An Operatic Pilgrim's Progress...


article by Kate Brown from the original festival programme. All rights reserved.

What is this opera about? It has affinities with the Pilgrim’s Progress, which it predates by about twenty years. It is Catholic, of course, with its libretto written by a Monsignor who later became Pope, and the music composed by a harpist from the Sistine Chapel. But it is not as fanatically Catholic as one might have expected from something created in the mid-seventeenth century, a time of almost uninterrupted religious conflict. Although it is made quite clear at the denouement of the opera that the true faith is to be found in Rome, this is done without any sideswipes at those usually labelled by the Counter-Reformation as heretics (now more often referred to as ‘our separated brethren’). There is no sectarian pettymindedness, which is a tribute perhaps not only to the author but also to the person (who later became a close friend) for whom the piece was written: Christina, the former queen of Sweden.

Christina was the daughter of the great Lutheran King Gustavus Adolphus, the Protestant hero of the Thirty Years War, and on the face of it an unlikelier candidate for conversion to Roman Catholicism could not be imagined. Gustavus died in battle when she was six, and she was brought up very much as his heir. Elizabeth I of England was her role-model, and like Elizabeth, she found unbearable the thought of relinquishing power and independence to a husband. She realised however that Elizabeth’s course of action was no answer for Sweden (England at this time was in the throes of civil war). She abdicated in 1654 at the age of 28 in favour of her cousin Karl Gustav, and went to Rome.

Every one of her many biographers has suggested a different reason for this decision. There must have been many, but I am sure this was a consideration: what are the options for an educated, intelligent woman, used to power but not willing to exercise it at the risk of dynastic conflict or uncertainty after her death, in love with theatre and music, French and Italian culture? To marry and give away the power in Sweden? To abdicate and go to another court - where she would always be used as a political pawn, where precedence would always be given to its reigning Queen? In many ways, Rome - a centre of sophisticated culture and full of clever men who would not want to marry her - was the only answer. She spent some time travelling around Europe and was received formally into the Roman Church at Innsbruck. She finally arrived in Rome for Christmas 1655, just in time for the Carnival.

The welcome given to her was spectacular. Among the most prominent of her admirers were the Barberini family, and it was they who organized the set of entertainments that culminated in the opera especially composed for the occasion, La Vita Humana. In fairness, one ought to point out that the real climax of the Barberini celebrations was the Carousel or horse ballet given in the courtyard of their palace after the opera, featuring Amazons on horseback wearing headresses of 500 ostrich and peacock feathers each (alas, the music does not survive, or we would undoubtedly have attempted to include it in the Glasgow Festival...)

The dedication to Christina, the intelligent, independent, theatrical queen, is therefore not arbitrary but central to the whole work. The story of the soul’s journey through the snares of illusion, seduced by Guilt and rescued by Innocence, could easily have been (like so many similar allegories of the period) emblematic, static, two-dimensional, the plot wholly predictable. Yet Rospigliosi’s characters have remarkable depth: they plot, deceive, are deceived, suffer, triumph; the relationships between them are subtle and strong; they develop throughout the course of the opera. In addition, although in accordance with the principles of the reigning Pope all the characters were sung by men (when Rospigliosi became Pope himself things became for a brief time more liberal, and women were allowed to perform in public), the characters are clearly perceived in terms of gender, with the central character, Vita, as a young woman accompanied by Intendimento, her (male) intellect. There are Jungian pre-echoes – one might compare it to Aquarian Tippett’s Midsummer Marriage, or to the Enlightened Mozart’s Magic Flute, where both men and women must work together to reach fulfilment. Here it is Vita who is the strongest, and Intendimento who collapses under the strain. Life has resources other than intellect, intellect cannot stand alone – an argument certainly used by the Church to bolster faith against science, but perhaps not entirely unsympathetic to our holistic, post-rationalistic age. The other characters have unexpected depths too. Innocence is by no means innocent in our debased sense of the word: she is far from naïve, sees clearly what is happening, but will not compromise free will. Her role is simply to reveal truth. Guilt is knowing, seductive, androgynous, attractive to both life and intellect, chameleon-like assuming whatever form is most likely to work. Her sidekick, Pleasure, is Mephistophelean, in the Marlowe/Goethe sense – he is fun, the life and soul of the party, and hell burns inside him.

This is what we are given by the opera itself and the facts of its genesis. There is also in fact quite an extraordinary amount of information available to us about the original production. Detailed narratives exist of all the festivities, and of this one particularly; engravings exist of the sets, together with some working drawings; the household accounts of the Barberini reveal precisely what was used and how much was paid for it, what the sets and costumes were made of and who made them, what the machines were made of (though sadly not always how they worked), how many candles and lamps were used. But the very existence of such material means that one must start to deal seriously with the highly controversial notions of ‘authentic’ performance. How far do you, should you, can you go in recreating a 17th century performance? Indeed, what exactly are you trying to recreate – the look, the sound, the impact? How much information, what attitudes can you assume to be common to the 17th and 20th century audiences? How do you balance the facts that what seems exotic and enchanting to us was everyday to them – the costumes, the dances – and what was new and arresting for them may have become clichés for us – the gestures, the effects? No matter how much material you have, you cannot recreate the seventeenth century, only an idea of it. But if you believe the idea is worth investigating, then the answer must lie, I think, in the sort of approach familiar to us from the best of the ‘early music’ interpreters: it must of course involve knowledge of period conditions both real and ideal, but that in itself is more like simply learning the language the piece is written in, and alone does not guarantee either good music or good theatre. One must start with the life inherent in the piece itself, a truth about the human predicament which is independent of time, which one then presents in a setting which speaks from their time to ours.

Vita journeys through Illusion to Reality, Christina journeyed from icy Sweden to sunlit Italy, we live from dawn to dusk, passing through the dark night to the light again with the aid of hope: these are the arches, given by the librettist, by history, by our own experience, on which we build our story.

© Kate Brown

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