lo cierto por lo dudoso refers to events of an essentially erotic nature, taking place when the two half-brothers were still teenagers.

The plot of Lope’s comedia coincides perfectly with that of Xerse: Juana and Enrique are secretly engaged and the king is in love with Juana, while her cousin, Inés, also yearns for Enrique. After a series of intrigues, the two lovers are united in marriage by the master of the house, the Governor, who has misunderstood an order given by the king. Humiliated by the turn of events, Pedro finally gives in and blesses the wedding.

The constellation of characters shows that the roles in the two plots coincide (scheme 1). The Xerse characters are in read and the Lo cierto characters are in blue. Orientation arrows show the relationships between the characters: the double-headed arrow indicates the mutual attraction between Arsamene/Enrique and Romilda/Juana, the single-headed arrow highlights the attraction of Xerse/Pedro for Romilda/Juana, and of Adelanta/Inés for Arsamene/Enrique, etc. Straight lines indicate parental relationships. The cross on the name of Amastre, Teodora, and Maestre de Santiago indicates that the core themes concerning these characters do not have any equivalent in the other drama: whereas Maestre de Santiago (Pedro’s minor brother in Lo cierto) and Teodora (Enrique’s episodic lover) do not appear in Minato’s opera, Lo cierto vice versa does not contain the core theme concerning Amastre, which is however crucial to Xerse because it provides the king with a bride at the end of the drama.

Scheme 1. Constellation of characters in Xerse and in Lo cierto por lo dudoso

Schéma 1 : Constellation des personnages dans Xerse et dans Lo cierto por lo dudoso

This is enough to suspect that Lo Cierto was not in fact the direct source of Minato’s drama. In fact, Raffaele Tauro has an important role here. Tauro was a playwright who enjoyed a certain success in the mid-seventeenth century, especially as translator of Spanish plays. In Naples in 1651, Raffaele Tauro issued Lingelosite speranze, a translation and adaptation of Lo cierto por lo dudoso, which ended up being Xerse’s direct source, providing in fact the missing link between Lope and Minato. In his version, Tauro enriches the comedia with elements interpolated ex novo: he takes the plot from Lope but complicates it, and he intervenes with cuts, additions, and structural changes (merging many scenes and adding monologues).

Minato takes all the material provided by Tauro and puts it into verse, re-contextualizes the play from Spain to Persia, from the late Middle Ages to the fifth century B.C., and changes the names of the characters, albeit not their mutual functions. The model is, by all means, the same as the one already observed in Xerse and therefore in Lo cierto (scheme 2).

Schéma 2 : Constellation des personnages dans L’ingelosite speranze

Schéma 2 : Constellation des personnages dans L’ingelosite speranze

Tauro cuts the sequences related to Lope’s Teodora, an ephemeral flame courted by Enrique, which in fact does not appear in Xerse. But the clearest proof of the derivation from Tauro to Minato is provided by the addition, interwoven from the beginning of the second of five acts, of a subsidiary plot centred on the character of Carlotta (Amastre in Xerse), a princess, daughter to the king of Aragon (king of Susia in Xerse), betrothed to king Pietro (Xerse in Xerse), who leaves her country in disguise to pursue her beloved.

This addition is completely anachronistic and fanciful: the conjunction of the royal houses of Castile and Aragon would take place only a century later, with the marriage of Isabela and Hernán in 1469. It greatly complicates the main plot and ensures the happy ending by offering a way out to the dilemma created when a sovereign’s pride is compromised because of a matrimonial affair with a mere vassal (i.e. Isabella/Romilda).

So Tauro ends up celebrating a triple wedding: Pietro of Castile marries the princess of Aragon, Enrico marries Isabella, and the sister of the bride agrees to marry the second brother of the king, Gran Maestro di S. Giacomo. It therefore follows the theatrical rule that if a good end of a comedy involves the marriage of the main couple (or couples), any surplus lady shall marry the men left to equalize the amounts.

The onomastic correspondences are also very interesting: Tauro takes the names of king Pietro and of Maestro di S. Giacomo from Lope’s comedia. Juana and Inés in L’ingelosite speranze become respectively Isabella and Teodora. The family relationship changes as well: cousins in Lope’s comedia, the two girls are sisters in L’ingelosite speranze; Tauro thus tightens the consanguineous relationship between the two rivals ladies, and makes it symmetrical to that of the two masculine half-brothers.

Tauro recasts the role of the gracioso Ramiro, Enrique’s servant, calling him Loredano: he not only speaks in Neapolitan dialect – the use of dialect ensures that sort of “comic complicity” which is vital for a food coordination between stage and pit in urban theatre – but also performs the entire repertoire of tics and gags typical for Southern servant characters.

Minato masculinizes the name of Elvira, the maid of Juana/Isabella, and he changes her master: Elviro is indeed the servant of Arsamene.

And finally Adelanta, in Xerse, derives her name from Tauro’s Adelantado, the father of the two girls, identified not by a Christian name but by a Spanish title.

At this point we must ask: if L’ingelosite speranze is the direct source of Xerse, and if Minato strictly follows Tauro, why did Minato call Herodotus into question?

The answer lies in a tacit rule of operatic poetics: mid-seventeenth century Venetian opera did not allow for modern or medieval historical subjects. Instead, it required the setting to seem distant in both time and space. Minato may have realized that the subject of L’ingelosite speranze provided an intrinsic affinity with a story thematised by Herodotus in book IX of the Historiae, the outrageous rivalry between Xerse and his half-brother Masistes: the lecherous and violent Persian tyrant did not refrain from raping his brother’s wife and daughter.

On the other hand, Minato found two episodes in Herodotus, book VII, that were quite effective from a spectacular point of view although they did not impact the plot in any real way, which highlight the bizarre nature of the monarch. At the outset of the drama Xerse falls in love with a majestic plane tree on the coast of Asia Minor (Xerse, I,1). Secondly Xerse challenges the gods by throwing a bold pontoon bridge between the shores of Asia and Europe; outraged Nature takes revenge by destroying it in a storm (II,11). And the protagonist of Xerse, like that of Lope’s Lo cierto and Tauro’s Ingelosite speranze, should indeed be a bizarre sovereign, given that he is expected to fall in love instantly with his half-brother’s love merely by listening to her singing off-scene!

