Meetings on Naxos

Opera and Commedia dell’Arte

Authored by: Roger Savage

The Routledge Companion to Commedia dell’Arte

Print publication date:  December  2014
Online publication date:  November  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415745062
eBook ISBN: 9781315750842
Adobe ISBN: 9781317613374


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It was Mantua in the spring of 1608, and Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga’s court was determined to put on a great show—indeed a sequence of great shows—to celebrate the upcoming wedding of the duke’s son to the Infanta Margherita of Savoy. There was to be a play with spectacular ‘interludes’, a new dramatic ballet and an operatic première. The opera was L’Arianna. It would present the legend of the time spent on the island of Naxos by the Cretan princess Ariadne: her desertion there by the hero Theseus (who had eloped to the island with her after she helped him defeat the Minotaur), her desolation and desire to die, and her rescue and translation to a new life and love by the god Bacchus. The libretto was by Ottavio Rinuccini, opera’s prime poet since the creation of the form just ten years before the first operatic masterpiece, La Favola d’Orfeo. Careful stage preparations for L’Arianna had been going on since January, and there were especially high hopes for the eighteen-year-old Caterina Martinelli, who was to sing the leading role. But disaster struck. Martinelli, who had not been well for some time, suddenly died of smallpox, and the opera, only weeks before the great day, was left without a leading lady. What to do? Various names were canvassed without success. Then someone suggested ‘La Florinda’. This was the stage name of a twenty-five-year-old actress in a Commedia dell’Arte troupe which toured around northern Italy. Would she be up to it? In March the Mantuans decided to take the risk and cast her. As things turned out, this was an inspiration. Florinda, it was said, learned the role in a mere six days, and she was certainly a great success when the première finally came in May. Chroniclers, letter writers and at least one poet reported that her lament and prayer for death as Ariadne—‘Lasciatemi morire’—had all the ladies in the noble audience in tears. (Fabbri 1994: 77–87, etc.; MacNeil 2003: Ch.4)

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