TANGLED FOILAGE AND DUSKY AIR: ARIOSTO & VIVALDI'S ORLANDO FURIOSO
I had run into her by The Rhumerie. My ego told me that she was like a circling shark, making the rounds, looking for me and that I had done right by myself in having never shown her my actual favorite haunts. I would have a drink with her; she was not that bad for if she was, what would that be saying about me and the stuttered chain of nights our hips had done battle?
Surprisingly, she had moved to this neighborhood, maybe I had not been the draw. As we had our drinks I was reminded that our rhythm together involved a lot of annoying or boring on her part. I began to daydream, as I did I let a city unfurl from my pencil upon the paper placemat. I only drank here usually as a ruse but it was not bad. There was a fine line between regiment and ritual with the later potentially cutting one off from new experiences which added to the palette. I was now populating the streets of my placemat city while debating myself.
There is a long and great tradition of artists starting off with straight jobs or more traditional familial induced expectations of destiny. For example, Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) worked in the Paris customs house, Carlo Levi (1902-1975) was a doctor and George Perec (1936-1982) was a low paid archivist at Hopital Saint Antoine's Neurophysiologic Research Lab (1961-1978). During the course of any given work week there are things beyond one's control which must be tolerated: waiting for the train to get to work, to go home, waiting in line during a lunch break to buy more cigarettes. Then there are the people, with which one is thrown together by the restrictions induced by the confines of an office or classroom, the types who otherwise would not be associated with for even the most casual of conversations. Yet this lifestyle throws them in your orbit, you have coffee together, sit on the train heading home until the Censier Daubenton stop.
But once an artist manages to break free, likely material deprivations aside, even if you remain in the same arrondissement, it becomes a different world. You more and more go by your schedule for when to eat and sleep. Of course I still socialize but the good and bad of it is that with a retreating deeper into my art and the world of an artist there is a loss, loss of tolerance for people who do not exactly fit my mold of stimulating or whatever else I may need from them.
After a few years of hard won freedom, I realize the shame of it is, that a person who is not necessarily a choice companion could be the catalyst for something, a work of art hidden in a word or two they used in describing a soccer game or talking about the weather. I used to be able to tolerate all kinds of people much more, armies of near strangers with whom I did not necessarily have anything in common coming over with Kit for huge communal pots of pasta. Loss of any skill, no matter how seemingly vestigial is not a good thing. I decide that from now on, not all the time of course, I will be more flexible in my socializations.
Monica and I sit and talk, how long had we known each other? Why did she stand for being yo-yoed towards me then away, depending upon my mood and schedule? My city now had all the people the streets could hold without loosening the compositional tension. I traded placemats with her and began to do a series of mini portraits. She pretended not to notice but struck poses, the ingenue head bent slightly back, looking up at an invisible nothing hovering just above her left shoulder. I was getting hungry but did not have a clear plan of action.
"Lets go back to you place, we will lay atop each other and dance."
Not my most poetic moment but I was more after achieving an honesty of agenda than anything else. Optimistically, I told myself that I had already spelled it all out so later on there should be no surprises. She looked at the placemat portraits and did not know if she were meant to take them, I took it off the table and presented it to her.
Her place was not too far away and was neither very old nor new. It was sort of stuck in-between and would have actually possessed more character had it been older and maybe, slightly run down, the ghosts of bygone eras lingering in the halls. Monica had wanted to be, first an actress, then writer and then painter but never had the discipline to work further than finding what she thought was the right outfit or friends for said ambitions. All the props for these different dreamed of callings lay scattered about her apartment, resting paintbrush atop a director's edition of Shakespeare which had a page being saved by a sparsely marked notebook, The whole apartment, a magpie's nest that she was constantly adding to.
The way she lived her life dictated her thought process and within that she carried the seeds of our parting of ways. I felt sure though, that this next time would be the last time. If only I could make it an exhausting wild ride, getting off of it as I felt myself at the very start of being devoured or possessed but I knew I was too jaded for all of that. At best, I could play act the part and hope to gleam some of the dizzying intoxication which occurs from such things before they turn sour.
