Volume 12, no. 1:
Emblems of Eloquence: Opera and Womens Voices in Seventeenth-Century Venice. By Wendy Heller. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. [xx, 386 pp. ISBN: 0-520-20933-8. $65.]
Reviewed by Beth L. Glixon*
1.1 Women and their representation in opera have occupied a growing segment of musicological inquiry for a number of years. Wendy Heller here charts new territory by grounding her analysis in writings of the time, both for and against women. She draws on the polemical views expressed by members of Venices storied Accademia degli Incogniti and their contemporaries, some of which then found their way into librettos during the first decades of public opera in Venice; Heller goes beyond the academicians polemical arguments, however, and also provides a thorough classical underpinning for the female characters she will discuss, showing how each librettist for her five case studies created, in effect, a new vision of an emblematic woman, which then was further molded and interpreted by the composer.
1.2 One theme that surfaces throughout the book is the concept of chastity, and with good reason. Through the centuries a chaste woman had come to be equated with a silent one, but this principle could not easily or reasonably be sustained in a dramatic setting; Emblems of Eloquence pursues the problems of the perceived eroticism of the voice so often expressed in writing of the Seicento, and its ramifications for opera. Eloquence in opera of this time makes for a particularly fascinating study, because definitive means for the expression of emotion in opera were not yet fixed: recitative was still a potent, flexible force, and the aria, at least in the time of Monteverdi and early Cavalli, was not yet unequivocally suitable for all serious characters. Through analyses of the music of a series of heroines Heller invites us to consider issues of eloquence over the decades that constituted the formation of a more consistent operatic practice.
1.3 Early in the book Heller explains how Venice herself, through her symbol Venetia, embodied a number of contradictory female attributes, both virtuous and licentious, most importantly, perhaps, through the images of the Virgin Mary and Venus; these same characteristics would become prevalent in seventeenth-century opera.1 Venice became known as a city that hid its noblewomen away, but was famous for its cultured courtesans (as well as their lower counterparts, the prostitutes, or meretrici). Heller comments that the Venetian republic was ruled exclusively by men, so that women in Venice can seem to have held less power than those in other areas of Europe, although the female rulers of Tuscany, France, and England must surely be viewed as an anomaly rather than as a common occurrence. Venetians did traditionally have a ceremonial woman, the doges wife, or dogaressa, who took part in important state and civic functions.2 Certainly, prominent Venetian women were less in the public eye than in some other areas of Italy and France, but many women did, nonetheless, receive a fine education, whether from a tutor or family member, at a school, or as an educanda, or boarder, in a female monastery. (Moderata Fonte, one of the women writers Heller highlights in her first chapter, was educated, in part, at Santa Marta.3) The actual place in society of Venetian noblewomen, as well as that of the wives of the cittadini (the class of lawyers and civil servants just below the nobles) and prominent merchants is quite difficult to characterize and assess. Venice, for example, was filled with widows who often took control of their husbands estates as well as the properties and investments relating to their own dowries.
2.1 In a thorough introduction Heller presents the background of her arguments (including a helpful section on carnival and its influence on opera), forecasts the structure of the book, and explains the terminology behind her musical analyses (a combination of Chafian and more traditional terms). The first chapter, The Emblematic Woman, looks at views of women from Boccaccio through much of the seventeenth century. Boccaccios De claris mulieribus was the most important catalog of women of its time, and its influence continued into the seventeenth century; a number of Hellers emblematic women find a place there. More polemical books and treatises followed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, some of them quite virulent. Works such as Giuseppe Passis I donneschi difetti led to a number of responses, perhaps most famously, in recent times, those by two Venetian women, Moderata Fonte, who died in 1592, and Lucrezia Marinella (1571–1653). The next chapter, Bizzarrie Feminile presents the views of a number of members of the famous Accademia degli Incogniti on women and their charms and dangers. Also featured prominently in this chapter are the strident writings of the Venetian nun Arcangela Tarabotti, who received support from, and corresponded with, a number of members of the Accademia.4 These introductory chapters precede the five that constitute the core of the book, each focusing on a different emblematic woman portrayed in operas ranging roughly from 1640 through 1680: Didone, Ottavia, Calisto, Semiramide, and Messalina. In all of the chapters, Hellers goal is first to recreate the librettists workshops: she evaluates the librettos in the light of the printed materials available both to their authors and to the opera-going public, and shows how each of these women had a number of legacies surrounding her that could be manipulated in either a positive or negative light. To further highlight her emblematic women, Heller contrasts the librettists and composers portrayal of these women with a number of the other female and male characters who appear in the same works.
