Giulio Rospigliosi, Pope Clement IX
For much more information about this great man and his works, see Danilo Romei's site at
What follows here is the text of a paper I gave at a conference held in Pistoia in 2000 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the birth of Giulio Rospigliosi. I had been invited because I had directed two of the operas for which he wrote libretti: La Vita Humana and La Baltasara. These were produced on a grand scale by the Glasgow International Early Music Festival, at Glasgow's Tramway, in 1990 and 1992.
Interpreting Rospigliosi for the modern stage - experiences in Glasgow
I feel extremely privileged to have been invited to this convegno - I am a mere practical regista and not a real academic, and although I always try to construct my productions on a foundation of proper study, there is always the possibility of a horrible mistake, and if I have made any, I beg you to forgive me.
I first encountered the works of Giulio Rospigliosi in 1989, when I was asked to direct a seventeenth-century opera for the Glasgow International Early Music Festival 1990, the year that Glasgow was the City of Culture. “La Vita Humana” had been suggested by Silke Leopold and taken up by Warwick Edwards of Glasgow University and the Scottish Early Music Consort. It was thought eminently suitable - a small band, not too many soloists, a chorus which could be taken by students, opportunities for professional dancers (we were lucky to be able to engage the late Andrea Francalanci and his group Il Ballerino, who proved to be a great asset) , and a very good source in the shape of the edition printed so beautifully for the Barberini, a copy of which is in the British Library. We acquired Margaret Murata’s invaluable book and it became clear on reading it that this was a piece that would be worth investigating properly.
It was easy to see that the music of Marco Marazzoli was going to be very interesting - beautiful arias, wonderful unexpected harmonies in the recitatives, a flexible interchange between arioso and recitative that reminds one of Monteverdi and anticipates Cavalli. However, at first glance the plot of La Vita Humana did not seem promising, being an allegory, and moreover, an allegory written for a specific occasion, and these are often rather too ceremonious, shallow and overcomplimentary. But I read the libretto with an increasing pleasure as it became swiftly clear that the poet was in fact an extraordinarily good dramatist. The characters in the opera have allegorical names, but are truly real people, with profound depths, multidimensional. Moreover, I do believe that it is not just an accident of grammar that Vita is feminine and Intendimento masculine - even though they were all originally sung by men. The relationship between Vita and Intendimento is an extraordinary one. They are more than lovers, they are soul-mates, and their story is one that has relevance to us all.
We made a new performing edition, as we always do for our productions. Warwick Edwards compared the manuscripts and the printed edition and we printed our new edition ourselves. We had of course to make some cuts - modern audiences, in contrast to the less hurried spectators of the seventeenth century, are not happy to stay in a theatre for more than three hours (unless it happens to be Wagner). However, in cutting the text we tried always to respect the metre as well as the sense. I believe we succeeded with the second, and with the first as far as was possible.
There is a huge amount of information available on “La Vita Humana”. Because it was presented for Queen Christina, and also because it was a Barberini production, it was extremely well recorded. We know the names of the singers, and also some interesting details about them: for example, Lodovico Lenzi, who sang the role of Intendimento, was a long-standing friend of Rospigliosi’s - when Rospigliosi was Nuncio in Madrid he asked expressly for Lenzi to come out and join him. The singer was also a stage director - notably in 1668, of “La Baltasara”, Rospigliosi’s last opera, produced in his pontificate (which we revived in Glasgow in 1992).
The available information includes beautiful engravings of the sets, designed by Grimaldi, together with some working drawings; moreover 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 lamps and candles were used, and precisely what types.
It was thus very tempting to consider a thoroughgoing reconstruction of the original production. We were planning to use as authentic a band of musicians as possible, after all, and the space of our theatre, the Tramway, we could shape as we liked. We were thus forced to think very precisely about what it was that we were trying to do. How far do you, should you, can you go in recreating a seventeenth century performance? How much information, what attitudes can you assume to be common to the 17th and 20th century audiences? If you present a simulacrum of a 17th century performance to a 20th century audience, what response do you get? Indeed, what exactly are you trying to recreate - the look, the sound, the impact?
The sound element was the easiest to consider: since we have no contemporary sound recordings, but only treatises, accounts, and inert musical instruments to tell us what it sounded like - as opposed to the apparently precise visual records - we are already compelled to interpret. If we listen to recordings of the past thirty years, it’s clear that all of them, from Leppard to Gardiner, are using the same source material to produce music that sounds radically different - and the major cause of the differences is not so much the state of academic knowledge but the estimated capability of the audience to understand it, not to mention changing tastes. What is also clear, however, is that what is really working has much less to do with the level of authenticity than with the intensity of music-making. So that became our attitude to the music: we did our own research, we engaged the most knowledgable musicians that we could find, but the goal was to make music with it, to move the audience, not just impress them. This is scarcely controversial - I doubt whether any musician would want to do otherwise, and everybody has to make certain accommodations between written rules and actual practice, most of which will be made in the interests of better communication.