Minato also derives the names of Amastre and Arsamene from ancient sources: in Herodotus, Amestri is the wife of Xerse, whom the sovereign promptly betrays; while his brother Masistes, whom Xerse humbles in love, is called Ariamenes in Justinus’ Historiae Philippicae. But an Arsamene, son of Dario, also appears in the same text of Herodotus (Historiae, book VII, chapter 5).

In the last act of L’ingelosite speranze, Tauro lists the great tyrants of Anquity, mentioning among others the Persian leader Xerse: “Gran spavento recò Serse circondato da infinito numero di soldati…” (“Great fear caused Xerse, surrounded by an infinite number of soldiers…”). In these particular lines, Minato might have been reminded of the ninth book of Herodotus’ Historiae, which he must have known through Matteo Maria Boiardo’s fifteenth-century translation, which reports at length the terrible erotic rivalry between Xerse and his half-brother Masistes. It is not at all unlikely that this grim tale of incestuous lust and fratricidal jealousy offered a welcome cultural framework for transforming the late medieval subject of Lo cierto por lo dudoso and of its Italian translation by Tauro into a proper “dramma per musica”, taking place in the ancient world.

Bibliographical references

  1. L. Basalisco, « L’Ingelosite speranze del Tauro e Lo cierto por lo dudoso di Lope de Vega », Quaderni di lingue e letterature, XII, 1987, p. 109-116
  2. L. Bianconi, « Serse uno e trino», Serse, ed. by S. Camerini, Bologna, Nuova AlfaEditoriale, 1994, p. 15-30 (Teatro Comunale di Bologna, 1994-95)
  3. L. Bianconi, S. E. Stangalino, A. Vinciguerra, S. Vuelta García, Lope, Tauro, Minato: dalla ‘comedia’ alla commedia al dramma (Kassel, Reichenberger, forthcoming)
  4. L. Cataldi, « Lo cierto por lo dudoso trasformato in Xerse », Studi urbinati, LXV, 1992, p. 309-333
  5. M. Curnis, « Les héros de l’Orient dans l’opéra baroque à Venise: le cas de Xerxès », Théâtre et Drame musical, V, 2005, p. 11-26
  6. C. Marchante Moralejo, Traducciones, adaptacianes, scenari de las comedias de Lope de Vega en Italia en el siglo XVII, Madrid, Fundación Universitaria Española, 2007
  7. R. Martinelli, « Notizie su Raffaele Tauro », Studi bitontini, XXX-XXXI, 1980, p. 136-141
  8. R. Martinelli, « Il problema delle rielaborazioni italiane del teatro del Siglo de Oro: il caso de La falsa astrologia di R. Tauro », Studi bitontini, XXXIV-XXXVI, 1981-1982, p. 5-28
  9. H.S. Powers, « Il Serse trasformato», The Musical Quarterly, XLVII, 1961, p. 481-492, trad. in La drammaturgia musicale, ed. L. Bianconi, Bologna, il Mulino, 1986, p. 229-241
  10. M. G. Profeti, Commedie, riscritture, libretti: la Spagna e l’Europa, Firenze, Alinea, 2009
  11. G. Spallone, « Un Clarín che suona a Carnevale (ma non è di Calderón) », Scrittura e riscrittura. Atti del Convegno di Roma, 12 novembre 1993, Roma, Bulzoni, 1995, p. 103-114
  12. S. E. Stangalino, « Eruditioni per li cortigiani di Nicolò Minato: genesi e incidenza di un trattato », Studi secenteschi, LV, 2014, p. 183-197
  13. A. Tedesco, « “Scrivere a gusti del popolo”: l’Arte nuevo di Lope de Vega nell’Italia del Seicento », Il Saggiatore musicale, XIII, 2006, p. 221-245
  14. A. Tedesco, « Teatro del Siglo de Oro y ópera italiana del Seiscientos: un balance », Criticón, CXVI, 2012, p. 113-135


  1. Herodoto Alicarnaseo Historico delle guerre de’ Greci et de’ Persi, tradotto di greco in lingua italiana per il conte Mattheo Maria Boiardo, non più stampato ma nuovamente venuto in luce, Venezia, Giovann’Antonio di Nicolini di Sabbio a instantia di m. Marchio Sessa, 1533
  2. N. Minato, Xerse, drama per musica nel Teatro a SS. Gio. e Paolo, per l’anno m.dc.liv., dedicato all’Illustrissimo, & Eccellentissimo Signor Marchese Cornelio Bentivoglio. Venezia, m.dc.liv, per Matteo Leni. Con licenza, e privilegio

Dramaturgical and musical aspects of the Parisian version of Xerse

Michael KLAPER – 2015.08

When it was finally decided, in autumn 1660, that Xerse should be performed on a temporary stage near the royal chambers in the Louvre, Cavalli’s Venetian opera from 1655 underwent a series of major and minor changes. These changes are documented mainly in two sources: a scenario that would have been printed shortly before the performances, and a score copied in 1695 by Fossard (music librarian to Louis XIV), who most certainly relied on older materials once present in France. By comparing these sources with the Italian transmission of Xerse, it becomes clear that the Parisian version was principally based on the Venetian one – and this comes as no surprise, given that since the end of 1659 a copy of the score authorized by Cavalli himself was available in France – though in some respects the Parisian version also reflects changes that had occurred in revivals of the opera in other Italian cities. Many of the revisions specific to the Parisian Xerse can be interpreted as reflections of a typically “French” cultural background, while others are more difficult to explain. At any rate, they resulted in a fundamentally new dramaturgical and musical structure, the main outlines of which will be described and explored in the following.

The original Xerse was in three acts and therein corresponded to the standards of the Venetian “dramma per musica” that were in place in the mid-seventeenth century. In its Parisian version, the scenes were reconfigured into five acts, and although this could seem of only minor importance, it was nevertheless a significant contribution to the French acculturation of the opera. One result was that there were more opportunities to integrate ballet entries (these being composed by Jean-Baptiste Lully), since they were all placed at the end of acts, and the ballet was the most important French music theatrical art form of the time. But the five-act structure was also a means of assimilating the opera to the current dramaturgical customs and poetic reflections in France (where the opera art form had not gained a firm foothold yet): the currents of so-called French ‘classicism’ were orientated towards strict dramatic rules (allegedly based in ancient Greece and Roman theatre) to which belonged formal matters such as the division of theatrical pieces into acts. From this point of view, five acts had a greater dignity than three and only that division was appropriate for the representation of a royal subject (as it was the case with the story of the Persian king Xerse). One has only to remember that the Abbé d’Aubignac, in his Pratique du théâtre (1657), reproached the Italians for “la manière dont ils les [i. e. their theatrical pieces] composent ordinairement en trois Actes”, thus deviating from the “conduite des Anciens”.