2.2 The Accademia degli Incogniti, founded by Giovanni Francesco Loredano in 1630, was the leading academy in Venice of the mid-century, and one of the most influential in Italy; most of its members—many of whom were not Venetian—were prolific authors. The Incogniti have been featured in a number of studies in recent decades. Among the first musicologists to stress their importance to the history and growth of opera were Lorenzo Bianconi and Thomas Walker, in their magisterial Dalla Finta pazza alla Veremonda: storie di Febiarmonici,5 and Ellen Rosand, particularly in her Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice.6 Loredanos influence in Venetian publishing in the 1630s and 1640s has been the focus of a number of articles by Mario Infelise (not cited by Heller, who includes the more recent books of Monica Miato and Tiziana Menegatti).7
2.3 In Chapter 2, as well as in the successive chapters, Heller draws on a far wider sample of Incogniti writings than previously discussed by opera scholars, as her inquiries require a much broader focus, sifting through the various texts in search of views both pro- and anti-female. She presents the works of members of the academy such as Francesco Pona, Angelico Aprosio, Girolamo Brusoni, Ferrante Pallavicino, Antonio Rocco, and Federico Malipiero. Foremost in any discussion of the Incogniti will be its founder Loredano, and Heller discusses excerpts from his academic discourses, some of his letters, and, finally, his play La forza damore, published in 1662, some twenty years after the heyday of the academy. Heller shows how a number of the Incogniti views on women find expression in the play: arguments about the nature of women, female sexuality, the falseness of chastity, and a womans right to freedom—all themes that will be repeated in the chapters that follow. While it is certainly true that the Incogniti and their members were at the center of much of the intellectual life in Venice, Heller exaggerates their place in Venetian publishing when she uses phrases such as Loredano the shadowy figure behind nearly every publishing endeavor in Venice during the middle years of the seventeenth century (52) and Loredanos complete domination of the Venetian publishing world (53). Venices publishing industry, even if it had lost its prominence of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, was still an important one. Loredano and his associates may have reigned over certain areas such as fiction and polemical writings, but religious and scientific publication still had a large presence among the works of certain Venetian printers, and they must have largely operated beyond the reach of Loredano. Loredanos influence, however, was clearly essential to the publication of the works of many of his friends and, certainly, the controversial writings of the nun Arcangela Tarabotti, some of whose views surfaced in the Incognito Giovanni Francesco Busenellos depiction of Ottavia in Lincoronazione di Poppea.
3.1 The ramifications of the chapter concerning the Incogniti are perhaps felt most directly in the chapters regarding Didone and Lincoronazione di Poppea, both works of the cittadino Busenello. One of Hellers most valuable contributions is her analysis of Busenellos sources for two of his heroines, Didone and Ottavia. Hellers exposition of the three Didos (the historical one, and those of Virgil and Ovid), each with her separate history, helps us to understand better Busenellos construct of this legendary woman, as well as later retellings of the story. Similarly, Heller presents the various Ottavias known to Busenello: that described by Tacitus and others, but also the heroine of the play Octavia by pseudo-Seneca. Her discussion shows how Busenello, like pseudo-Seneca, had to devise a dramatic persona for Octavia, who was renowned for her innocence and, more importantly, her silence. Busenello went far beyond pseudo-Seneca by constructing a more vindictive empress, and Heller convincingly makes the case that this facet of her representation stems from the stories surrounding her mother-in-law, Agrippina the Younger.
