Emblems of Eloquence: Opera and Women's Voices in Seventeenth-Century Venice

By Wendy Heller | Go to book overview

Chapter 4
“Disprezzata regina”
Woman and Empire

In the argomento to the libretto of La Didone, Busenello defends his revision of history by reminding the reader of Virgil's own poetic license in the fashioning of the Aeneid. His explanation, as is now evident, fails to account for many of his most blatant changes to history and myth. The happy ending— the primary focus of the apology—may have needed some mention, although it was all but required in drammi per musiche, even by 1641. But he does not even mention the more obtrusive distortions of his sources, such as Iarba's madness and Didone's self-punishment. Busenello's argomento provides the reader with a minimal (and seemingly inadequate) sketch of the plot, an allusion to his sources, and a sprinkling of apologies and disclaimers. As we have seen with La Didone, it may be that the omissions are in fact more revealing than the inclusions.

Busenello is even less specific in his description of his third libretto, L'incoronazione di Poppea:

Nero, in love with Poppaea, wife of Otho, as a pretext sent Otho as ambassador to Lusitania so that he could take his pleasure with her—this according to Cornelius Tacitus. But here facts are represented differently. Otho, deprived of Poppaea, gives himself over to delirium and exclamations. Octavia, wife of Nero, orders Otho to kill Poppaea. Otho promises to do it; but lacking the spirit to deprive his adored Poppaea of life, he dresses in the clothes of Drusilla, who was in love with him. Thus disguised, he enters the garden of Poppaea. Cupid awakens her, and prevents her death. Nero repudiates Octavia, in spite of the counsel of Seneca, and takes Poppaea to wife. Seneca dies and Octavia is banished from Rome. 1

Busenello's brevity makes a peculiar reduction of this well-known plot. A literal reading of the argomento suggests that the impetus for the entire libretto is a single sentence, derived from the first-century Roman historian

-136-

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Emblems of Eloquence: Opera and Women's Voices in Seventeenth-Century Venice
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents *
  • Illustr Ations ix
  • Tables xi
  • Preface and Acknowledgments xiii
  • Editorial Principles xvii
  • Abbreviations xix
  • Introduction 1
  • Chapter 1 - The Emblematic Woman 27
  • Chapter 2 - Opera and the Accademia Degli Incogniti 48
  • Chapter 3 - Didone and the Voice of Chastity 82
  • Chapter 4 - Woman and Empire 136
  • Chapter 5 - The Nymph Calisto and the Myth of Female Pleasure 178
  • Chapter 6 - Semiramide and Musical Transvestism 220
  • Chapter 7 - Envoicing the Courtesan 263
  • Conclusions 295
  • Notes 301
  • Bibliography 353
  • Index 371
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