The Phenomenon of opera

Important, but often underestimated: the Libretto

The Archivio Storico Ricordi has an extensive collection of libretti, which Giovanni Ricordi begins to build early on, simultaneously with the music. Five groups can be discerned in the collection: manuscript libretti, typed libretti, printed libretti from the early 17th century, printed libretti that were not set to music, and drafts. Duplicates of printed libretti are often found, some of which served as the publisher’s notebook during the performance and contain his observations about the staging and audience reactions. Unlike the published review, this provides a direct eyewitness account of the performance history. The libretto, an object of discussion since the birth of opera, has repeatedly been evaluated differently over four centuries of opera history. Given the large inventory in the archive, there can really no longer be any doubt about the role of the libretto, though this does mark a convergence of mercantile and artistic factors: the acquisition of the rights to a libretto was often the first step in the production of an opera; not having a good libretto was a reason not to produce an opera. All his life Verdi searched for a good librettist for an opera based on King Lear by Shakespeare. The opera was never created: when, in his old age, he finally met a suitable librettist — Arrigo Boito — it was too late.

The ongoing indexing of the Archivio Storico Ricordi’s important libretto collection, its cataloguing and structuring, provides an invaluable new resource for libretto research. This will result in new emphases regarding the preferred material and texts, but also regarding the development of the language of the libretto. The multimedia presentation of various versions and editions of texts that illustrate the history of the libretto — complemented by examples from the correspondence — would give an insight into the origin of libretti, and thus into the development of the typology and poetics of the libretto as part of opera dramaturgy. The archive’s libretto collection dates back to the 17th century (items that predate the founding of the publishing house itself arrived in the archive through acquisitions of various publishers and printing firms, as well as the collections of impresarios). A thorough new cataloguing of this part of the collection is still underway. There are manuscript, typed and printed libretti, some with notes in the margin, little summaries, and some draft versions as well. One special item in the collection is a chronicle of performances of the Stabat Mater by Rossini in Bologna and Milan in April 1842, summarized in a small book. It is a collection of announcements, program flyers and handwritten notes by Giovanni Ricordi, a kind of “minutes” of the performances, but also notes about the money raised (these were benefit concerts for orphanages), the numbers of singers in the choir, and audience reactions.

The largest collection is that of printed libretti, because for each opera a copy of the première was preserved, then one edition each for other performances in other theaters, and abroad. The purchase of the archive of La Scala in 1825 enriched the libretto collection with rare items from the 17th and 18th centuries. There are also copies of libretti that contain entries made by the censorship authorities — moral and political censorship — from the time of the Risorgimento as well as the fascist period.

The libretti of Verdi’s operas, for example, are subject to censorship in the years up to the unification of Italy in 1861. Censorship became heavier after the defeat of the revolutionary movements of 1848/49 in particular. But although political censorship was common, there could also be considerable censorship due to moral or religious objections, which could vary from city to city, especially in the “Papal States” in the area around Rome. The archive documents various phases of censorship in its collection of libretti, letters and other documents. The affected works include Un Ballo in maschera and also La traviata. The fact that opera no longer features nobles and heroes, but commoners (Luisa Miller), hunchbacks (Rigoletto) and courtesans (Violetta Valéry) on stage, and that political and domestic conflicts are dealt with, is new in any case. The libretto of La traviata (“the wanton woman”) was a problem in 1853, before the unification of Italy, because it represents libertine views and gives them emotional justification. The various editions of the libretto in the archive demonstrate this clearly. There is an edition of 1853, which for the performance in Bologna includes the lines required by the censor. In the Brindisi aria in the first act (“Libiamo, libiamo”), for example, the line “croce e delizia al cor” (cross and joy in the heart) is changed to “duolo e delizia al cor” (pain and pleasure …) to prevent the connection of the metaphor of the crucifix with a courtesan. Another copy of the libretto contains the amendment of the word “croce” (cross) with “pena” (sorrow). A copy from 1860 is given the less scandalous neutral title Violetta, another changes the text of the aforementioned aria with regard to the motif of the intoxication of love and replaces the relevant passages with more harmless phrases related to alcohol consumption. The collection of Traviata libretti is complemented by French, English, German and Czech editions.

Noteworthy among the autograph libretti are the libretto by Luigi Illica for Mascagni’s opera Iris; the handwritten corrected version of the libretto of Simone Boccanegra by Verdi and Boito, which they both intensively revised as their first joint project in the 1870s; the drafts of the libretto of La figlia di Jorio with annotations by Gabriele D’Annunzio (music by Alberto Franchetti); and the libretto I cavalieri di Ekebù by Arturo Rossato (music by Franco Alfano) with annotations by the librettist and by Nobel Prize laureate Selma Lagerlöf based on the narrative of the text. In addition, the archive contains numerous contemporary libretti, some of which are drafts. The study of these sources enables a uniquely concentrated, meticulously accurate reconstruction of the genesis of libretti.