3.2 The chapter on Giovanni Faustini and Francesco Cavallis La Calisto differs from all of the others, perforce, by virtue of the librettos setting in Arcadia. Heller weaves a delightful story here, showing the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between Faustini and Cavallis myths of Calisto and Diana, and those that appear in Ovid and other sources. She also draws from the visual world, looking at images of Callisto and Jove, and Diana and Endymion, especially those by Annibale Carracci and Peter Paul Rubens, discussing how Faustini and Cavallis narrative expands the action that can only be suggested in those art works. Also significant, as Heller points out, is how Faustinis libretto differs from all of his previous ones, not only because it is mythologically based, but also because the typical Venetian happy ending—where pairs of lovers come together after the librettos various plots have been untangled—has no place here: all of the main characters remain apart. Hellers convincing analysis shows how the effects of Calistos sexual encounter with Giove, disguised as Diana, ripple through the remainder of the opera, both dramatically and musically.
3.3 Hellers inclusion of Pietro Andrea Zianis Semiramide is welcome, not only because of the title characters fascinating personality, and its manifestation in this particular libretto, but also because discussions of Zianis music until now have been rare in the literature.8 Semiramide and her son, Nino, spend much of the opera dressed in each others clothes so that the queen may more easily pursue her military interests. The crossdressing, however leads to amorous complications; one of Hellers main concerns is how the two characters act in their disguises, and what marks masculine and feminine behavior. Hellers other main thread is the treatment of Iside, the fortunate slave, whose character, according to Heller, inspires some of Zianis best music. Also central to Hellers argument are the changes made as Matteo Noris adapted Giovanni Andrea Moniglias libretto La Semirami, first presented in Vienna, for the Venetian stage; Semiramide emerges as more powerful and less compliant at the operas conclusion, much less willing to leave her lover and marry the enemy Creonte in the interests of peace (and at the same time giving up the throne to her son).
3.4 While I find most of Hellers arguments concerning the characters and their music in Semiramide convincing, the analyses of two of Semiramides arias sung while she is disguised as her son seem to attach too much gender significance to surface features. While it is true that the queens Due campioni (Hellers Example 31) presents three different musical ideas in succession—this in aid of expressing both her martial and her softer sides—they do not, to me, present an uncomfortable truce with an incoherent representation of affect and unstable key. (The text reads: Two champions fierce and ruthless, armed with arrows burn in my breast. Mars beckons me with war flags, love restrains me with dark eyes. And if the trumpet gave me courage, the cheek of a certain face restrains my steps.) Heller goes on to say that Semiramides combination of male and female traits remove[s] her from the acceptable realm of behavior for either men or women, and consequently there is no conventional model for Ziani to rely on. Zianis setting, however, does accomplish what is sets out to do: it shows the queens ambivalent feelings. Similarly, regarding Semiramides Qui ti voglio pensiero amante (Example 32), Heller characterizes the unusual 12/8 meter of the first section (Here, lovesick mind, resolve what I must do. Do I take revenge on the inconstant one? Speak or be silent?) as inappropriately cheerful, and lending a pastoral affect that seems to have little in common with the vivid coloratura of the B section (Ah, no, those locks that dazzle like lightning bolts bind and chain my fury). Much of the fault here lies with the librettist, Noris. Ziani has chosen to set the first part of the text, with its rhetorical questions (which Noris could have drafted, instead, in recitative) in a homogenous fashion, rather than placing special emphasis on the words revenge and inconstant. Perhaps the 12/8 pastoral-like meter arose in Zianis mind as a reflection of the night-time garden setting. Ziani set the second part of the text to reflect Semiramides fury, which she must hold inside (enchained); thus, as in the first section of the aria, the furious music, which Heller rightly deems more eloquent, expresses the wider sentiment of that entire segment of the text rather than a more local one. Is this really a vacillation between masculine and feminine traits, or just the problem of someone in love who must hide her true emotions in order to continue to operate under disguise? Indeed, this text could have been used to express the feelings of any number of more generic lovers, both male and female, that appear in seventeenth-century Italian opera. Once the decision was made to cast Semiramide both as a warrior and a lover, the librettist and composer drew on those characterizations typically available to them. Moreover, in these two arias Semiramide may be dressed as a man, but she sings as a woman. In sum, while Heller finds that Ziani was hard-pressed to find accepted techniques to portray a woman of her nature (259), it may be that Ziani portrayed her nature extremely well, focusing on her conflicting desires that cancelled out the possibilities for truly lyrical expression, which was assigned instead to Iside.9 Hellers overall emphasis is well taken, however: Semiramide is cast as sometimes indecisive and, in the end, cannot be paired with the man she loves; Nino, also enamored, on the other hand, grows in his masculinity, even when disguised as a woman, and ends up with both the power and his beloved.
