Four of the poems set by Monteverdi in his Madrigals of War and Love are by Ottavio Rinuccini, a poet at the Medici court in Florence and the author of the first opera libretti. Closely connected with staged entertainments throughout his career, Rinuccini’s earliest poetry was written for the wedding festivities of Francesco de’ Medici and Bianca Cappello in 1579. He a member of the Accademia Fiorentina and of the Alterati, where he was known under the sobriquet of Il sonnacchioso. Rinuccini provided texts for the famous intermedi at the performance of La pellegrina at the wedding of Ferdinand I de’ Medici and Christine de Lorraine in 1589 and later wrote the libretto for Jacopo Peri’s Dafne in 1597.
His most historically noteworthy work though was Euridice, his re-telling of the Orpheus legend that was set by both Peri and Giulio Caccini in 1600 that are considered the first operas. No less important was his libretto for Monteverdi’s second opera, Arianna. The score for Arianna has not survived save for Arianna’s lament, which was published independently and became one of the best known and most often imitated works of the century. Rinuccini may have also been involved with Striggio’s libretto for Monteverdi’s first opera L’Orfeo.
During his lifetime, Rinunccini was highly regarded, as his prominence in Monteverdi’s eighth book of madrigals alongside Petrarch, Tasso, Guarini and Marino attests. But, as Iain Fenlon has observed, “were it not for his poetry set to music by Peri, Caccini and, particularly, Monteverdi, Rinuccini would have remained a minor Florentine poet of the late Cinquecento unlikely to be known outside a circle of specialists among historians of Italian literature. As it is the fact that he provided texts for the first Florentine attempts in the new genre of opera ensures him a worthy place in the history of music.”
In the early days of opera, the librettist enjoyed at least equal credit with the composer for the creation of the new art form, and the significance of Rinunccini’s is reflected in Filippo Vitali’s preface to his Aretusa of 1620:
“This manner of singing can rightly be called novel, for it was born not so long ago in Florence as the noble brainchild of Sig. Ottavio Rinuccini. He, being especially favored by the Muses, and endowed with a unique talent in the expression of the emotions, wished to use song to increase the power of his poems and yet not allow the song to diminish this power. And trying, with Sig. Jacopo Corsi, a great connoisseur of music, to see what could be done to ensure not only that the music does not prevent one from catching the words, but more, that it helps bring out more clearly their meaning and their representative intent, he asked Sig. Jacopo Peri and Sig. Giulio Caccini, excellent masters in the art of song and counterpoint, to come to his aid. They debated to such good effect that they became convinced they had found the way to bring it off -and they were not mistaken.”
While in his dedicatory preface to the published libretto of Euridice and elsewhere, Rinuccini claimed to be reviving ancient dramatic poetry for his drammi in musica.
It has been the opinion of many that the ancient Greeks and Romans, in representing their tragedies upon the stage, sang them throughout. But until now this noble manner of recitation has been neither revived nor (to my knowledge) even attempted by anyone, and I used to believe that this was due to the imperfection of the modern music, by far inferior to the ancient. But the opinion thus formed was wholly driven from my mind by Messer Jacopo Peri, who, hearing of the intention of Signor Jacopo Corsi and myself, set to music with so much grace the fable of Dafne (which I had written solely to make a simple trial of what the music of our age could do) that it gave pleasure beyond belief to the the few who heard it.
While his libretti reflect Classical structures and themes, as a poet, Rinuccini adopts traditional models derived from Petrarch, as well as contemporary authors such as the Mannerist Gabriele Fiamma and Torquato Tasso and the pastorale poetry popular at the turn of the 17th century. In her article surveying Rinuccini’s Mascherate and their relationship to the operatic libretto, Francesca Chiarelli remarks on the poet’s “harmonious flow of the syntax into the metric frame; the ordering of words that preserves their logical function; the sense of musicality that permeates his verse are all proof of Rinuccini’s craftsmanship, if not of true poetry.” After his death in 1621, fellow poet and librettist Gabielo Chiabrera praised Rinuccini’s “sonorous versification” and noted his many followers and, indeed, many of Rinuccini’s solutions to the problems of writing dramatic narrative to be set to music, notably his use of unrhymed versi sciolti for recitative and more structured, strophic verse for arias, established important principles for later libretti.
Magnificat will perform three works with texts by Rinuccini at the Bloomington Early Music Festival on September 10 2011 and on our series on the weekend of February 17-19 2012: Volgendo il ciel, the Lamento della Ninfa and Il Ballo delle Ingrate.
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