The other two elements, however - the look and the impact - are much more problematic. How you balance the fact that the things that appear to us exotic and enchanting - for example the candlelight, the costumes, the dances - were for them everyday, and that which was for them new and exciting - the effects, the machines, the gestures of the actors - have become boring clichés for us?
We looked at the information on costumes - they appeared to us completely gorgeous, full of gold and silver, very rich - but also heavy, clerical, and not very easy to move in. It is possible that they are loaded with allegorical information in the colours and materials, but this is generally inaccessible to the present-day public. Indeed, the characters in this opera have been marvelleously delineated by Rospigliosi - they are multidimensional, not cardboard, and they deserve costumes that show the public more precisely who they are. Therefore we designed costumes that in their colour or shape say something important about the character in question - La Vita, for example, being a type of the queen Christina, had a dress that was copied from a famous painting of the queen, Intendimento was dressed in scholarly black, and Innocenza in the papal colours of white and yellow.
We then considered set design. The Grimaldi designs did not seem to us to be full of specific dramatic significance - the castles, the dark wood, the garden - all beautiful but not new. At the end of the opera comes the vision of Truth - and what is truth? It is a view of the Vatican - though even this was not made specifically for this opera, having been used very succesfully in the production of “La Genoinda” in 1641.
This illustrates perfectly the dilemma of the modern director: faced with an old work, we often lament the lack of information about its original staging, but when as in this case the information exists, we then find that it gives out completely different, and rather unwelcome - signals to today’s public. Glasgow, for example, is a city full of strong Catholics, also strong Protestants, and atheists and all the other religions found in any modern city. It is completely impossible to present in Glasgow a vision of the Vatican as Eternal Truth.
This is perhaps an extreme case, but it is true that the presentation of a complete physical reconstruction, exact in every details - even when it can be done, and I have not yet begun to talk about the problems of recreating an historical acting style - the research will not guarantee that the opera will be understood. And this is, surely, the object of the work, to communicate something. A director must constantly be making decisions as to how much the audience is going to understand - how much can be taken for granted, how much needs to be explained, without either mystification or condescension. These operas of Rospigliosi were both new and absolutely unknown. We had a responsibility to ensure that everyone understood what was being talked about in the pieces.
I feel that all this research is a little like learning to speak a new language - it is necessary first to learn vocabulary and grammar before one can express oneself properly in the language. Many people think that baroque opera is always either too simple, pastoral, boring, or too complex, convuluted, incomprehensible - and boring. Indeed, some are just like that, but the operas of Rospigliosi are wonderfully clear, and deserve productions which are not complex, but which present the story considering the profound moral concepts within them. I wanted to create an atmosphere that would be true to the libretto and the music without getting lost in the labyrinth of ‘authenticity’.
I was very aware that we were presenting an unknown piece in Italian to a largely non-Italian audience (though there is a large Italian community in Glasgow, and we hoped that many of them would come). We could not afford supertitles, and therefore were very anxious to make the story as clear as possible. I also wanted to preserve the connection with Queen Christina. So we engaged four actors, to represent Christina, Rospigliosi, Cardinal Antonio Barberini, and a Clerico Ignoto. They argued, on English, between the acts, and thereby made the audience aware of some of the concepts running through the opera, for example, the discussion of the nature of free will.
We looked for a theatre that would give us maximum flexibility, and chose the Tramway, a large, indeed monumental, space with wonderful acoustics - it is possible to hear one voice and lute perfectly clearly in all places, and yet a full chorus with trumpets and drums also sounds very good. It was the only place in Britain that Peter Brook would use for his Mahabharata in 1989. It possesses an extraordinary atmosphere, a kind of essence of theatre, though it is not at all ornate or decorated. In this respect it is probably not at all like the Barberini theatre (though that too was apparently once a carriage store...), but it is certainly a place that inspires.
Because the Tramway has seats on three sides, we decided to put the little orchestra in two sections on either side, with continuo (harpsichords, lutes, harps, bassi) on both sides, strings and cornetti on one and trumpets and drums on the other. It is not known where the band might have been in the Barberini theatre, but there is ample evidence from earlier in the century to justify not putting them across the front. This enabled us to bring the action right down to the audience, and was particularly good for the interaction between Queen Christina and the opera - for example, in Act II, Innocenza and Vita present her with la fior della beltade, a rose which Piacer gave Vita and Vita has given to Innocenza, a reminder of how fragile and beautiful life is.