A week of spending all my free time with her, it was exhausting and the pay off I got for all the play acting I did seemed more and more uneven. What would happen if we had no big final scene? I had told her, mantra like the first night of this last time together that my work came first. What if I just reabsorbed myself into that, let things between us die on the vine? When not working and out and about I would bring a book with me to read, turning myself invisible, a trick I had learned in Poland, as head bent down, I found myself absorbed in the pages.
I felt that once I picked a book, I will have started. In my own personalized superstition though, I felt it had to be a certain type of book. I wanted one of my ancient Romans or Greeks, something medieval would do too. I always returned to Homer as I felt each time brought out new things in the text for me, depending upon what was going on in my life but I had read it again too recently to get anything more out of it right now. My old apartment was part of a building said to be one of the homes of Racine who is now interred just down the street. I often read his works leaning out over the Juliet balcony to catch the sun. To read him now would feel like cheating on his ghost whom I had occasionally conversed with. I needed something which was not already a totem or cipher for me.
I find a book a little thicker for carrying around than I would prefer but I go for it anyways. Now, I have started.
Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533) was born into the court at Ferrara, the son of an official. As an adult, he studied law and received an education heavily based upon humanist ideals. It was his dream and ambition to become a scholar but the death of his father and large family made him take up the family tradition of service. For most of the rest of his adult life he served the ducal family as soldier, diplomat and governor of a district. He firsthand saw battles and court/papal intrigues, the accounts of which read as interesting as any of his epic's passages. His main calling was that of an author but life as a courtier was necessary to ensure that he earn a living and also receive a modicum of political protection as every artist then needed. He wrote five comedies for production in the Ferrarese court but his main fame rests on Orlando Furioso. Begun in 1505, it was first published in 1516 and is a sequel to an unfinished work by Matteo Maria Boiardo (1441-1494). His work was titled Orlando Innamorato and featured many of the characters who would carry over into Ariosto's work. Innamorato was never completed although that of it which was done was published in 1495 vanishing after its initial appearance until 1830.
Plot wise Innamorato tells the story of the great knight Orlando (Roland) and Angelica, eastern princess and daughter of a great khan for whom he falls despite their different faiths and allegiances. With its forests full of magical springs, trials by combat and plot twists of each character's out of synch reversals in their attitudes towards each other, the narrative borrows heavily from the Carolingian Cycle and Arthurian legends upon which Boiardo fused his own devices, such as the plot not being centered upon one action as was usually the case but episodic with each scene linked to the next. The narrative ends suddenly as the author explains that King Charles VIII was leading French troops to invade Italy.
Although Ariosto and Boiardo's works were separated by over a decade and their different life experiences, both authors were heavily indebted in the freedom they found to further stretch boundaries by the authors known as The Three Fountains or The Three Crowns, a trinity made up of Dante (1265-1321), Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1321) and Petrarch (1304-1374). Dante is considered the father of Italian language in literature as his work started the first big push away from Latin which was for the clergy and small body of scholars. Dante wanted to write in Italian using verbiage to reach across the strata's of society. Giovanni Boccaccio rejected the then established mode of dialogue in literature and taking a cue from Dante, created a more organic vernacular. Lastly, Boccaccio's correspondent, Petrarch who is the father of humanism, seeking in society to balance action with contemplation to the exclusion of none of the classes using language and educational systems free of impractical ornamentation which would allow for an improving of civic life through more practical educational systems.
Ariosto's work was freed up by The Three Crowns and like them his work, while incorporating new devices and stylistic elements, was not a radical departure from the Romantic Epic template. He would achieve a sense ofundulating tension by having moments of inhumanly possible feats of violence and battle interspersed with more mundane and sometimes outright comical moments. To the then de-rigueur of chivalric knights, paladins, courtly etiquette and interference from outside magical forces he added current socio-political events sometimes altering the names of the key players and places other times not. Virgil (70 BCE- 19 BCE) with his national origin poem The Aeneid (BCE 29- BCE 19) is considered the poet of Rome. A Europe in flux caused by political and religious upheavals as empires expanded and weakened and written about as they occurred within his era could be said to make Ariosto the poet of Europe. As a first hand witness, aspects of the work he spent twenty seven years writing was a response to what Ariosto saw happening all around him, which also allowed for audiences of the day to feel a part of the narrative, pulled in to a certain degree.
