|Francesca Baltasara de los Reyes, first lady of Heredia’s troupe, playing in Valencia, left the company and her husband Miguel the gracioso (fool) at the height of her fame, and went to live in a hermitage near Cartagena. She became renowned for her holiness, and when she died, all the bells of the hermitage rang of their own accord.
This is the sum of the information given us by the Genealogia, an annotated list dating from the early 18th century of hundreds of actors and actresses of the preceding century. Contrary perhaps to expectation, there were a number of actresses who were known for having led exemplary lives in spite of their profession, or who had eventually retired to convents. Maria Calderón was mistress to Philip IV and the mother of Don John of Austria, who defeated the Turkish fleet at Lepanto; after a far from exemplary life she entered a convent at Guadalajara, eventually becoming its abbess. However, none took the theatrical imagination as did La Baltasara, whose spectacular conversion took place onstage, in the middle of a play, and it cannot have been very long after her death that a play was written (by three authors, Velez de Guevara, Coello, and Rojas de Zorilla, one act each, a fairly common practice). It was eventually published, the first play in a large collection of mid-17th century hits, in 1652, when Rospigliosi was still in Madrid.
In adapting the Spanish original for the Italian music theatre, Rospigliosi made some significant changes. His version is shorter, tighter, cutting various rather repetitive episodes in Acts II and III in order perhaps to give more time for the arias, but chiefly to emphasize the spiritual aspects of the story. One may not regret the loss of several more pages of Alvero’s laments and remonstrations, but personally I miss the onstage battle in Act II where Rodrigo and his fellow knights of St John rout the Corsairs (we did what we could to rectify this in our production by adding a dance for Corsairs interrupted by Rodrigo at the end of Act II).
Where the Spanish play is historically-episodically structured, probably using local traditions of the story (it had all happened within living memory, after all), Rospigliosi has another agenda, a spiritual one. Act I contains the crucial experience: within the extreme artificiality of a play within a play, the ultimate Reality speeaks to Baltasara. In Act II she withstands temptation, and in Act III the power of the Saint is made manifest. These are all necessary stages in the process of beatification.
Some of the most radical alterations occur in Act I. The Spanish play begins with the bustle of the theatre: someone puts up a poster advertising La Gran Comedia del Saladino, spectators argue, vendors sell fruit, nuts and other essentials, the company gathers, Baltasara tells her fellow actors that she’s not feeling up to much today. Rospigliosi chooses instead to begin at the heart of things, with Baltasara alone and pensive in her dressing room. Gradually the world of the theatre forms around her until it explodes with the chorus of spectators shouting their impatience for the play to begin. The play-within-the-play is also significantly tailored for the Italian audience. Drawing on Spanish traditions of the Crusades, Velez de Guevara had invented for Baltasara the figure of Rosa Solimano, wife of Saladin. Distracted by her thoughts, Baltasara here makes her wrong entrance on a horse (“Back!” cries the actor playing Saladino, “the horse isn’t till Act III!”). Rospigliosi rejected this spectacular but risky moment in favour of a completely different Crusades storyline taken from the books of Tasso with which his audience would have been familiar: the well-known story of Tancredi and Clorinda, with Baltasara playing Clorinda. Interestingly, although he has rewritten the first few scenes of the ‘play-within-the-play’ to reflect events in Tasso, the crucial episode in the opera where Clorinda is inspecting the walls of Jerusalem has no equivalent in Tasso but is adapted from the Spanish play (I wonder if this divergence from the universally known Tasso might have occasioned a certain frisson in the Roman audience, as it might do to us should we watch a play-within-a-play where Hamlet killed Claudius at his prayers).
In Act II the Devil in person incites Baltasara’s former lover Alvero to try and get her back. This is taken from the Spanish play, but Rospigliosi has added a further twist. Baltasara rejects Alvero (though with extreme difficulty), so the Devil tries again. Taking the disguise of a friendly damsel (where sex fails, chumminess may yet find a way. La Colpa uses much the same technique to seduce Vita in the earlier La Vita Humana), he creates a much more serious temptation by evoking the scene of her earthly triumphs: “This is a theatre, open to all delights” exclaims Baltasara.
The Spanish Act III is very rambling, compared to Rospigliosi’s, though the actual cause of her death from continual fasting is more clearly stated. Rospigliosi has conflated episodes from Acts II and III involving the rival actress Beatrice (called Leonora in the original, perhaps a significant change) and her lover Rodrico to produce circumstances in which Baltasara can now manifest her sanctity, by saving not only Beatrice from despair, the soul’s death, and physical death at the hands of Rodrico, but also Rodrico himself from committing the deadly crime of murder. It is significant that Baltasara sends the redeemed Beatrice to find a divine minister to be a witness. Penitenza is also Rospigliosi’s invention, the personification of Heaven’s grace, who will lead the actress into the theatres of paradise.