3.5 Hellers catalogue of women ends with Messalina, and her treatment of the empresss music brings home how Venetian opera had changed in the nearly four decades that had transpired between Lincoronazione di Poppea and Messalina. Where Poppeas music was steeped in lyricism, Messalina emerges as a character denied spectacular vocal fireworks: it is the virtuous women in the story, Erginda and Floralba, whom Pallavicino rewards with the more expansive and expressive arias. The librettist Piccioli spares Messalina from death, but he and Pallavicino also deny her, in Hellers words, an "inner life, [with] no capacity for introspection beyond her own desire for pleasure, primarily because librettist and composer could not imagine one for such a woman (294).
4.1 One issue of overriding importance that does not receive enough explanation in the book, is what, in essence, for Heller, signifies eloquence (although no specific definition of eloquence appears per se, the author refers in the conclusion to the inherent eloquence of song). Heller frequently implies that eloquence is the product of lyricism, or, in the case, of recitative, the result of an organizing principle such as a repeating bass. This issue is most significant for the first two women in Hellers gallery, Didone and Ottavia.
4.2 Because Didone and Lincoronazione di Poppea were composed at a time when the aria was only beginning to develop its power as a carrier of deep emotion, and because arias were often sung by gods and servants, surely characters such as Ottavia and Didone, owing to their high status, would not have been expected to express themselves primarily in a lyrical mode; moreover, it is precisely their desperate states of mind that necessitate the more austere style of recitative. The central question for these operas in particular, then, is this: does a role written almost exclusively in recitative necessarily render a character uneloquent, and thus unsympathetic, especially when her plight and her words do not lend themselves to lyricism? (Or, to ask this in another way, might a character not elicit a sort of sympathy precisely because her lack of lyricism serves to magnify her desperate situation?) If we define eloquence as the power to persuade through music,10 can recitative be as eloquent as—or even more so—than aria or arioso? Since recitative arose specifically as a means of achieving eloquence through a sort of music, a heightened speech that could convey a text with special power, the answer would seem to be yes, especially in the hands of two of its greatest masters, Monteverdi and Cavalli.
4.3 These questions are perhaps of greatest relevance regarding Lincoronazione di Poppea, which has achieved such prominence and fame in our time; indeed, of the five operas discussed in the book, Monteverdis is the only one that will be familiar even to most scholars of seventeenth-century music. The character Ottavia has come to be seen, partially, perhaps, through recordings and live performances, as unsympathetic and unfeminine, lacking Poppeas sensuous appeal. Heller comments: Appearing for the first time directly after Poppeas powerful demonstration of sensual and persuasive powers, Ottavia was ideally positioned to garner audience compassion, to the vantage point of moral superiority. Instead, we are presented with a woman who expresses a narrower range of emotions with a limited vocabulary of musical expressive devices (153). One explanation for this narrow range throughout the opera stems from Busenellos structuring of the libretto: Lincoronazione di Poppea may be one of the few librettos of the century where a wronged woman never achieves the opportunity to confront her errant lover or husband. Indeed, such a confrontation scene became one of the conventions of the time, often resulting in persuasive music and the desired volte-face of the male character. Ottavias isolation from Nerone and from other characters who might have sympathy for her, then, perpetuates the rather bleak tendencies in her mode of expression. Heller characterizes Ottavia as a woman whose vocal beauty is marred by musical chastity (154). In comparing the two main characters, Heller writes:
Is Ottavias chastity always unappealing, however, and does Poppeas sensuality truly command the stage at the curtains fall?