There have been different interpretations of the main theme. Through such a now long lens of time, it is no longer as important. The main character is Orlando the Christian knight. He develops a deep, mad passion for Angelica the Eastern Princess which makes him forsake his duty to protect his emperor. Angelica falls for another causing him to go off on a carnage filled tour of Europe, is the most basic explanation of the plot not counting all the traditionally included devices of digressions and subplots contained within the epic's structure. There is also much time spent on the theme of the origins of the ducal house of Este, rulers of Ferrara and Ariosto's bosses. Over the expanse of pages Ariosto accounts the marriage of two of the other key players Bradamante and Ruggiero said to be the start of the dynasty. Some scholars and even his then near contemporaries felt that a little too much homage was paid to the house of Este. For sure there were political practicalities to his kissing a little arse. It was not all merely hyperbole though for he had used their real life gardens as basis for some of the magical ones in the narrative. Also, with his humanistic emphasized education and the social mores of the times, the creation of beauty was seen as a duty and achievement as was the praise of such accomplishment which would come naturally to any poet even one not directly in the employ of progenitors of such splendor.
With what was then going on throughout Europe and the East the varied scenarios which concerned the narrative that was not cloaked in the fantastical, the concept of Europe as crux for the dawning of a new age could also be considered as the theme more than just the story of the main players. In the end, Orlando regains his reason, which had been put in a vial and transported to the moon back, he cares less for Angelica as when his wits are restored (by sniffing the vial) he tells that love itself is a form of madness, now gone. He rejoins the fray, defeating his emperor's enemies.
This is one of the longest epic poems in European literature but because of brisk pacing brought about by so many rapid changes of location and emotional gears; it never drags nor contains any dead space. As much as I enjoy Cervantes' (1547-1616) masterpiece Don Quixote (1605-1615) I do feel that sometimes reading his satire of an Epic is done so well that authenticity and parody blend a bit too much and make for what feels like repetition with only a slight variation. I am now well into the book and safely cloaked when out at the cafes.
I was walking down the Rue Des Ecoles heading for the bronze Brancusi plaque denoting one of his ateliers that I sometimes liked to look at. To record stores I had an unwavering fidelity. I went into the Croco Disc store to poke around. They sometimes bought entire stock from other stores going out of business but in general I noticed each store took on a certain flavor which radiated outwards from what they seemed to specialize in stock wise and further emphasized by who worked the counter. Soon the jazz guys knew that they should work in one store, the rock and rollers another, each its own kingdom never mixing with the other. This particular Croco was close to the Sorbonne and so tried to mix their inventory and staff far more than the others in hopes of grabbing up a bigger, more varied percentage of student dollars. A young multi label distributor had been given this part of Paris as his territory with the theory that there were no new accounts to be had and earn commission on and the old ones were small and easy enough to service without messing up. He had no idea why he was being given this territory and saw it as a start and a chance. In the Rue Des Ecoles store he talked to the manager, in his enthusiasm to get the account, not taking into consideration how small the store was nor that they did a lot of secondhand stuff, he gave freebies of that years releases from one of the classical Music labels under his belt, operas, boxed set of complete concertos and preludes and fugues, probably about five hundred dollars worth of product for an account that would take at least a year to pay that in sales and reorders. The owner took it all smiling and made a big show of putting the representative's card in his pocket. The next day aside from some Bach organ Fugues that he was found of he put them all up on the shelves in the newly expanded classical section, priced to move.
I did not have anything specific which I was looking for, so my browsing meandered. I came across a beautifully packaged Orlando Furioso by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), the cover of which featured a stunning pale statue of a woman staring into the camera lens. I was not sure which character she was portraying but it was an arresting portrait. I was well into the book now and curious how the plot for the opera would be handled, of course most of the digressions would have to be cut but what would the main libretto concern itself with? I bought it feeling no guilt.
