Tragedy as Comedy and Spectacle in Seventeenth-Century Opera
This chapter explores the tension between theory and practice in mid-seventeenth century Italian opera, characterized by an apparent lack of interest in the literary substance of ancient tragedy and an almost excessive preoccupation with its theoretical underpinnings. The first part examines some of the contemporary writings about theatrical genres, including several of the oft-cited comments of Venetian librettists, in which the persistent self-deprecating and apologetic manner has been taken by scholars as evidence of the librettists' awareness of the literary inferiority of their creations. It demonstrates how these comments coalesced into a surprisingly coherent aesthetic — one in which the trappings of tragedy were readily translated into spectacle and comedy. The second part of the chapter considers how this aesthetic manifested itself in several operas that adopted elements from Greek tragedies. It examines in particular the performance of Fedra incoronata (‘Phaedra Crowned’, 1662), the first part of an elaborate trilogy presented in Munich to celebrate the birth of Maximilian II Emanuel (1662–1726), son of Ferdinand Maria, Elector of Bavaria, and Henriette Adelaide of Savoy.
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