ISSN: 1089-747X
Copyright © 1995–2012 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois

Volume 12, no. 1:

Monteverdi’s Musical Theatre. By Tim Carter. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. [x, 326 pp. ISBN 0-300-09676-3. $50.]

Reviewed by Barbara Russano Hanning*

1. The “Problems of Opera”

2. Problems of Genre

3. Interactions between Text and Music

4. Pragmatic Questions


1. The “Problems of Opera”

1.1 In this set of critical essays about Monteverdi’s theatrical works, Carter develops issues that, by his own declaration, have become the predominant focus of his work on music in early seventeenth-century Italy. Acknowledging that it was Nino Pirrotta who first explored some of these issues, he borrows Pirrotta’s phrase “problems of opera” for the title of his opening chapter and returns, at the end of the book, to compare and review his list of problems—examined in the nine intervening chapters—with those originally identified by Pirrotta.1 In this way, the entire work is, in effect, a dialogue with one of the pioneer scholars in the field, whose very definition of the issues established a frame for Carter’s own essays. Pirrotta is the only scholar so privileged by Carter, although there are indeed many others who have worked on Monteverdi in the thirty-five years since the publication of Pirrotta’s seminal article. Most of these scholars are duly mentioned at one point or another in the book, but many of their ideas are embedded in the fabric of Carter’s arguments more frequently through implication rather than overt citation. It is as though the author, who has long been pondering, teaching, and writing about this material himself, had assembled his colleagues around a great, imaginary round table and engaged them individually and as a group in a wide-ranging dialogue, only one side of which, generally speaking, is audible to the reader. And perhaps it is Carter’s understandable desire to respond to and gloss these many, internalized voices that imparts a characteristic, almost rambling quality to his brilliant discourse. Not that the author is unclear. But one might wish for the more frequent appearance of such direct and pithy statements as, “The chief ‘problem’ of opera throughout its history [is] best expressed in a simple question: why should people sing?” (297).

2. Problems of Genre

2.1 Carter takes the widest possible approach to genre. Not only does he discuss the works whose genres are “problematic”—does the fate of Arianna properly belong to tragedy? is the Combattimento, for all Monteverdi’s attempts to turn epic into drama, truly a work in the genere rappresentativo?—but he also devotes a welcome chapter to the sung ballo. This genre, he reminds us, transgresses numerous generic and other boundaries between courtly life and courtly art in that “the space in which [works such as] the Ballo delle ingrate and Il sacrificio d’Ifigenia were performed was both theater and ballroom, merging context, content and function” (166). And he does not neglect to comment on the balli included within larger works, namely intermedi and opera, such as “Lasciate i monti” from Act I of Orfeo. These pieces are often given short shrift in the Monteverdi literature, and Carter goes a long way to restoring their integrity and importance in the composer’s works for the theater.

2.2 A different sort of genre problem, having more to do with aesthetic than dramatic definitions, is Monteverdi’s continuous shifting of the boundaries between theatrical recitation and song, between expressive recitative and aria. Thus the question: when is an aria not an aria in Monteverdi’s works? Moreover, once its characteristics are agreed upon (and even in the late works this is no easy task), what meaning do they impart? Carter rightly addresses these questions not as independent problems, but as they become relevant to the discussion of individual works, each of which receives its own chapter. Thus, Penelope’s insistence on “speaking” rather than “singing,” one of the most striking features of Il ritorno (discussed in Chapter 9), signifies her joylessness and rejection of love just as forcefully as Poppea’s triple-time melodies become her chief tool for achieving her seduction in L’incoronazione (Chapter 10). As Carter and others have noted, the melodic expansion in Monteverdi’s late operas grows from the psychological excitement of the heart, whereas in Orfeo both librettist and composer felt the need to emphasize verisimilitude and the diegetic qualities of song: Orfeo sings because he is a musician.

2.3 Finally, there are the genre problems engendered by Monteverdi’s own theorizing about the “guerriera,” “amorosa,” and “rappresentativa” categories, which Carter appropriately explores in the chapter on the Combattimento (Chapter 7). After reviewing Monteverdi’s explanation of the different musical generi in the Preface to Book 8, he rightly reminds us that we do not know whether the theoretical construct of the genere concitato predated or followed on the composition of the Combattimento, and hypothesizes that its constellation of musical gestures emerged gradually in the context of “standard word-painting devices” (176). This might be the place to comment, incidentally, that Carter’s dozen or so tables distributed throughout the book (the one in this chapter attempts to chart the “action” of the Combattimento and match each section to one of the three generi) share a quality that Carter himself amusingly attributes to Monteverdi’s Preface: “it looks better than it reads.” Like the composer’s Preface, Carter’s tables are crowded with encoded information that gratifies the reader only after long and patient study.

3. Interactions between Text and Music

3.1 Carter’s claim that his treatment of Monteverdi and his librettists (Chapter 3) privileges “the structural and expressive power of a poetic text to a greater extent than is customary in most studies of opera” (73) is a bit exaggerated. Nor is he the first person to recognize Rinuccini’s importance in establishing the conventions of the opera libretto. In Chapter 2, Carter’s analysis of Peri’s recitative style hinged, as it should, on Rinuccini’s libretto; so, in this chapter, Carter compares Striggio’s Orfeo libretto with Euridice, concentrating not on the parallel passages from Act II (as others and I have done),2 but rather on the passage from Act IV in which Orfeo leads Euridice out of Hades. Here he shows how the poet, moving from strophic to blank verse as Orfeo’s confidence wanes, prompts a parallel change in the composer’s treatment of the scene, as Orfeo shifts from singing back into “speaking.” In the context of the earlier chapter, Carter’s Table 2-1, listing the passages of “structured” verse in Rinuccini’s and Striggio’s librettos, seemed gratuitous; but with the addition in this chapter of Table 3-1, which identifies the passages of “structured” verse in Monteverdi’s later librettos, Carter’s legitimate, albeit delayed, point becomes clear: compared to the early operas, the “significant amount of structured verse” in the later ones reflects the growing attitude “that music should be more than just a form of heightened speech” (58).