As Leonora is transformed into Beatrice, so are the actors of the comic subplot subtly changed. Historically, Baltasara was married to Miguel Ruiz, the gracioso or clown who appears (evidently as a rather complaisant husband) in the Spanish play. Miguel has been turned into Biscotto, who while greatly attached to Baltasara is clearly not married to her. Rospigliosi’s Lisa is, in the Spanish play, Iusepa the graciosa, Miguel’s stage-partner. One might expect the Italian versions to fall into commedia dell’arte role demarcations, but this is not the case. Their Spanish originals were much more akin to their English comic actor counterparts, and Rospigliosi has reflected this in his characterisations. Neither Biscotto nor Lisa fits any commedia type. Biscotto is obviously the sort of grand comedian who remains known by his name whatever part he is playing. Lisa is even more interesting: her preoccupations are with money and independence, and it is tempting to cast her as somebody of significance and responsibility within the troupe, perhaps even as the actor-manager owner, for there were indeed female autors in 17th century Spain.
Guilio Rospigliosi first went to Spain in the retinue of Cardinal Francesco Barberini in 1626. He was already an accomplished dramatist, and his plays were performed in Madrid. A dedication to one of them published later in Rome states that Lope de Vega himself admired them. Returning to Rome, in the years from 1630 to 1644 he wrote at least eight dramas to be set to music, which were performed and sometimes revived from year to year, as the Barberini contribution to the Carnival celebrations.
In 1644 he returned to Madrid as Papal Nuncio (the palace still stands, overlooking a lovely street of steps onto which café life now spills out). Shortly after his arrival there, the Barberini Pope Urban VIII died, and Innocent X, from the rival family of the Pamphili, took his place. The Barberini fled Rome for France, but Rospigliosi stayed in Madrid, where he was joined by his equally theatre-loving nephew Jacopo and the singer Lodovico Lenzi (who sang the role of Intendimento in La Vita Human and directed the production of La Baltasara.) Records are scarce, but it seems that he knew Calderón de la Barca, and must have frequented the theatres, for he certainly came back to Rome with quantities of Spanish plays in his luggage. His subsequent works are nearly all based on Spanish models. The exception is La Vita Humana, written for Christina of Sweden, but even this shows strong Spanish influence on its thought and imagery. He had stayed in Madrid for nearly ten years, eventually returning to Rome in 1653 for the festivities celebrating the reconciliation of the Barberini and the Pamphili for which he wrote a play for music, Dal male il bene based on one of those brought back from Spain.
He continued to write for the Barberini. 1656 was a kind of annus mirabilis, when three pieces of his were performed in the same Carnival season in honour of Christina of Sweden. These included, besides La Vita Humana, an opera called Le armi e gli amori, based on a play of Calderón’s and featuring a theatrical prologue foreshadowing La Baltasara. He continued to rise within the church, becoming a Cardinal in 1657, and was finally elected Pope in 1667 (for more about him see Danilo Romei’s excellent site). His reign was short, and marked by continuing problems with French Jansenists (reforming Catholics) and with the Turks, but nevertheless he abolished certain abuses against the Jews, reduced taxes, founded an academy for the study of church history, and protected the arts - he was a patron of the first public theatre in Rome, Christina’s project, the Teatro Tordinona.
La Baltasara was his last opera, the only one of his performed in his pontificate. The libretto had probably been written some years before, possibly while he was still in Spain. The score, however, shows signs of having been revised for the performances in question (the music is certainly very contemporary and rather different from that composed for his earlier libretti). It is interesting to speculate why this particular piece, of all his works, might have been chosen. It was produced by Jacopo his nephew, and directed by Lodovico Lenzi, both of whom had been with him during the long stay in Madrid. There is in Spanish drama of the period a strong fascination with illusion and reality (one thinks of Calderón’s La vida es sueño Life’s a Dream and by extension with the nature of theatre itself Calderón again, in El gran teatro del mundo and earlier, in Lope de Vega’s Lo fingido verdadero, a play about the conversion of St Gines, a pagan Roman actor who in playing a Christian, sees God. This too is at the heart of La Baltasara, the idea that truth may speak through falseness, that at the point where the illusion is most powerful the ultimate reality becomes approachable. Perhaps it is not too far-fetched to think of this opera almost as a kind of apologia pro vita sua.
© Kate Brown