Vivaldi was born during the Baroque era (1600-1750) in Venice. His father had initially been a barber, switching to a violinist which he also taught to his son. When he was a child, the two of them toured, performing duos.
From an early age he had been steered towards the priesthood because of ill health and an earthquake which occurred on the day he was born and had been seen as a possible portent. For many during this time, having a family member join the priesthood had less to do with a spiritual calling and was more in line with the spirit of an arranged marriage, providing the novitiate an education and their family with a possible future political connection. From the hereditary red hair and eventual full ordination, Vivaldi was known as "Il Prete Rosso" (The Red Father). Into adulthood his ill health continued, most likely asthma, and he was given a reprieve from saying mass, only actually reciting it several times but remaining a priest his entire life.
Vivaldi instructed at Ospedale della Pieta (institute for the education of orphans/illegitimate/indigent children). This was no Dickensian orphanage, there were four such schools in Venice at the time and this one had a major reputation for the musical education which it provided. The institute's dormitory's were filled with the illegitimate children of nobles and members of upper clergy which ensured that they were kept in funds as to have the children raised properly to appease any of their guilt and also assure that none showed up in the future on their doorsteps in need of aid. Boys were taught a trade and left at the age of fifteen, the institute receiving a sort of finder's fee or commission from the tradesmen who took on the young journeymen, often at little or no pay. The girls often stayed on joining the orchestra or chorus.
Having kept up with his playing even during his religious instruction, Vivaldi's official title was "Maestro di Violin". The orchestra/chorus reputation grew beyond local acclaim helped by the pieces written specifically for the girls of the institute to whom he was also able to expertly instruct on performance. In 1704 he was made Maestro di Coro but despite the fame he brought to the institute he had a strained relationship with its board of directors. Even after having established himself there, every year the teaching position had to be voted on. Often he kept his job only by the grace of one or two votes.
In 1709 he lost by one vote and took up life as a freelance musician. A year later he was recalled back by his first ever unanimous vote.
During this time that Vivaldi had his first flush of fame which was definitely one of the hidden catalysts behind the institute wanting him back. He had written a series of sonatas in the established style (OP1 & 2) for violin and basso continuo. It was with his third L'estro Armonico (OP 3) that Vivaldi began to consolidate his reputation. He dedicated this third set to the Grand Prince Ferdinand of Tuscany who was himself a musician. This meant that Vivaldi did not have to dumb down the composition or keep it in the overly populist vein. Equally appealing was the fact that the prince was already a sponsor to Scarlatti (1685-1757) and Handel (1685-1759). Musical sympathies on the part of the Prince aside, royalty would often sponsor or grant favors for a dedication of a work in the hopes of further adding luster to their pedigree by immortalizing their name in connection to a work. The politics to make such a thing happen or prevent it were usually ruthless and involved much intrigue. There was also a drastic dichotomy involved in the whole process in that, no matter how great the artist, no matter how recognized their talents, they were, even when sought out, seen on par with the rest of a households staff, viewed to some degree as equal with the footman and cook. Beethoven (1770-1827) was the first composer to start to make a break from the established power structure, inspired by the early Republican leanings of Napoleon (1769-1821) and his own innate sense of self-worth. It would not be until the Romantic Era (1800-1900) that composers would start to wield more power, the initial first wave of the virtuosos, the composer/musician who was an odd combination of exotic pet and proto-rock star.
Vivaldi was savvy enough to constantly be searching for royal and official commissions as part of his contract for the institute stipulated that even when touring he had to turn in two concertos a month at one ducat per composition. He needed money and the favor of those with power.
Vivaldi would eventually retire from the institute but even when under contract he would tour, promoting and writing operas which proved to be both popular and innovative. The new compositional technique that he brought to opera was music that was more voice like and vocals which while allowing for the showing of great technique contained a more organic tension and drama than the artificiality that he began to rebel against. He never brought about wholesale changes to opera but like The Three Crowns, added in an important way with his melodic innovations future generations would then add to too.
