Monday, March 31st, 2014...11:58 am

Explosive Opera

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Bissari, Pietro Paolo, conte, active 1640-1660, librettist. Medea vendicativa, 1662. TS 8420.77 1662In September, 1662, the Elector of Bavaria and his wife celebrated the christening of their infant son with eight days of public and private festivity. The squares and streets of Munich were lit up, gold coins and commemorative medals struck and bread and wine freely distributed to the populace. Meanwhile, a trilogy of interwoven operas on classical themes was performed at court over the course of the week. The music, possibly composed by Johann Kaspar Kerll [note: link may require Harvard access], is lost. Commemorative festival books have survived, however. These contain the text by Pietro Paolo Bissari as well as plates engraved by the brothers Melchior and Mathäus Küsel after drawings by Caspar Amort of Francesco Santurini’s set designs and theatrical machines.

Houghton Library recently acquired first editions of two of these festival books: the operatic entertainment for the first night, Fedra incoronata, and for the last, Medea vendicativa. The latter is not only a drama but a drama di foco performed on a floating stage, with several pages of instructions explaining exactly how and when in the final chorus of each act the fireworks are to be set off.

Bissari, Pietro Paolo, conte, active 1640-1660, librettist. Medea vendicativa, 1662. Title page. TS 8420.77 1662

In the last plate of the Medea vindicativa festival book the initials of two-month-old Maximilian II Emanuel are displayed at the edge of the barge, while the guest of honor himself is shown in his cradle, under an arch inscribed “Laetamur in uno” (“Rejoice together”).

Bissari, Pietro Paolo, conte, active 1640-1660, librettist. Medea vendicativa, 1662. TS 8420.77 1662

It might now seem strange to imagine setting fire to a boat in order to welcome a child into the world. Of course Maximilian himself probably did not attend the festival and certainly was not actually on the barge when it was set alight; Amort’s drawings represent Santurini’s plans and do not depict reality. But still there is the jarring choice of the Greek myth of Medea as a subject; similarly, treatments of the Orpheus myth were a mainstay at seventeenth-century weddings. In their 2000 bibliography Festivals and Ceremonies, Helen Watanabe-O’Kelly and Anne Simon observe that by putting on equestrain festivals, costume parades, displays of automata and other grand spectacles, rulers were using “image-making as part of their battle for the hearts and minds of the people.” Reassuringly, Watanabe-O’Kelly and Simon confirm that festival books “claim to bear witness to what actually happened, but quite often they describe what the organizers hoped would happen and even things than never happened at all. In festival books, the bride is always beautiful, the newborn baby lusty, the ruler beloved of his people, the dynasty destined to rule for ever, the people pious and God-fearing, the holy man or woman a beacon to the faithful, the city a model of good government.” (xiii)

[Post contributed by Christina Linklater, Project Music Cataloger with research assistance from Lakeisha Douyon.]

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