3.2 Yet, the situation with the later operas is more complicated, as Carter acknowledges. In L’incoronazione and Il ritorno, arias based on rhyming and metrically structured verse are assigned principally to gods, “comic” characters, and lower-class lovers, whereas the roles of Nerone and Poppea receive few structured texts. Therefore, while a certain degree of “structural neutrality” in Busenello’s libretto “seems to have prompted Monteverdi to treat it very flexibly indeed” (67), decisions about when to have Poppea and others “sing” seem largely to have been made by the composer—a point already forcefully asserted by Rosand.3 Monteverdi’s well-known demand for emotional variety in a text is confirmed by the unknown librettist of Le nozze d’Enea in Lavinia (Venice, 1640–1; music lost), from whose preface Carter quotes at length (49) without, however, citing his source (apparently a manuscript of the “scenario”) or providing the original passage here in Italian (an omission Carter explains in his own preface, where he refers the reader to the anthology Composing Opera, edited by himself and Szweykowski, as the source for all the translations of contemporary documents in this volume).4

4. Pragmatic questions

4.1 The most gratifying and perhaps original aspect of Carter’s explorations is his interest in the “nuts and bolts” of Monteverdi’s musical theater. In Chapter 4, entitled “The Art of the Theatre,” Carter takes a pragmatic view of how Monteverdi’s works were brought to life on the stage. Singers, staging, sets, and costumes are among the performance matters placed under scrutiny. He quotes liberally from Marco da Gagliano’s preface to Dafne (1608), maintaining that the “tricks of the trade” revealed therein are also applicable to Orfeo, and reviews the relevant information about production to be gleaned from the general theatrical sources of the early seventeenth century—the anonymous Il corago and treatises by Angelo Ingegneri and Leone de’ Sommi. He offers observations about particular singers associated with Monteverdi and identifies them with roles they are either known to have sung or might easily have sung by virtue of their individual talents. Most importantly, he emphasizes that Monteverdi had “collaborative relationships” with his singers and exploited the special qualities of specific voices to produce “his most characteristic music” (91).

4.2 At the heart of the chapter lies Carter’s speculation about the personnel roster of each opera—who might have sung which role(s). This is painstakingly (and painfully, for the reader) deduced through a multilayered investigation that proceeds as follows. First Carter charts the “layout” of a given opera, identifying the number and placement of each character’s appearances on stage, scene by scene; then he determines the clef and range of each character’s part and compares these to see where similar tessituras would permit one and the same singer to perform two or three roles; finally he allocates a possible distribution of roles in that opera by combining this information with an analysis of the physical feasibility (allowing an appropriate amount of time for costume changes) of having a given singer appear in more than one role. Ultimately, he suggests that the thirty roles in Il ritorno d’Ulisse, distributed according to range, voice type, and appearances within the action, could have been allocated among fourteen singers. Carter performs similar exercises on Orfeo and L’incoronazione with equally convincing results. In the end, he concludes that Orfeo, with its seventeen solo roles, was designed and written for a stable group of nine male court singers plus a complementary group of instrumentalists that Monteverdi headed as Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga’s maestro di musica, whereas for the later Venetian works he had a much larger pool of performers available to him.

4.3 The book has a handy Appendix that lists Monteverdi’s theatrical works and, in addition to including the balli and lost pieces, correlates each work with the letters by Monteverdi that refer to it.


* Barbara Russano Hanning ( is Professor of Music at The City College and Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is the author of a book on early opera and various articles and reviews on seventeenth-century Italian music, musical iconography, and eighteenth-century French subjects. She co-edited the Palisca Festschrift containing more than twenty essays on Musical Humanism and Its Legacy (1992) and is the author of the Norton textbook Concise History of Western Music. She has served as president of the Society for Seventeenth-Century Music (1993–7) and as chairperson of her department at The City College of New York.

1 Nino Pirrotta, “Monteverdi e i problemi del melodramma,” in Studi sul teatro veneto fra Rinascimento ed età barocca, ed. Maria Teresa Muraro (Florence: Olschki, 1971), 321–43; trans. as “Monteverdi and the Problems of Opera,” in Pirrotta, Music and Culture in Italy from the Middle Ages to the Baroque: A Collection of Essays, Studies in the History of Music 1 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), 235–53.

2 See Gary Tomlinson, Monteverdi and the End of the Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 131–6; and Barbara Russano Hanning, Of Poetry and Music’s Power: Humanism and the Creation of Opera (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1980), 118–28, wherein both Acts I and II of each opera are compared.

3 Ellen Rosand, “Monteverdi’s Mimetic Art,” Cambridge Opera Journal 1 (1989): 113–37; and Rosand, Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice: The Creation of a Genre (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 255–6.

4 Tim Carter, ed., Composing Opera: From “Dafne” to “Ulisse errante, Practica Musica 2 (Kraków: Musica Iagellonica, 1994).


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