5.1 Heller concludes the chapter on Ottavia with a discussion of the prima donna Anna Renzi, and the reception of her portrayal of the empress as seen in poems written in her honor, and published in Le glorie della Signora Anna Renzi.11 She describes how Renzi transcended the features of the character as provided by composer and librettist (175). Indeed, Benedetto Ferrari wrote:
In the same volume, another writer characterized Renzis performance in a different light:
5.2 None of us, of course, has been able to experience Anna Renzis singing and her transformation of the role of Ottavia. In 2004, however, I witnessed a performance of Poppea that changed my view of Ottavia, and, necessarily, that of Poppea. To be more accurate, I viewed two performances of Lincoronazione di Poppea during the winter of 2004, about a month apart. Both were excellently sung and acted throughout. The first was conducted by Jane Glover at the Chicago Opera Theater, with a cast of young professional singers. In this production Ottavia came across as a bit hard and unsympathetic, that is, in the way most of us have come to think of her, and as Heller has described her. The costuming as well served to accentuate the differences between Poppea and Ottavia: in this Las Vegas setting, Poppea was scantily dressed, while Ottavia left Rome in a tailored pants suit. The second performance took place at the University of Kentucky with the orchestral ensemble New Trinity Baroque. With expert coaching by Predrag Gosta, Cliff Jackson, and Jonathan Glixon, the cast of undergraduate and graduate singers, nearly all of them unused to singing seventeenth-century music, became comfortable with and learned to love Monteverdis music. The climax of the opera, for me, came not with any music sung by Nero, Poppea, Ottone, or Drusilla, but with Ottavia, and her Addio, Roma. Heller sums up Ottavias lament in this way:
In Lexington, Christy Pritchard sang this lament with such beauty and pathos that one could not hear Poppea and Neros lyrical finale as triumphant or moving. Indeed, the heart of the opera seemed to lie with Seneca and Ottavia; it was their recitative that spoke most eloquently, overpowering the lyricism of Nerone and Poppea. Their eloquence showed Nerone and Poppea for what they were: a besotted ruler and a promiscuous social climber. Monteverdi wrote Ottavias music for one of the best singing actresses of her time, knowing that the role would speak through her, that she would fill the audiences breasts with pity. One of the operas strengths is precisely this opposition between the two leading female roles, near-constant lyricism on one side, stark recitative on the other, both painting their different worlds. One could turn the typical equation on its head, and proclaim that Ottavias arguments are at times more eloquent, and that Poppeas are tuneful, and full of air, but persuasive only in a fleeting, evanescent way. In sum, Monteverdis opera is one that elicits many views and interpretations, and the nature of the representation of its women will undoubtedly remain under discussion for a long time to come.
5.3 Cavallis Didone presents a different problem, but also I find her music, in the end, convincing, despite the absence of lyrical forms or organizing principles. Hellers analysis of Didones recitative is compelling, and she helpfully shows how both Busenellos and Cavallis portrayals of the heroine draw on the different, shifting images derived from the classical sources. The author, however, emphasizes time and again the lack of lyricism, and draws attention to the static mode of expression that Cavalli uses for Didones most critical moment in the opera . (126). And later:
While Cavalli may have withheld the chromaticism that Heller refers to, confining it to the tragic first act that takes place in Troy, his fluid recitative style imbues Didones lament with freedom of phrasing, rhythm, and harmonic inflection. It is utterly compelling and, in a word, eloquent. Cavallis recitative arsenal is filled with a myriad of different weapons, and his fleeting insertions of local lyricism, achieved through the vocal line, or even by highlighting a different interval between the voice and bass, can have a devastating, heartbreaking effect. Moreover, Didones aria (Hellers Example 13), sung after she has agreed to marry her suitor Iarba, does not, to this reader, seem particularly lyrical; rather, it makes a rhetorical point, much like the conclusions to a classical-era opera. The aria signals Didones passage from despair to the comfort of love in a marital relationship, but Cavalli does not endow the text with a sensuous setting or with much weight.12 With the music of Ottavia and Didone we can see how the boundaries between sensuality and chastity, eloquence and more normal speech (and between sympathetic and less immediately appealing characters) can be difficult to detect and classify.
6.1 The book contains a fair number of misprints, occasional inaccuracies, and inconsistencies in the names of theaters, printers, composers, and authors, and, on occasion, book titles. The musical examples are clearly laid out, and, for the most part, their presentation allows the reader to reconstruct the structure of the poetry, so important in the analysis of seventeenth-century vocal music.