For the sets, we wanted to do something precisely adapted to the spirit of the opera, and therefore constructed a white ramp, made in perspective, and closed at the top by a low screen. The Tramway possesses two side walls, rather high, that act as wings - they are practical, so we made one the fortress of Colpa and the other of Innocenza. I should add that Innocenza, Lorna Anderson, did not like being so high up, and we therefore arranged for an escort of beautiful Italian dancers to accompany her wheneve she had to sing from the top of the wall. I wanted this white ramp to represent a journey through winter, Christina’s journey from the frozen north to the warm south. In Act III, Piacer’s magic garden was a purely artificial garden, with paper trees and a frozen stream - when Innocenza invoked the image of the Cross, it was as if Easter and Spring burst through the ice of winter. The fountains played and the chorus of Virtues distributed fresh green branches - instead of a vision of the Vatican we had a vision of Spring and New Life, and a cross of pure light - Questo è il segno tremendo’ as l’Innocenza says - illuminated the back wall.
As we worked on this piece, all of us became more and more impressed with the quality of the libretto. 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 other similar allegories of the period, predictable and two-dimensional, also the pious conclusion could easily have been merely a reiteration of orthodox theology. But ‘La Vita Humana’ deals with problems that are as relevant today as they were then to a queen as famous for her education as for her emotion. Rospigliosi splits a whole person into her instinctive and rational parts, and in an astonishingly Jungian manner - which is not just an accident of word-gender - personifies them as female and male partners, who must learn how much they need each other. He also stipulates that this requires the effort of free will: the answer is not imposed from above. This is impeccable (Catholic) theology - free will versus predestination - but is also remarkably sympathetic to a modern audience.
As regards this question of free will - I think it is significant that the Jansenist controversy was very much a burning topic of discussion in the 1650’s - I believe that this opera contains Rospigliosi’s ideas on the subject, and is in a sense his answer to the Jansenists.
“La Vita Humana” was such a success that we decided to produce another of the Rospigliosi operas for the Glasgow Festival of 1992. We first considered the successful combination of Rospigliosi and Marazzoli, and looked at “Le Armi e gli Amore”. But although it seemed very good, brilliant, even, the story was too complex for us to consider producing it for an audience which did not speak Italian. I had read about “La Comica del Cielo” in Margaret Murata’s book, and had been fascinated by the idea of the ‘teatro nel teatro’, and when I began to read the libretto I discovered that this was indeed a great piece, containing a fabulous role for a cantratrice who is also a good actress, good secondary roles, and opportunities for chorus and dancers. The music of Antonio Maria Abbattini is not perhaps so harmonically adventurous as that of Marazzoli, but it proved also to be very responsive to the text, full of expressive recitative and ariosi sometimes humorous and often deeply touching.
This production also took place in Glasgow’s Tramway, and was also very successful with both audience and critics - one critic called it ‘an enchanted voyage through time and space’. We video’d the dress rehearsal and made a short tape of highlights, about twenty minutes, which I shall show at the end of this talk, and I shall speak about my approach to the opera principally in terms of the scenes that you will see on video.
I was fascinated by the accounts of Bernini’s setting for the first act, where a stage audience confronts the real audience as in a mirror. Alas, this would have been impossible to achieve in the Tramway - we thought about mirrors, but our budget was far too small! However, it was very possible to create the theatre within the theatre in such a fashion as one could see both the stage and the wing spaces. This is probably not that which was meant originally, but it works very well, and makes the story absolutely clear for the real audience.
The dramatic framework we had made for ‘Vita’, of Christina, Rospigliosi, etc, had worked very well, so I decided to do the same thing for ‘Baltasara’, and we had an actor playing Rospigliosi, now Pope, and another playing the same Clerico ignoto who had been part of Christina’s entourage - this time the clerico ignoto was a fierce opponent of the theatre, holding it to be a work of the Devil. He began in the foyer, attacking the audience for their immoral behaviour, and telling them to go home immediately, then before each act argued with the Pope as to the propriety of the whole enterprise. Of course, by the beginning of Act III he is completely enchanted with the whole idea, and convinced that the theatre can be as powerful a tool for good as any sermon.