A lot of the vocal like effects Vivaldi achieved with melody he also applied to his sonatas and concerti. He is now predominantly known for his concertos, especially his work The Four Seasons (1723) most popular of the 500 that he wrote. This work was part of 12 Concerti(OP 8) Il Cimento d'ell Inventione (Contest Between Harmony and Invention). This piece ushered in the modern solo form of the concerto unknown previously and helping to define the modern form. Both harmonic and melodic techniques Vivaldi would create would be widespread borrowed from by both near contemporaries and past baroque composers. He was an equally adept operatic composer, applying the same sense of exploration and change and his operas do not suffer from lack of tension due to how familiar we now all are with them.
The gestation and execution of Orlando is rich with intrigue and chess like maneuvering.
Orlando is Vivaldi at his artistic life's halfway mark. He had been touring "in exile" for a number of years while others developed a choke hold on the Venetian opera world. Neapolitan style opera with its overblown style of singing and spectacle was taking over Venice. Money changing hands and coming into the theaters that embraced this style sped up the trend. In the late 1720's, in less than five months, Vivaldi took and quickly executed three operatic commissions, two for theaters and one for the close of carnival. He parleyed the success with the public of these three works into a commission for the Teatro Pubblico di Reggio(1727). Vivaldi hoped with this success to become director of Venice's most important theater the S. Giovanni Gristomo. He wrote Siroe re di Persia with this move in mind but despite good critical reception he was outmaneuvered and did not receive the desired posting.
Allegiances in the opera world of Venice were shifting and to not see the style of music he held dear supplanted he needed to abandon the long campaign and have a decisive win. He had already been strategizing and was ready to move. The decision of Orlando as subject matter was akin to hedging his bets. Aside from the source material being rife with dramatic possibilities, he had already had success with another Orlando (Orlando Finto Pazzo 1714) which had more than fifty performances during its maiden season and was then brought back and adapted with new music. The source material maintained continued appeal for Vivaldi too in that he could present some different aspects of Ariosto's poem and still showcase a diverse and intense range of emotions within the scenarios without the blatant artificiality of the Neapolitans.
Secretly, Vivaldi began assembling his cast. Going against the standard practice of the time, he filled all the main roles with not just stars but stars of different styles. This opera was seen by Vivaldi as not just the last shot at getting the position he wanted but also in saving Venetian opera which could only be done by someone in such a position of power. With this in mind and although this is Vivaldi midway through his career, this opera can be seen as his master work for its combinations of invention and incorporation of traditional Venetian operatic devices. Everything which had occurred in the world of opera could be seen in varying degrees, seamlessly mixed with all the theories which Vivaldi had spent a lifetime developing. He forwent castratos which were one of main components of the burying of Venetian opera for the then radical technique of putting woman in some of the breeches roles. The opera did not flop but neither did it capture Vivaldi the desired post. His was not the only cabal which had been secretly hard at work. In 1720 he had met the singer Anna Giraud the multi lingual daughter of a French wig maker who moved in with him as a friend and housekeeper. He continued to wage battle for the operatic soul of Venice but yearly was losing ground despite well received performances outside the city.
1738 found him on tour in Amsterdam and retiring from the institute at 100 ducats a year. He returned to a Venice then suffering a deep recession with theater managers trying to bring in money by concentrating on programs of Neapolitan fare. Vivaldi finally had to acknowledge that Venice was lost. Vienna though, with its receptive court was still interested in the Venetian style. He and Anna would move there where he would compose and conduct under the patronage of Charles VI (1685-1740). As he left his beloved Venice the quintessential castrato Farinelli (1705-1782) was making his triumphant entrance into Venice. In Vienna Anna would barely have their home set up before Vivaldi died, most likely of a bronchial infection. She would then sadly return to Venice alone in 1750. Vivaldi received extremely modest burial with two small memorials still existing in the city which was to have been a new hope for him.
Many of the giants of the baroque era whom one could not imagine now having no knowledge of, had after their time become largely forgotten until lat into the 19th century. Vivaldi's works first falling out of favor and then becoming forgotten is symptomatic of what happened to many composers as the classical (music) era started. The National University in Turin houses a collection of over 450 manuscripts by Vivaldi, including many operas which have not been heard since their initial inception and execution and (obviously) never been recorded. They are in the midst of a vast project to get these until recently lost operatic treasures systematically recorded. This opera lay waiting to be rediscovered until 2002. A big benefit of how currently "obscure" this opera is that there are not a lot (only one) versions out there to choose from. This allows for the avoidance of the pitfalls one encounters with the more popular works which will always be in demand and often chosen by lesser known and talented orchestras to record.