6.2 Hellers descriptive analysis of the librettos and music is most engaging, and the operatic characters spring to life; few readers, for example, will forget Semiramides son Nino, and the awakening of his manhood. Hellers selection of operas is a most fortunate one, as it charts both the gradual changes in the musical language of opera, and in the ways good and bad women came to be depicted. Another strength is Hellers discussion of how eighteenth-century librettists chose different types of women for their heroines, and how even Semiramide, tidied up, could find her place on the more rarified stages of the Enlightenment period. Emblems of Eloquence is an extremely important book. It sets new standards for the analysis and understanding of seventeenth-century librettos through its examination of classical sources as well as Italian writings of the Renaissance and the Seicento, and will encourage others to examine this and other repertoires through the lens of the battle of the sexes.
* Beth Glixon (Beth.Glixon@uky.edu) serves as Instructor in Music History at the University of Kentucky, and her book, Inventing the Business of Opera: The Impresario and His World in Seventeenth-Century Venice, coauthored with Jonathan Glixon, was published by Oxford University Press in 2006.
1 Heller, 2–3. On this topic, see David Rosand, Myths of Venice: the Figuration of a State (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 36–8, 117–9.
2 For Holly Hurlburts pathbreaking research on the dogaressa see The Dogaresse of Venice, 1200–1500 (New York: Palgrave, 2005). Although the dogaressa and her functions were a familiar part of Venetian life during the medieval and early Renaissance, during the seventeenth century a number of the doges were either bachelors or widowers.
3 Elissa B. Weaver, Convent Theatre in Early Modern Italy: Spiritual Fun and Learning for Women (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 64. An extensive discussion of Fonte appears in Sarah Ross, Birth of Feminism: Woman as Intellect in Renaissance Italy and England (Ph.D. diss., Northwestern University, 2006). Ross focuses on the education of English and Italian women in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
4 Hellers discussion of Tarabotti and Venetian female monasteries is informed in part by Jutta Sperlings Convents and the Body Politic in Late Renaissance Venice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999). For a different look at Venetian nuns during the same period, see Mary Laven, Virgins of Venice: Broken Vows and Cloistered Lives in the Renaissance Convent (New York: Viking, 2003). Lavens entertaining account of life behind the convent walls also incorporates some of the writings of Tarabotti.
5 Rivista italiana di musicologia 10 (1975): 379–454.
6 Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice: the Creation of a Genre (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).
7 See Mario Infelise, “Ex ignoto notus? Note sul tipografo Sarzina e lAccademia degli Incogniti, in Libri tipografi biblioteche: Ricerche storiche dedicate a Luigi Balsamo, ed. Istituto di Biblioteconomia e Paleografia (Florence: Olschki, 1997), 207–23, and Infelise, La crise de la librairie vénitienne 1620–1650, in Le Livre et l’historien, études offertes en l’honneur du professeur Henri-Jean Martin, ed. Frédéric Barbier et al., Histoire et civilisation du livre 24 (Geneva: Droz, 1997), 343–52. Another young scholar whose work promises to offer new understanding of the Incogniti, but whose 2001 Harvard dissertation is not readily available, is Nina Cannizzaro. Cannizzaro intends to publish that research under the title Surpassing the Maestro: Giovanni Francesco Loredano and the Origins of the Accademia degli Incogniti.
8 On Ziani, see Helmut Christian Wolff, Die venezianische Oper in der zweiten Hılfte des 17. Jahrhunderts (Berlin, 1937; Reprint. Bologna: Forni, 1975) and Ellen Rosand, Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice. Saskia Woykes dissertation, Studien zum Opernschaffen von Pietro Andrea Ziani (1616–1684) (Univ. of Hamburg, 2004) will be published in Germany later this year: Pietro Andrea Ziani (1616–1684): Studien zum Opernschaffen, in the series Musik und Theater (Sinzig: Studio Verlag).
9 I base my comments here solely on Hellers musical examples, rather than on the score as a whole.
10 A standard definition of eloquence is speech or writing that is vivid, forceful, fluent, graceful, and persuasive; or the power to persuade with speech or writing. Websters New Twentieth Century Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Cleveland: William Collins, 1979), 589.
11 Venice: Surian, 1644.
12 The text reads: Whenever the tempestuous sea Of tears is shaken by storms, The anchor of hope Is never cast in vain, As love in the most desperate cases Has created more joyful harbors. Heller, Emblems of Eloquence, 134.
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