To French classicizing poetics belonged, moreover, the rules of the unities (of time, place, and action) and the axiom of “vraisemblance”, or versimilitude. In the case of Xerse, the unity of time had already been observed by Nicolò Minato in his Venetian libretto (since the action takes place within just one day), and the unity of place was respected, in the Paris version, in so far as there was only one setting (because of the unchangeability of the ephemeral stage). Unity of action was another matter, though: like many other contemporary Italian operas, the Venetian Xerse contained a separate action in the servants’ sphere, of a comic nature, resulting in a mixture of (tragic and comedic) genres. In the eyes of the French, this was unacceptable, as is once again attested to by d’Aubignac, who writes that “leurs [the Italians’] Sujets sont toujours mêlés d’aventures sérieuses, et de bouffonnes; de personnes Héroiques, et de fripons”. It is not astonishing, therefore, that in the Parisian Xerse, entire scenes are deleted, and the independent action of the servants disappears completely.

There is still one other major change in the Parisian score of Xerse that most likely has to be seen in the context of contemporaneous French theatrical culture: while the protagonist’s role originally had been sung by a castrato in the contralto register, it was transposed one octave down (into the bass-bariton register) in Paris. Of course, castrato singers were generally not held in high esteem in France during the Ancien Régime. Nevertheless, the second male protagonist of Xerse, the king’s brother Arsamene, was interpreted in Paris by the castrato Atto Melani, so that a more discriminating explanation has to be found for the change in the role of the Persian king himself. In fact, Xerse was seen as the personification of the king of France, Louis XIV. In order to make that acceptable for a French audience, the category of “vraisemblance” could not be neglected, and, according to d’Aubignac, that meant that “quand un Roi parle sur la Scène, il faut qu’il parle en Roi”. Most likely, d’Aubignac was thinking of linguistic devices as well as of matters of content and behaviour, and so this remark can perhaps be applied metaphorically to voice register in an opera as well: it would have been ‘invraisemblable’ to see and hear a symbolic representation of the king speaking with an ‘effeminate’ voice.

As has been said before, there are other changes observable in the Parisian Xerse that can not be so easily interpreted: some scenes might have been cancelled simply because they could not be staged without machinery, others because they were not essential to the understanding of the drama, which seems even more likely since a general tendency of the Parisian revision was to shorten the opera. This tendency is particularly understandable against the background of the decision to combine the opera with numerous and lengthy ballets. Also second strophes of arias, ritornelli, and sinfonie were left out in many cases, though on the other hand, we must add that some arias (and even ritornelli, and recitative sections) have been added for Paris. We can also observe some general tendencies from a musical point of view, such as the cancellation (and/or texting) of long melismas. This seems to be another consequence of the French reception context, since certain types of coloraturas were regarded by the French as exaggerated and ridiculous, as ‘excesses’ of the Italian musical style. While melismas normally pertain to arias, it is nonetheless clear that the recitative sections of Xerse have also been rewritten for its Parisian performances, and there is one aspect of this recomposition that has been neglected until now.

Whereas the melodic lines and harmonic flow of the recitatives have only seldom been altered, their rhythm, on the other hand, is changed very often. As Martha Novak Clinkscale has remarked, the rhythms for Paris are often faster, the overall result being that of a ‘telescoping of recitative rhythm’. But there are other passages in which the recitative has on the contrary been slowed down, so that there must be another additional reason for the changes.

One of the reforms made by the Venetian librettists around 1650, including Xerse’s librettist (Minato), was a dialogical structure that favoured short statements that succeeded each other rapidly, and broke down long verse lines in an explosion of alternating questions and responses, as in the following example:

Amastre : E veder Xerse?
Aristone :                               Non si deve.
Amastre :                                                     Io voglio
Aristone :                       Eh no, signora.
Amastre :                                                 O Dio, perché?
Aristone : Saremo conosciuti.
Amastre :                                   Eh certo, no.

Interestingly, Cavalli very often composed such passages so that they not only follow each other quickly, but also overlap – and the characters, thus, interrupt each other. This is very much in line with the new Venetian opera aesthetics in the 1650’s, one that relies partly on the wit and speed with which the action unfolds on stage. But it is precisely this overlapping of speech parts that seems to have been centrally important, among other elements, to the reconfiguring of recitative for the Parisian Xerse, since it has completely disappeared from the score in question. The changes of recitative rhythm (sometimes accelerating, sometimes slowing down) have at least partly been determined by this attitude of avoiding the effect of “everyone talking at once”. Why this has been rather consequently pursued is an matter open to debate. Did they want to make it easier for a non-Italian audience to follow the operatic dialogue? Was it simply regarded as impolite in a court society to interrupt another person’s speech? In any case, the possibility of “everyone talking at once” was proper to music drama, not to spoken drama. So in the end, it appears that the specific traits of the Parisian Xerse are not only due to “French” ingredients added to an Italian opera, but also to a generic rapprochement with the contemporary spoken theatre.

Bibliographical references

  1. R. Bray, La formation de la doctrine classique en France, Paris 1963
  2. M. Novak Clinkscale, Pier Francesco Cavalli’s Xerse, PhD, The University of Minnesota, 1970
  3. Abbé F.H. D’Aubignac, La pratique du théâtre, éd. Hélène Baby, Paris 2001 (Sources classiques 26)
  4. A. Della Corte (éd.), Drammi per musica dal Rinuccini allo Zeno, Vol. 1, Torino 21978
  5. M. Klaper, « Vom Drama per musica zur Comédie en musique: Die Pariser Adaption der Oper Xerse (Minato/Cavalli) », Acta musicologica 77 (2005), p. 229-256
  6. B. Nestola, « From Public Stage to Private Court: The Representation of the King in the Parisian Version of Minato/Cavalli’s Xerse (1660) », communication non publiée (Philadelphia 2014)

Sung words, from Venice to Paris

studio CLASSIQUENEWS.COM – 2015.07

A performance practice workshop focused on the recitative in French and Italian seventeenth-century opera

Centre de musique baroque de Versailles, July 6-11, 2015

From Venice to Paris: The History of Xerse as Told by its Manuscript Score

Hendrik SCHULZE – 2015.08

The Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice possesses a manuscript score of the opera Xerse that once belonged to the composer Francesco Cavalli himself.1. Bound in leather, and containing almost 400 pages of music in landscape format, this score was used for several productions of the opera in Italy, from its 1655 premiere in Venice leading up to the 1660 performance in Paris. It thus provides us with unique insights into Cavalli’s workshop. This is the history of the opera Xerse as evidenced by a prime witness, Cavalli’s manuscript score.

