Ask the Darkness: a prologue to the opera
“Che soave armonia fareste, o cari baci, o dolci detti, se foste unitamente d’ambe due le dolcezze ambo capaci, baciando, i detti, e ragionando, i baci.
“What sweet harmony/you would make, O beloved kisses, O tender words,/ if in unison you both expressed / the sweetness you both possess / words kissing and kisses speaking”: thus recites the insightful poem by Giovanni Battista Guarini, which Claudio Monteverdi included, setting it to music for solo voice, in his Seventh Book of Madrigals in 1619. Guarini’s verses, written in alternating lines of seven- and eleven-syllables according to the traditional canon, consciously depict an ideal utopia of love. A perfect concord of the affects in which “kisses” and “words”, that is the senses and reason, do not “annihilate each other” but, on the contrary, defy the physical laws of the body to reach a higher order in which logos and physis, the word and nature, are capable of giving unique, undivided pleasure. Exactly thirty years later, in 1649, Giacinto Andrea Cicognini wrote an ingenious libretto, Giasone (Jason), set to music by Francesco Cavalli, creating a dramatic, poetic framework that translates – or aims to translate – the “dream of the affects” imagined by Guarini into a concrete theatrical reality. The musical drama, based on the version of the myth of Jason recounted by Apollonius Rhodius in his epic poem the Argonautica, introduces, quite arbitrarily, in the love affair between Jason and Medea, an unexpected manque, a limit, an absence that is transformed into a powerful narrative engine. In fact, the two lovers consummate their passion in a situation characterized by one of the most complete, artificial and “cruel” lacks: the absence of light. It is in the darkness that the leader of the Argonauts and the sorceress make love and exchange the tenderness of kisses and the tenderness of words. It is the abstraction of darkness, an unreal condition in which it is impossible to calculate the limits of space and time, which enables the senses and reason to come together perfectly. Darkness, the universe of intrigue, transformations and changes of identity, thus becomes in the opera by Cicognini and Cavalli a utopian condition in which the absence of the vital element of light is translated into an extremely fertile presence, namely a newly invented language that is able to speak the language of the body and of the mind at the same time.
It is in the vortex opened up by this unexpected deviation, in the crack created by the imperfect superimposition of these two languages that Lucia Ronchetti’s compositional rationale is rooted. Her “vision” of the original Giasone seems to create, perhaps unconsciously, a relationship very similar to the one between the delight of kisses and the pleasure of words established by Guarini. For the composer of these new Lezioni di tenebra (Lessons of Darkness) Cicognini and Cavalli’s opera embodies, in fact, the dimension of intellectual pleasure and the abstract enjoyment represented by an intimate and privileged dialogue conducted exclusively with a poetic and operatic masterwork set in the light of the past. However, the new opera, which is a modern interpretation of Giasone, does not pertain to the rhetorical realm of logos, but to the sensitive world of physis, that is to the concrete, immediate, sensual dimension of contemporary sound. It is here that the almost mathematical terms of an astonishing “divine proportion” emerge: Francesco Cavalli’s Giasone and Lucia Ronchetti’s Lezioni di tenebra prove capable, due precisely to their irreducible diversity, of uniting, in the sweetest harmony, the two irreducible tendernesses of historical distance and sensitivity to the present.
This kind of relationship is almost unheard of in world increasingly governed by the prefix “re”: in the countless, more or less postmodern, instances of rewriting, revising, reworking, reissuing and so forth, the original text and the reinterpretation often “annihilate each other” through sheer carelessness.
Model and variant, source and estuary, original text and subsidiary text usually behave exactly like Guarini’s words and kisses, and it proves almost physically impossible to superimpose the two elements perfectly and combine them in a single organic listening experience. Lezioni di tenebra gives the lie to this supposed irreducibility through the author’s compositional praxis: the vocal profiles, the melodic structures, the rhythmic figures and even the harmonic clusters of the original score seem, miraculously, to have remained intact, almost untouched, and their historical and stylistic identity as sharply defined as ever. Nonetheless, the inventions of the new opera are superimposed on them constantly, in perfect synchronicity: a narrative extremely rich in instrumental figurations, thematic variations, tonal metamorphoses and vocal transformations is woven into the original narrative fabric, creating a constant, indissoluble “invention in two voices”.
What linguistic means does Lucia Ronchetti employ to achieve this nonconflicting coexistence of the new and the old, to trigger this process of chemical synthesis between the sound substance of Cavalli’s opera and the molecular elements of Lezioni di tenebra? The perfect hybridization of words and kisses does not appear to be the result of a purely conceptual compositional strategy: one senses that the relationship between the original “numbers” of the musical drama and the scenes of the new opera is governed by the logic of spontaneous gemmation or, more appropriately, by something similar to the crystallization process in which a liquid substance solidifies into crystalline structures whose forms are unpredictable and ever-changing. This process is exemplified most effectively by the composer’s treatment of the voice types. Ronchetti adheres explicitly to one of the key principles of the 17th-century musical drama, namely the correspondence between the dramatic quality of each individual character and the tonal, lexical and recitative formulas that characterize them. This is an ingenious way of bringing variety to the drama and making the characters recognizable, without having the possibilities of using – as was the case in 18th- and 19th-century opera – a wide range of voice registers. Hence, in Lezioni di tenebra Jason has the light, ambiguous, variable timbre of the countertenor, Medea is an acute soprano with a distinct coloratura in the middle register and natural inclination to canto di forza. Demo is written for a mezzo carattere with a strong “comic” bent. On the contrary, Aegeus’ soprano is muted by the use of a low voice and slow, weary, long-suffering delivery. Lastly, Orestes and Hypsipyle represent two different variants on the countertenor register: one tending towards the heroic style, the other stil patetico. But these symmetries and these rigid biunique correspondences are often broken up and overturned by the use of the “shared parts” technique, typical of the 16th-century madrigal, in which the monodic parts are intoned polyphonically. More often, however, the vocal register itself is used “inappropriately”, for example by “pushing” the register of the dramatic soprano to coloratura, veiling and darkening the natural colour of the light soprano, or adopting endless extended portamenti. In the same way, and still on a vocal plane, the polyphonic structure of the episodes clearly rooted in the madrigal is often distorted and bent by an unconventional gesturality: the homophonic episodes are generally sharp, rhythmic and rough as regards the development of the homorhythm, while the more explicitly contrapuntal ones fragment the individual parts to such an extent that the text is transformed into pure, indistinguishable phonetic material. To conclude, the instrumental parts are also constantly masked: the toccata pace and improvised quality of the transitional episodes that link the vocal numbers nearly always hide a sudden arresting touch of colour, an aggressive thrust and an explosion of tonal furor, which produce an almost optical distortion and aberration of the original form. Hence, these are all procedures which, from a rhetorical standpoint, can be traced to that “modern” figure of speech that Paolo Fabbri defines as camouflage, a term introduced in studies on language towards the mid-19th century. It comes from the verb carmare, which has the same root as the word carmen and from which the French noun charme and the English charm both derive: camouflage would therefore be “a spell cast on things, so that they might have a different meaning from their usual one”. Besides, only a spell, the illusionistic spell that poetry (carmen...) alone can cast, will enable words to kiss and kisses to speak at the very same moment.