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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 17 (2011) No. 1

Published 2015

The Power of the Prima Donna: Giulia Masotti’s Repertory of Choice

Valeria De Lucca *

1. Introduction

2. Giulia Masotti’s Social Strategies and Her Repertory of Choice

3. Giulia Masotti on Opera

4. The “prima parte”

5. The Music

6. The Libretto

7. Opere eroiche

8. Conclusions



  • Example 1: Cesti, Argia (1669), III, 1, Argia “Duri lacci Argia sciogliete”


1. Introduction

1.1 Singers were fundamental agents in the circulation of opera scores, arias, and librettos during the seventeenth century.[1] Crucial connections between the court, the commercial theater, and in some cases the chapel and other religious institutions, they deftly navigated the fluid space between these diverse worlds, entertaining relationships with composers, librettists, impresarios, and members of the aristocracy. Furthermore, singers could be indispensable sources of information for aristocratic opera lovers, who relied on their reports to learn the latest news on the outcome of a production and the rise to fame of a new performer. Singers’ agency, however, was not limited to the circulation of scores, librettos, and gossip. Thanks to the commercial value that public theaters attached to particularly celebrated prime donne and primi uomini, some reached a status that allowed them to establish the repertory of their choice, influencing the decisions of impresarios and patrons to fit their needs and tastes.[2]

1.2 Soprano Vincenza Giulia Masotti is a case in point. After spending a few years in Rome studying and performing in the private palaces of the local nobility, Masotti enjoyed an exceptional career, becoming one of the most sought-after prima donnas on the operatic stage, in Venice as well as in some of the key centers for the production of opera in Italy during the 1660s and early 1670s. During these years Masotti built a solid and tightly knit network of aristocratic devotees—including first and foremost the Chigi and Colonna families of Rome—as well as supporters among the Venetian theaters’ impresarios, renowned librettists, and composers. Through her connections with these parties she was ultimately able to exert a high degree of control over the repertory of many of the theaters in which she performed and even change, as Beth Glixon argues, some operatic conventions in permanent ways.[3]

1.3 Recently discovered correspondence between Masotti and Cardinal Sigismondo Chigi, consisting of over fifty letters the singer sent to her patron between 1668 and 1673 (Masotti correspondence, henceforth MC), offers an invaluable opportunity to examine her position within her social network, her career choices, and her attitude toward opera. In the article “Letters from the Road,” Colleen Reardon illustrates how the letters Masotti sent to Sigismondo during her travels testify to an intimate relationship between the two and reveal Masotti as a sophisticated connoisseur of the Venetian operatic repertory attempting to educate the cardinal in the appreciation of a genre that was still a novelty in Rome.[4]

1.4 Through the examination of Masotti’s letters and additional archival documents, in this article I discuss her ability to exercise control over the repertory she performed during the 1660s and early 1670s in and outside of Venice. In particular, I address the question of Masotti’s distinct interest in performing and fostering the circulation of operas by Antonio Cesti and Giovanni Filippo Apolloni, namely La Dori and L’Argia, as well as her involvement in the circulation of Apolloni’s libretto L’Alcasta. Roman Prince Lorenzo Onofrio Colonna played a crucial role in facilitating Masotti’s influence on the repertory of the Venetian theaters during the initial phase of her career. Prince and soprano shared a passion for Cesti’s and Apolloni’s operas and often acted jointly to promote the production of their works, even causing last-minute substitutions. In the first part of this article I examine the common strategies employed by Colonna and Masotti to promote this repertory, focusing on the intense personal and professional exchanges between Rome and Venice and between the worlds of court and commercial opera.

1.5 Beginning with section 3, I discuss the possible motivations behind Masotti’s choices and tastes as expressed in her correspondence. What were the reasons for her active engagement in the production of operas by Cesti and Apolloni? To what extent can her letters tell us about her tastes? Such an investigation will not only lend a fascinating glance into the life of a seventeenth-century soprano, but also ultimately reveal how Masotti’s ability to manage and develop effective social strategies and exercise artistic judgment allowed her to become one of the most celebrated singers of her time.