At some time early in 1654, members of the Venetian Grimani family, who ran the Teatro a SS. Giovanni e Paolo in Venice must have concluded a contract with Cavalli for the production of next Carnival’s opera in that theater. It is not quite clear how the subject of the opera was determined or the librettist, the Venetian advocate Nicolò Minato, was chosen, but by late summer 1654 both librettist and composer must have been working on the opera that became Xerse. Since it usually took some months for the composer to write an entire opera, it is very likely that Cavalli started composing his music before the libretto was fully finished. Some of his compositional score survives with the Venetian score: the beginning of the first act, very likely the very first music that was written for the opera. It has a somewhat unfinished appearance, and bears quite visible marks of having been thoroughly revised soon after, most likely after the libretto had been finished (as was customary for Cavalli). This revision was clearly intended to create more fully formed musical representations of the opera’s different characters, especially concerning the individual affects they display.

If this first revision indeed took place after the libretto was finished, we have the first firm date, for Minato wrote on 14 November 1654 in a letter to the libretto’s dedicatee, the Ferrarese nobleman Marchese Cornelio Bentivoglio, that the libretto was now finished.2.It is very likely that Cavalli was only a few days behind Minato in finishing his composition, and then took another few days to revise it. After these revisions, the composition score was copied for parts for the singers and continuo players. Singers only received those excerpts from the opera in which they actually sang, but continuo players received copies of the whole score. In fact, our extant Venetian score largely consists of such a fair copy, used by a continuo player (most likely the second harpsichordist) during rehearsals and the Venetian performance run. It contains some small corrections and insertions to the continuo line, all obviously calculated to help with continuo performance. The sung text however was not initially fully transcribed into this score, it appeared only at the beginnings of sections to help the continuo player to follow along. More words were inserted by the continuo player himself, most likely during rehearsals.

When the opera was premiered on 12 January 1655 (according to the dating of the printed version of the libretto, which served as a kind of program note), it had been slightly cut; a few sections of recitative had been deemed unnecessary during the rehearsal process (and duly crossed out in our score). The premiere must have been a huge success, leading to a performance run that very likely lasted up to the end of Carnival, 10 February 1655, giving the opera perhaps as many as 20 performances. Cavalli must have collected performers’ parts after the end of the performance run, for when Cornelio Bentivoglio asked for a copy of the score in September 1655, he was told that nobody but Cavalli owned one3.By this time, efforts were likely underway to stage Xerse in Genoa early the following year. Our score was brought together in order to help with these preparations. Somehow, large parts of Cavalli’s composition score must have been deemed unusable, and they were replaced with the continuo player’s part. Somebody (we do not know who) was tasked with inserting the missing words, and then a copy was made that was sent to Genoa for the 1656 production there (apparently, Cavalli was not further involved with that production). Meanwhile, Cavalli shelved our score for some unspecified future use.

I-Vnm 1

Francesco Cavalli, Xerse, manuscrit autographe, I-Vnm/ It.IV,374(=9898), f. 1

Cavalli’s opera for Carnival 1656 seems to have met with less success than Xerse; his Statira, on a libretto by Giovanni Francesco Busenello, was thought to be “too melancholic”,4, and consequently, for the next season the composer again teamed up with Minato to produce Artemisia, for all intents and purposes a worthy successor to Xerse. However, life for Xerse was not over, because shortly after the end of Artemisia’s performance run in Venice there must have been interest from Bologna to perform Xerse there, and this time Cavalli was more intimately involved with the production than he had been in Genoa. In preparation for the Bolognese production, our score was heavily revised, by Cavalli and by one of his pupils whose distinctive hand can be found in several scores but who remains yet unidentified. Together with Minato, these two replaced the prologue and revised the scenes that end acts 1 and 2 (using an aria from Artemisia and material taken from other scenes in Xerse). They also added several scenes, mostly casting the character of Adelanta in a more complex light, and cut other passages, mostly recitative. One character, Periarco, was recast as a bass instead of the original alto. Our score again bears witness to many of these revisions, although it does not contain all of the added material (which however is referenced through scribbled instructions by Cavalli as being on “inserted pages”). It seems to be clear that Cavalli and his pupil acted under severe time constraints, as much of the material that was taken over was rather hastily copied (Cavalli sometimes acting as his own copyist), and some of the added material was clearly composed by the pupil. They also made sure that the score contained all the music necessary for the Bolognese production, adding for instance violin parts where in the former continuo part these were left out.

The score was then taken to Bologna and served as a conducting score for the rehearsals and performance run there. We do not know who the conductor was, but his hand appears in the score as well, inserting and further correcting material that would facilitate performance. After the performance run in Bologna, which seems to have taken place in May or June 1657, the score travelled back to Venice and once more came into Cavalli’s hands. It may again have been shelved for a while, but at a certain point, Cavalli took it up, this time to heavily rework the entire opera. Unlike the earlier revisions for Bologna, this revision bears the marks of a steady process, perhaps accompanied by some active trying out of revised passages. It is only Cavalli’s hand that appears in these revisions, as he cut, replaced, reconsidered, and added to the score in five different modes (by textual indication, by striking out passages with ink, by striking out passages with crayon, by pasting over passages, and by taking out passages that were previously inserted). Frequently, he would reinstate passages that he had previously cut, or replace them with different material. From what we can tell looking at our score, the final product must have been quite close to the version of Xerse as performed in Paris (see Michael Klaper’s contribution here). In a final step, Cavalli had the revised score copied – we know this because many revised passages bear written instructions in Cavalli’s hand to a copyist, such as “si scrive” (“to be written”) in cases where it is unclear whether a passage is to be cancelled or not.