The opera is made up of three acts. It is by no means a direct transfer of Ariosto's poem, more accurately it could be said to have mined it for source material. All the historical elements have been stripped away to make the story emphasize the characters rather than any global conflicts then in recent memory. Most of the digressive side stories too have been eliminated but many magical elements remain. Most operas and even some plays call for suspension of belief, as long as one remembers you are a voyeur to the world of the characters and not them inhabiting ours, it is not a distraction.
All the action takes place on an island which is entirely under the thrall of a sorceress (Alcina) who gained her power by stealing the ashes of Merlin.
At the start of the opera, Angelica, a princess is a guest of Alcina. She is in love with Medoro who doesn't return her affections and is missing. She in turn is pursued by the love crazy paladin Orlando whose attentions she had fled. He has been charged with freeing the island and his sidekick Astolfo who has already been captured. Ruggiero and Bradmante show up on the island, allies of Orlando.
Alcina offers to protect Angelica from Orlando's attentions and makes an enemy of Bradmante by allowing the magic of the island to make Ruggiero notice another. After our heroes fall for traps and suffer setbacks Orlando is able to retake the ashes and vanquish Alcina. When the spell over the island is broken Orlando's desire for Angelica is also canceled out and he gives her his blessing to marry Medoro.
When read like this, the libretto may seem to veer onto the side of silly but sonically it is a moving thing. Even when one speaks the language the libretto is written in; words are sonically altered for effect and rhythmic possibilities far different than their traditional spoken roles. Truly with opera it can be not what one says but how they say it.
In general, opera is usually not appreciated until all the soundtracks of youth have been exhausted, the years pushing each person further and further away from their 45's collections. Part of the problem is how staid execution on a lot of productions are, a thing for blue haired spinster aunts to drag nephews to on a Sunday or all the penguin suited blue bloods to attend, gala style. With a good recording or production which casts its gaze past the bottom line possibilities, there is an emotional resonance. You realize that what you are hearing is art but also entertainment spoken in the sonic vernacular of the day which often included sex and death. Talent aside, all is appetite and when one tries to whitewash the human experience, what is left is often tedious. Good opera can be lavish but also get its hands dirty, messy with emotions.
I am almost done with the book and it will feel odd to not have its added weight in my bag. Everyplace I wanted to grab a drink had too many people at the tables, without thinking about it, I found myself back at the The Rhumerie. I had just taken my book out when a shadow fell across the table. I look up, it is Monica. There is hurt in her eyes. I invite her to sit down. It would not be a terrible thing if she made a scene here as it was not one my places but I would prefer she did not.
We ordered drinks and she actually behaved, the hurt in her eyes softened and not once morphed into accusation.
"I left some of my things at your place."
Could I manage a more adult timbered parting sans all the drama? I told her she could come with me now to get it and I would make us a late lunch too.
As we walked up the stairs she gave everything a last look which was a little sad to witness. It might have actually been more of a relief to her had I been a prick.
The day had already proven to be a hot one. I further heated the place up with what would be an ill timed heavy meal. The impracticality of desire, I made it worse by ignoring common sense and preparing an etouffee. I was down to my undershirt as I continuously stirred the roux. The steam from the pot, the heat, the scent of cooking, I knew that she may not understand it or it may even bore her but I yelled towards the couch for her to put the Tuts Washington album on.
The magazine on her knee startled, takes wing landing on the floor under the coffee table.
"Sixth one from the far left; the dictionary is one shelf below it but in same area."
Some of the arguments we had, forgotten dates, anniversaries or pre-drink assignations all came back to her now.
"I do not know why you can't memorize or put the same attention to detail into things as you do you record collection."
She was wrong, I shrug my shoulders;
image above, 'Rainy Day' (Watercolor on paper) by Wayne Wolfson