The opera begins with Baltasara alone, thinking, sad and confused in her dressing room, and gradually the action opens to include the other actors of her troupe, and then orange-sellers, and spectators who mingle with the real audience, until a chorus shouts ‘troppo lungo dimora’, and the Play of Clorinda begins. We shall see a short moment from the duet that is sung by the spectators Alvero, the lover of Baltasara, and his friend Rodrico, the lover of Baltasara’s rival Beatrice - in the background you can see the actors and the stagehands who are raising the chandeliers.
Rospigliosi’s treatment of the Spanish original deserves some consideration. During his long stay in Madrid he must have become very closely acquainted with the theatre there. He certainly knew Calderon, who was his exact contemporary, and I have always wondered whether Calderon’s eventual acceptance of his vocation - he finally became a priest in 1651 - was in part due to an association with Rospigliosi. There is certainly evidence of great Italian influence on Spanish music theatre of the time.
The use of Tasso’s story of Clorinda is a very brilliant idea of Rospigliosi’s. It is not in the original Spanish comedia, where Baltasara is playing the wife of Saladin, Rosa Solimano. Sunk in her own thoughts, Baltasara makes a mistake with the entrance for her big scene. In the original, she arrives on a horse, and the actor who plays Saladino cries ‘Baltasara, no, the horse is not until Act III!’. Rospigliosi rejected this spectacular but risky moment in favour of a completely different story taken from Tasso’s Gierusalemme Liberata, which would have been extremely familiar to his audience. Now Baltasara plays the Saracen heroine Clorinda. She too makes a mistaken entrance, as a player reminds her from backstage.
The first scene which we will see is the scene where Baltasara finally makes the proper entrance as Clorinda. She appears, the tiger on her helmet, under the walls of Jerusalem. A sentinel sings ‘Beauty is like lightning which fades’. For Baltasara it suddenly seems unclear whether this is part of the play, whether the voice comes from the city or her heart. This is clearly not part of the script, and one can see behind the scenes the other actors become very worried. She recovers, but when the sentry sings again, she feels that this time God really is calling her. She takes off the armour of Clorinda and rushes off to the desert, leaving the actors standing confused.
The act finishes with the spectators and the actors discussing the extraordinary events as they leave - ‘La comedia è finita’ - in our production we gave this line to the actor who played Aladino, who let his mask drop to reveal that he was the devil all the time.
The question of acting style became a very important one. In the first act it is crucial that we understand the difference between Baltasara being Clorinda and being herself, but in fact all through the opera the question of truth and illusion is continually debated, and a flexible approach to naturalism and stylisation is essential to respond to the layers of meaning that are within Rospigliosi’s text. I have done a lot of research into acting style of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and experimented myself with it in productions of Handel’s operas. But these operas are so much less formalized than Metastasian opera - the style slips easily between humorous, natural, poetic, and oratorical. In the same way as I found in ‘Vita’ that the characters, although originally sung by men, worked so convincingly as male and above all as female characters that one could believe that this was in Rospigliosi’s mind (as it also was in Shakespeare’s, under similar conditions), so I found that the physical style of acting that worked best was one not based on the acting treatises of the time but on the paintings and sculptures. We were also trying to communicate with our audience, and modern tastes require a naturalistic style - though it can be argued that every era looks to see itself recognisably on the stage, every era considers the style of its favourite actors to be entirely and convincingly natural. A large part of rehearsal time was taken up with finding exactly the right balance between stylisation and naturalism. And we always began with the words, spoken as in a play, before we started to sing them.
The scene changes to a desert. A cave was difficult to create in the open spaces of the Tramway, so we chose to use a huge dead tree with a hollow trunk - this isn’t so far off, as Biscotto sees Baltasara writing ’nel seno d’un albore’. I know that’s not quite what was meant, but it works very well onstage. Alvero her lover has been persuaded by the Devil to pursue Baltasara and bring her back, and we see the scene between Baltasara and Alvero, where it is clear that this is a real temptation - she still cares for him. This was one of the scenes that made it clear to us that we could not be formal and stylized in the acting, but should show physically the extreme passions that the characters were expressing in their music.
The next scene shows Lisa, who, despairing of bringing Baltasara back to civilisation, has decided to leave the desert and go back to the city.