When did Cavalli make these revisions, and for what purpose? Since the revised version clearly predates the Parisian version, he must have made the revisions before the 1660 Paris production. However, all of the revisions that can be reconstructed from our score are structural in nature; none of them seems to alter the music significantly to accommodate for differences in French taste, as is the case with the Parisian version. It is thus likely that, when Cavalli began his revisions, he had had in mind other performance possibilities for Xerse. When, in summer 1660, the opportunity of performing the opera in Paris presented itself, he decided to take a clean copy with him, rather than our by now very messy score. We thus lose the trail here, for the copy that he took to Paris is lost, and with it the further history of Xerse’s development by Cavalli and his workshop.

Number of performers and pitch

Barbara Nestola – 2015.08

We have been able to ascertain the number and kind of instruments for the opera and the Ballet de Xerxès entrées thanks to information derived and combined from two sources: the manuscript score of the work, copied by François Fossard in 1695 for Louis XIV’s library, and a printed script produced by Robert Ballard in 1660. While the former does not contain any explicit reference to instruments, the latter relays the names of several of the musicians who were performing on stage during the ballet entrées, making it possible to identify some of the instruments used. A comparison between the number of performers for the opera and for the ballet allowed us to clarify some aesthetic questions and practices connected to Xerse’s Parisian revival.


As far as the opera, the accompaniment is mainly confined to the basso continuo. The composer also uses two treble parts for the ritornellos and in some airs. In Venetian theatres during Cavalli’s time, the treble pairs were often limited to two violins (real parts), since the impresarios preferred budgeting more money to the recruiting of singers, as they were the true pillars of opera productions and responsible for their commercial success. In Xerse’s Parisian source, no instrument name appears anywhere in the score, but we can still deduce that they used a pair of wind instruments (oboes or trumpets) in Ariodate’s air Già la tromba (II, 1). It is possible that they used percussion instruments. In the rest of the work, the decision to use violins seems to be made as a function of the dramatic situation. We also note the absence of scenes that typically call for wind instruments (sleep scenes, bucolic scenes, etc.).

Ballet entrées

The coherent sound universe of the opera contrasts with the sonic plurality of the danced entrées. The sources give no details on the number of dancers involved. However, for the 1st, 4th, and 6th, we know the names of the musicians who accompanied the dancers and were themselves in costumes and on stage. Although some were employed by the King’s Chamber, most of them were employed by the Écurie and played wind instruments: oboe, musette de cour, cromorne, bagpipes, Poitou oboe, tromba marina, etc.

[Nicola Minato, Francesco Buti], Xerxès, Comédie en musique del Signor Francesco Cavalli Paris, Robert Ballard, 1660, p. 18

[Nicolo Minato], Xerxès, Comédie en musique del Signor Francesco Cavalli Paris, Robert Ballard, 1660, p. 18

Choosing this number and type of instruments was a result of certain aesthetic motives. On one hand, these sonorities were perfectly suited to the comic situations of the ballet entrées, which featured a succession of characters, from the Comédie Italienne (Scaramuccia, Pulcinellas, Trivelinos) to popular and provincial characters (Matassins, slaves, sailors, peasants, Spanish Basques, French Basques), to characters from pastoral mythology (Bacchus, Sylvains, Bacchantes, Satyrs) to animals, even (monkeys). On the other hand, this shrill and nasal sonic universe contrasted with the noble nature of the operatic one. A true generic separation was thus created between opera, now considered “serious” since it had lost its comic scenes and become the vector for a heavily connoted political message, and the ballets, now called upon to replace the comic by amusing the audience, all the while being completely dissociated from the main plot.



The large number of Écurie musicians among the ballet entrées musicians seems to indicate that the entrées used the ton d’Écurie. In regard to the Écurie instruments, Bruce Haynes asserts: “many of them, particularly the haut instruments, were at a level similar to Italian mezzo punto and Praetorius’s Cammer Thon/Cornettenthon, A+1. Indeed, considering the connections between the French court and northern Italy at the time, the woodwinds described by Mersenne might have been made there5. »

The mezzo punto was also the pitch used in Venetian theatres in the seventeenth century. However, in practice, and depending on the performers’ abilities, the music was often transposed: “Orchestral instruments, probably for the sake of the singers, must sometimes have played lower than A+1 (higher seems unlikely). This would have been done especially in the Teatri for operas, where composers had not been able to ‘adjust their arias according the range of the singers’, which is another way to say that they had not known whether the orchestra was going to play at A+1 or at some other pitch. Would this lower pitch have been achieved by transposing, or by changing the instruments (tuning the strings and replacing the winds)? Probably the latter, as transposing was a special skill that could not have been assumed of all orchestral players, and would have brought risks of accidents with it6. »

The autograph manuscript of the Venice version of Xerse includes several indications that the feminine roles were transposed one tone lower:

Francesco Cavalli, Xerse, manuscrit autographe, I-Vnm/ It.IV,374(=9898), f. 15v

Francesco Cavalli, Xerse, manuscrit autographe, I-Vnm/ It.IV,374(=9898), f. 15v

In contrast, the masculine roles for deep voices were not transposed, which seems to indicate that the opera was performed in mezzo punto (A+1). But since the feminine roles would have been too high, they were sung a tone lower. We currently have no information on the pitch used in the 1660 Parisian Xerse, since Fossard’s score is silent on the subject. However, we may speculate that the mezzo punto pitch was used, with the feminine roles sung a tone lower, as in the 1655 Venetian production.

Notes on Performance Practice in Minato & Cavalli’s “Xerse”: the “business” of Appoggiatura

Sara Elisa Stangalino – 2015.08

‘Appoggiatura’ is a polyvalent lemma. The term designates, even before a musical phenomenon, an eminently prosodic fact. We read in the Grande Dizionario della Lingua Italiana for the item ‘appoggiatura’: 1. «breve allungamento della vocale di una sillaba nel pronunciarla»;7 2. «[in music] abbellimento consistente in una notina di breve durata che precede la nota a cui è aggiunta».8. The Enciclopedia dello spettacolo addresses the issue in terms of dramatic theater and so defines the ‘appoggiatura’: «accentazione data dall’attore a certi vocaboli, cui nella frase s’intende conferire un particolare rilievo […]».9.

Although the oldest known attestation of the musical term is in Benedetto Marcello’s Teatro alla moda (1720), we can assume, and we will see, that the appoggiatura was also used systematically in seventeenth-century vocal music, for example in the “dramma per musica”, although, in practice, it is seldom notated in the score.

Luigi Ferdinando Tagliavini’s pioneering studies reveal the stakes of the phenomenon and provide a clear indication about its application, even in the absence of written records. In a 2003 essay Tagliavini analyzes a passage of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (examples 1-2), a few bars of music in a recitative style that serve as a prelude to the choral section of the fourth movement. This recitative is announced in turn by the cellos and double-basses. While in the baritone part the appoggiatura is not written, it is expressed in the score in the instrumental line. Clearly for Beethoven the note bearing the appoggiatura (the G that replaces the first F in our example) is intended not as an optional ornament but as an obvious and necessary musical translation of the verse’s prosodic accent; this melodic ornament was part of the baggage of rules that the singer was required to know and to apply automatically in the presence of two equal and consecutive notes at the end of sentence or at the end of the verse, and therefore it was not written. But cellists and double-bass players, who play a musical score without words, were not required to know the singers’ tricks of the trade. Playing the notes on the first beat as F—F instead of G—F (as it happens even in outstanding recordings) would lead to a paradoxical reversal of roles, in which the line of the instruments would be prosodically enhanced, whereas that of the singer would not be.

Exemple 1. Violoncelles et contrebasses

Exemple 1. Violoncelles et contrebasses

Exemple 2. Baryton

Exemple 2. Baryton

Several eighteenth-century treatises deal with the use of the appoggiatura; in the last fifty years, they have been extensively investigated by musicologists who have attempted to reconstruct the correct “Aufführungspraxis”. Among many Italian theorists, Domenico Corri stands out. In his Select Collection of the most admired Songs, Duetts ecc. (Edinburg, 1779), a manual for amateur musicians, Corri transcribed excerpts from famous works not according to their original notation, but with all the ornaments written (including appoggiaturas) as they were supposed to be performed. In this way, for example, Gaetano Guadagni, the first ‘Orfeo’, used to sing Gluck’s aria Che farò senza Euridice with all its brave appoggiaturas (example 3).

Exemple 3. Che farò senza Euridice (transcription de D. Corri)

Exemple 3. Che farò senza Euridice (transcription de D. Corri)

Besides providing many instructive details, Corri’s treatise imparts some very important information: choices about ornamentation fall within the responsibility of the interpreter rather than of the composer.

For the seventeenth century, we do not possess equally explicit testimonies on appoggiatura. Hence musicologists have until now refrained from seriously addressing the issue as to whether appoggiaturas should be applied to seventeenth-century vocal music as well.

Moreover, the attention focused on solving problems of performance practice in the light of eighteenth-century sources has overshadowed an underlying problem, which, valid for the eighteenth century, could well be applied to the seventeenth, provided that we can prove its relevance for that century. Why does the composer write two identical notes if he knows in advance that they will be performed at different heights, i.e. they would have been “appoggiate” by any competent singer?

To answer this question, we need to move from the realm of performance to a conceptual one, from the examination of particular cases to a more general phenomenology; we must consider and distinguish the different operations actuated by the composer and singer. If we consider that both of them perform a speech in music, we may surmise that the answer might be found in the domain of rhetoric, i.e. the art of conceiving, carrying out, and delivering speeches. From Cicero and Quintilian until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, rhetoric is divided into five distinct parts: (1) inventio, the identification of topics; (2) dispositio, the distribution and concatenation of arguments in the speech; (3) elocutio, the selection of style and vocabulary, the use of phrases and appropriate words; (4) memoria, the sustaining of topics, words and their arrangement in the orator’s thought; (5) pronuntiatio or actio, the ability of the orator to adjust his voice, look, and gesture. The first three parts (inventio, dispositio, elocutio) concern the phase of writing; the last two (memoria, pronuntiatio) are related to the oral performance of the speech.

Modern and contemporary rhetoric treatises reveal a progressive atrophy of the chapters concerning memoria and pronuntiatio: rhetoric has become over time an essentially literary doctrine, directed to the craft of the writer more than to that of the orator. The writer must indeed invent, deploy, and formulate his subject. But we cannot forget the contribution that memoria and pronuntiatio offer to the actual realization of the performance of any speech.

Returning to opera, we may note obvious similarities, although there are some complications. The playwright (the librettist) chooses the subject (inventio), constructs a skeleton (dispositio), and writes and formulates speech (elocutio). The composer in turn, starting from an already versified dramatic text, performs a second-degree operation which covers the same first three steps of rhetoric: he chooses musical themes (inventio), he organizes them into a form (dispositio), and he carries them out in a completed composition (elocutio). The fourth and fifth steps, namely memoria and actio or pronuntiatio, pertain instead to the domain of a third operator: the singer-actor. This division of labor gives us the key to explaining why the composer writes passages one way when he’s aware that they will be sung in another way.

The seventeenth- and eighteenth-century composer is not primarily interested in dictating to the singer all the notes he has to sing: he works and operates within a code that establishes required rules. This code is counterpoint, i.e. the doctrine that governs voice-leading. Anything that falls under the structure dictated by counterpoint rules belongs to the domain of the musical written text. Voice-leading, i.e. the concatenation of intervals and the governance of the mode, are the main goals, and one observes a good counterpoint in order to attain those goals. The invention and performance of ornaments fall instead within the sphere of pronuntiatio, which is the domain of the singer. The composer then will write two notes that are consecutive and equal in harmony, where the voice-leading requires a consonance and not a dissonance. Meanwhile, the singer realizes the text’s prosodic accent, the metric accent of verse by a transient melodic ripple, i.e. through a musical note extraneous to harmony, which has, however, the value of an accent rather than of a dissonance.

In other words, the composer and singer act in accordance with their own respective rules, knowing that there may be discrepancies apparently inexplicable between elocutio as formalized in composition and pronuntiatio as implemented in performance. This divergence should in fact be seen as a point of connection, a necessary link between the two spheres in terms of prosody, one that is realized through supporting (i.e. ’appoggiare’) the accented syllable at the end of the musical phrase, coinciding with the syllable that bears the main metric accent in Italian verse.