I was particularly interested in finding out exactly who Baltasara’s colleagues were, especially Lisa and Biscotto, who follow her to the desert. Historically, Francesca Baltasara was married to a gracioso, a buffoon, called Miguel, and though Biscotto, Rospigliosi’s version, is very fond of her, he is clearly not married to her. Rospigliosi’s Lisa is, in the Spanish play, Miguel’s stage-partner, Iusepa the graciosa. Interestingly, Rospigliosi has not attempted to make these into Italian Commedia dell’arte figures - the scene is still set in Spain. Moreover, there are no equivalents for these two amongst the stock Commedia characters. Biscotto is obviously the sort of grand comedian who remains known by his own name whatever character-role he is playing (as Fernandel or Frankie Howerd). Lisa is even more different - her preoccupations are money and independence. I read a lot about Spanish theatre-companies and the kind of actors and actresses within them, and came to the conclusion that we could cast her as somebody of significance and responsibility within the company, perhaps even the owner. There were certainly female Autors - owners and producers of acting troupes - in 17th C Spain.
After this there is one of the shifts from the comic to the serious that Rospigliosi does so skilfully. Baltasara, weak from fasting, sleeps, and while she sleeps the Devil prepares a final temptation - Alvero has not succeeded, so mere sex will not work. He decides to take on the form of a girl, innocent and friendly, who will offer Baltasara the drink that will break her fast and her resolve. ové la mia spelonca, ove il deserto?’ she sings when she wakes and sees the scene prepared by the Devil: ‘Questo é teatro alle delitie aperto.’
This scene became one of the most spectacular in the production. In the Tramway, it is very difficult to put a chorus ‘dentro la scena’, so we brought them out. We also divided the chorus of three voices into sections for female and male voices singing alternately. I wanted to present appropriate temptations - what would bring an actress back? Adulation, parties, fine food and wine, and above all, a star role: we made posters advertising the Play of Baltasara, a glorification of her own life and times. As the Devil says ‘si puo servire in Babilonia a Dio’ a girl offers the actress the bound script with her name on the front... This interpretation does indeed go far beyond the actual text. But I believe that it did truly stem from Rospigliosi’s concept, and is very much in the spirit of Bernini’s teatro nel teatro stage designs.
Act II closes with the Devil reduced to tempting Lisa and Biscotto (with sweets made of stones), and Lisa watches the waves dancing - the dance music is in the original, though it is not clear who exactly might be dancing. We took this as a perfect moment to remind the audience of the other vanished actress, Beatrice, who ran off as a renegade to join the Corsairs. The waves dance, and through them comes the Corsaro, dancing for Beatrice, as you will see on the video. Right at the very end enters Rodrico, her former lover, as the naval captain pursuing the Corsairs.
Act III presented an interesting problem - what was it actually about? Baltasara has defeated the Devil, and will certainly go to heaven. It took me some time to realise that Act III is about the witnessing - the manifestation of sainthood - about holiness being active as well as passive. Baltasara shows her sanctity by saving Beatrice from despair, the death of the soul, and also from physical death at the hands of Rodrico. By the same action she saves Rodrico too from the mortal sin of murdering Beatrice. She sends the redeemed and penitent Beatrice to find a priest, and then is visited herself by the figure of Penitenza, who helps her die - this is the next scene on the video. Penitenza in our production is Beatrice transformed - although this is not how it was done originally, it seems very convincing (although it means an incredibly fast costume change!). Though there is a link - Beatrice in our production also played Vittoria, the prologo to the Clorinda play in Act I, and this role was combined in the original production with Penitenza.
After a splendid fight, Penitenza vanquishes the Demonio and thrusts him down to hell, and then a chorus of angels sings. The Tramway has no facility for machines or revelations as certainly happened in the original, but it has its own magic. One by one, or two by two, all the singers and dancers and even the spettatori from Act I came to place little votive lights round Baltasara’s rock. Finally - this is the last scene on the video - the actor playing the Pope himself comes and raises Baltasara, and the entire company bow to each other and exit - not exactly a ballo delle sette virtu, but as much a representation of the theatres of paradise as we could make.
These two operas are truly marvellous example of the seventeenth century dramma per musica, and they deserve to be seen again. The angels sing, at the end of La Baltasara, ‘Del Paradiso, ecco i teatri aperto’. It struck me as extraordinarily significant that of all his pieces, Rospigliosi chose this one to be presented during his Papacy. Although we have no record of any theatrical activity involving him after his appointment as a Cardinal in 1657, I find it difficult to believe that a man who had invested so much time and energy in writing for the theatre, through perhaps forty years, could lose all interest so abruptly. The preoccupation with the nature of illusion and reality must have remained with him in some way, and also the conviction that the theatre was an instrument for good and not for evil. ‘La Baltasara’ examines the idea that truth may speak through falseness, and both ‘La Vita Humana’ and ‘La Baltasara’ celebrate the idea that at the point where the illusion is most powerful the ultimate reality becomes approachable. In short, they celebrate the redemption of the theatre.
© Kate Brown