This distinction was already clearly foreshadowed at the end of the sixteenth century in Lodovico Zacconi’s Prattica di musica (1592):

[…] serà bene per acquistarse benevoli gl’ascoltanti che procurino di dar qualche vago accento alle figure; perché il compositore che le compose ad altro non attese che all’ordinar esse figure secondo la convenienza dell’armonice disposizioni; ma il cantore nel sumministrarle è obligato d’accompagnarle con la voce, e farle rissonar secondo la natura e la proprietà delle parole. Però egli ha da sapere che le dette figure s’accompagnano con alcuni accenti causati d’alcune rittardanze e sustentamenti di voce che si fanno col torre una particella d’una figura ed attribuirla all’altra10.

If this is true, it follows that even in the seventeenth century, appoggiaturas were a necessary tool in the technical and mental equipment of the singer, who in his own way acts like an orator and as such must master actio or pronuntiatio in addition to memoria. In the end, the appoggiatura is nothing more than the translation, in melodically organized terms, of a tonic accent, of a metric stroke placed as a proper emphasis, concurring with tone and gesture.

Cavalli’s Xerse, preserved in three scores, one of which corresponds to a partial rewriting for the needs of the Parisian court, offers a good opportunity to explore the appoggiatura phenomenon in the mid-seventeenth century. By comparing the Contarini [I-Vnm It.IV,374 (9898)] and Fossard [F-Pn mus vm 4 2] scores, we can identify instances where one of the two texts gives equal notes (without appoggiatura) while the other distinguishes the note ‘appoggiata’. Here, below, a sampling (in the text, I identify the vowel that bears the appoggiatura with underlined italics).

Example 1. Texte : “dilettoso concento”

I-Vnm, c7v [appoggiature non notée ; clé d’alto];

I-Vnm, c7v [appoggiature non notée ; clé d’alto];

F-Pn, c13 [appoggiature notée]

F-Pn, c13 [appoggiature notée]

Exemple 2. Texte : “taci”

I-Vnm, c9v [a. not noted]

I-Vnm, c9v [a. non notée]

F-Pn, c13 [a. notée ; clé d’alto]

F-Pn, c13 [a. notée ; clé d’alto]

Exemple 3. Texte : “Giove, Giove” (de l’air d’Arsamene Vanne, barbaro, va’)

I-Vnm, c14v [a. non notée]

I-Vnm, c14v [a. non notée]

F-Pn, c21 [a. notée]

F-Pn, c21 [a. notée]

Exemple 4. Texte : or dite

I-Vnm, c150r [a. non notée]

I-Vnm, c150r [a. non notée]

F-Pn, c248 [a. noté]

F-Pn, c248 [a. noté]

Exemple 5. Texte : al fugace inumano

I-Vnm, c157r [a. a pas noté]

I-Vnm, c157r [a. a pas noté]

F-Pn, c259 [a. noté]

F-Pn, c259 [a. noté]

The examples show that we would be wrong to exclude a priori the application of appoggiaturas in Xerse, and more generally in vocal music of its time, simply because no Corri has provided us with a treatise documenting appoggiatura’s use sixty years before Benedetto Marcello and seventy years after Zacconi. Singers must explore this issue, and use courage and discretion to experiment with the extensive application of appoggiaturas in Cavalli, Cesti, Stradella, etc. We should also rethink the critical editor’s work: with any manuscript he takes as copy-text, he will be faced with instances of noted appoggiaturas that other sources do not make explicit, or vice versa, with instances where the appoggiatura given in other sources is absent from the copy-text. So in practical terms we will firstly need to report all discrepancies – and we should avoid burying them in the “mass grave” of a critical apparatus which musicians usually do not consult. Secondly, the editor will also need to point out those melodic turns that could and should, by analogy, at least virtually, bear or call for an appoggiatura.

Appoggiaturas’ presence or absence in manuscripts, while at first glance seemingly a question of chance, falls in the grey area that lies between elocutio and pronuntiatio, i.e. between the intention of the poet and composer and the use of the singer-actor. And it is precisely this use which leaves sporadic traces in copies prepared by copyists.

Rebus sic stantibus, we are invited to try out the systematic application of appoggiatura at the ends of verses and phrases in presence of two identical notes, the first of which bears a tonic accent or a metric stroke, and to extend to scores of mid-seventeenth century the very same practice that, for decades, well-informed performers have taken for granted in operas, cantatas and oratorios from the following century.

Bibliographical references

  1. G. B. Bovicelli, Regole, passaggi di musica, 1594. Faksimile-Nachdruck herausgegeben von N. Bridgman, Kassel und Basel, Bärenreiter, 1957;
  2. D. Corri, A Select Collection of most admired Songs, Duetts, & C., from operasand from other works, in Italian, English, French, Scotch, Irish, & C. In three books…, Edinburgh 1779 [example n. 3 is taken from the digital reproduction of the work kept at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Nationale Bibliotheek van Nederland, vol. I, t. I; digital reproduction by Google books];
  3. W. Crutchfield, The Prosodic Appoggiatura in the Music of Mozart and His Contemporaries, «Journal of the American Musicological Society», XLII, 1989, pp. 229-274;
  4. La vocalità nel Settecento attraverso la testimonianza di D. Corri compositore, editore e didatta, ed. by P. Bernardi and G. Nappo, and Il recitativo nella prassi esecutiva del XVIII secolo (papers of A. Antoniozzi, P. Bernardi, A. Campana, C. Marinelli, G. Nappo), Gruppo di ricerca e sperimentazione musicale, Anno XVIII, Viterbo, G.R.S.M., 1992;
  5. LesMu – Lessico della letteratura musicale italiana 1490-1950, ed. by F. Nicolodi and P. Trovato, in collaboration with R. Di Benedetto, Firenze, Franco Cesati, 2007;
  6. G. B. Mancini, Pensieri e riflessioni pratiche sopra il canto figurato, Vienna, Ghelen, 1774 (ampliata in Milano, stamp. Galeazzi, 1777; rist. anast. Bologna, Forni, 1970);
  7. Neumann, The Appoggiatura in Mozart’s Recitative, «Journal of the American Musicological Society», XXXV, 1982, pp. 115-137;
  8. F. Neumann, Ornaments in Baroque and Post-Baroque Music, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1983;
  9. F. Neumann, Vorschlag und Appoggiatur in Mozarts Rezitativ, «Mozart-Jahrbuch», 1980-1983, pp. 363-384;
  10. F. Neumann, Ornamentation and Improvisation in Mozart, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1986;
  11. F. Neumann, A New Look at Mozart’s Prosodic Appoggiatura, in Perspectives on Mozart Performance, ed. by R. Larry Todd and P. Williams, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 92-116;
  12. F. Neumann, Improper Appoggiaturas in the ‘Neue Mozart Ausgabe’, «The Journal of Musicology», X, 1992, pp. 505-521;
  13. F. L. Tagliavini, ‘Sposa! Euridice! Prosodischer und musikalischer Akzent’, in De Editione Musices. Festschrift Gerhard Croll zum 65. Geburtstag, ed. by W. Gratzer and A. Lindmayr, Laaber, Laaber, 1992, pp. 177-202;
  14. F. L. Tagliavini, «O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!». Considerazioni su alcuni aspetti negletti della prassi esecutiva, in «Et facciam dolçi canti». Studi in onore di Agostino Ziino in occasione del suo 65° compleanno, II, Lucca, Libreria Musicale Italiana, 2003, pp. 963-987;
  15. P. F. Tosi, Opinioni de’ cantori antichi e moderni, o sieno osservazioni sopra il canto figurato, Bologna, Lelio dalla Volpe, 1723 (ripr. facsimile, Celle, Moeck, 1966; supplemento a: J. F. Agricola, Anleitung zur Singekunst, 1757);
  16. L. Zacconi, Prattica di musica, I, Venezia, Polo, 1592; II, Venezia, Vicenti, 1622.


Minato N.-F. Cavalli :

  • [I-Vnm] Il Xerse, Contarini, It. IV,374 (9898)
  • [F-Pn] Xerxès / opera italien / orné d’entrées de ballet / représenté dans la Grande Gallerie des / peintures du Louvre devant le Roy / après son mariage avec Marie Thérèse / d’Autriche infante d’Espagne. / L’an 1660. / Le Seigneur Francesco Cavalli en a fait la musi- / que, & les Airs de Ballet ont esté composez par / Jean Baptiste de Lully surintendant de la Musi- / que de la Chambre. / Recueilly par le S.r Fossard ordinaire de la Musique / du Roy. / L’an 1695. [Bibl. Nat., in-fo de 336 pages. Vm 4/2. Collocazione: mus vm 4 2.]

En 2015, la version parisienne de Xerse renaît sur la scène, résultat d’un travail de recherche musicologique et de création artistique. L’Opéra de Lille, en coproduction avec le Centre de musique baroque de Versailles et le Théâtre de Caen, redonne vie à cette œuvre unique dans le contexte de l’opéra italien du XVIIe siècle, avec une mise en scène de Guy Cassiers et sous la direction musicale d’Emmanuelle Haïm, à la tête du Concert d’Astrée.

Direction musicale Emmanuelle Haïm
Mise en scène Guy Cassiers
Décors et costumes Tim Van Steenbergen
Chorégraphie Maud Le Pladec
Vidéo Frederik Jassogne
Lumières Maarten Warmerdam
Conseillère musicologique Barbara Nestola

Xerse Ugo Guagliardo
Arsamene Tim Mead
Ariodate Carlo Allemano
Romilda Emöke Barath
Adelanta Camille Poul
Eumene Emiliano Gonzalez Toro
Elviro Pascal Bertin
Amastre Emmanuelle de Negri
Aristone Frédéric Caton

Le Concert d’Astrée
Compagnie Leda

Lieux et dates :


  • Mickael KLAPER, Université de Jena, Allemagne
  • Barbara NESTOLA, Centre d’Études Supérieures de la Renaissance, UMR 7323 du CNRS, équipe du CMBV
  • Hendrik SCHULZE, University of North Texas, USA
  • Sara Elisa STANGALINO, Université de Bologne, Italie


  • Jean-Pierre HERVET, alias Dubatov


  • Catherine de MARTIGNY, ESTRAD, English for Specialists, TRADuctions générales et juridiques


  • Barbara NESTOLA


  • Gallica – BNF
  • Réunion des Musées Nationaux – Grand Palais




  • Jérémy CRUBLET


Moteur de publication (plateforme de gestion de contenu open source sous licence GPL) :
© WordPress / Grecko / CMBV

Conception technique, graphique et réalisation :
© Sebastien Crublet / Grecko / Centre de musique baroque de Versailles


, Les dossiers du CMBV, septembre 2015. http://www.lesdossiersducmbv.fr/xerse/

“Les dossiers du CMBV” est une édition numérique du Centre de musique baroque de Versailles. Pour plus d’information sur “Les dossiers du CMBV”, sur le dossier “Xerse, Opéra Italien”, pour des corrections, des remarques ou des propositions, contacter le CMBV à l’adresse suivante : lesdossiersducmbv@cmbv.com.

Pour plus d’information sur le Centre de musique baroque de Versailles, consulter le site Internet de l’institution : www.cmbv.fr.

  1. I-Vnm, Cl. It. IV, 374 (=9898)

  2. Cf. Sergio Monaldini, L’Orto dell’Esperidi. Musici, attori e artisti nel patrocinio della famiglia Bentivoglio (1646-1685), Lucca, Libreria Musicale Italiana, 2000, p. 79.

  3. Monaldini, L’Orto dell’Esperidi, cit., p. 100. Lettre du 11 septembre 1655.

  4. Monaldini, L’Orto dell’Esperidi, cit., p. 112.

  5. Bruce Haynes, A History of Performing Pitch: The Story of ‘A’, Scarecrow Press, 2002, p. 98-99.

  6. Bruce Haynes, A History of Performing Pitch: The Story of ‘A’, Scarecrow Press, 2002, p. 160-161.

  7. Short lengthening of a vowel of a syllable in pronouncing it.

  8. Ornament consisting of a small note of short duration that precedes the note to which it is added.

  9. Accentuation given by the actor to certain words which are meant to have a significant impact.

  10. […] pour plaire aux auditeurs, il est bon de donner un bel accent aux figures (c’est à dire aux ornements) ; parce que le compositeur qui les a écrites a simplement distribué ces figures selon les règles de l’harmonie ; mais le chanteur doit les interpréter avec sa voix, et il doit les faire résonner selon la nature et les propriétés des mots. Mais il doit savoir que ces figures se joignent à certains accents créés par des retards et des tenues de la voix, qui se font en enlevant une partie d’une figure et en l’attribuant à une autre.

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