2. Giulia Masotti’s Social Strategies and Her Repertory of Choice

2.1 In the complex social life of a seventeenth-century soprano, the relationships she entertained with influential aristocrats played a crucial role in shaping her career choices and negotiation strategies. As Beth Glixon notes, since very early in her life Masotti enjoyed the favor of some of the most notable families in Rome, Florence, Parma, and Venice. One of these families, the Colonna of Rome, was a constant presence in her life and career. Glixon has brought to light documents that show that the first person to discover Masotti’s talents and attend to her early musical education was the Princess Margherita Branciforti di Butera, wife of Federico Colonna.[5] After her death, their nephew Lorenzo Onofrio Colonna, contestabile of the Kingdom of Naples between 1659 and 1689, contributed in numerous ways to the singer’s successful career.[6] Lorenzo Onofrio and his wife Maria Mancini were enthusiastic opera lovers and some of the most influential protagonists of Roman musical life during the second half of the seventeenth century.[7] There is hardly any doubt that the couple would have been familiar with the talented Giulia Masotti since her very first public appearances, given her past experiences with members of the Colonna family. Contacts between the soprano and Lorenzo Onofrio Colonna, however, are not documented until a few years later, when Masotti began her career in Venice and the Colonna spent a few opera seasons in the same city.

2.2 The Colonna travelled to Venice during the mid-1660s, attracted by the lively operatic world of the lagoon.[8] During three opera seasons (1663–64, 1665–66 and 1666–67) they established connections with the Grimani brothers, the Venetian aristocrats who owned the Teatro SS. Giovanni e Paolo, Marco Faustini, the impresario of the same theater, as well as composers, singers and librettists active in Venice at the time. Particularly well documented is their involvement with the recruiting of singers for the Teatro SS. Giovanni e Paolo. During the opera seasons 1665–66 and 1666–67 the Colonna traveled with singers Antonia and Nicola Coresi, members of their household who became a staple of the Venetian stages during the 1660s and 1670s.[9] Six operas were dedicated to Lorenzo Onofrio and Maria Mancini Colonna during these years, a testimony to the prominent role they acquired on the Venetian operatic scene.[10]

2.3 When the Colonna first arrived in Venice for the 1663–64 season, Giulia Masotti was already a sensation. Her debut the previous year in the title role of Antonio Cesti’s La Dori had been extremely successful and promised much more success to come for the young soprano. During the 1663–64 season she starred in two operas dedicated to the Colonna at the Teatro SS. Giovanni e Paolo, Aurelio Aureli and Antonio Volpe’s La Rosilena and Nicolò Minato and Francesco Cavalli’s Scipione affricano.

2.4 As many studies have discussed, the life of the young soprano in Venice during her months away from home must not have been easy, and she became adamant about refusing additional opportunities for employment in Venice. The well-documented negotiations with impresario Marco Faustini turned out to be particularly wearing for the young woman, and her refusal to sing in Venice during the 1665–6 season is emblematic of her resistance.[11] For the following season, however, Giulia Masotti found in the Colonna, and particularly in Lorenzo Onofrio, enthusiastic protectors who facilitated the process, acting as intermediaries between her and the impresario.[12] Masotti asked Colonna and his wife to advance money for her trip to Venice and to inform the Duchess of Parma, who had previously offered Masotti assistance in Venice, that this time the singer did not need her protection. As the preparations for the season became more hectic, Masotti also asked Faustini to be assigned the prima parte, which she obtained thanks to Colonna’s intervention, to the detriment of the other sopranos chosen for the season, Caterina Porri and Antonia Coresi.

2.5 Undoubtedly Colonna and Masotti’s most striking joint achievement was obtaining a change of opera just a few weeks before the beginning of the 1666–67 season. As we learn from a letter Colonna wrote to Marco Faustini on October 20, 1666, the opera planned for that season, Giovanni Faustini and Carlo Pallavicino’s Il tiranno humiliato d’amore overo Il Meraspe encountered some disapproval:

I only dare to suggest that if you spend everything you have to get the best singers, you should then try to have an opera that in the libretto and in the music could properly accompany the excellence of the singers; and on this subject Sig.ra Giulia is right; because she was much more appreciated and well received in La Dori, an old opera, than in La Rosilena, a new opera, and perhaps she recognized the part you sent her to Rome as mediocre.[13]

2.6 The “Sig.ra Giulia” mentioned in Colonna’s letter is undoubtedly Giulia Masotti and the “mediocre” part that was sent to Rome was her role for the opera Il Meraspe. Colonna, as on other occasions, acted as Masotti’s spokesperson, voicing her discontent with the opera Faustini was planning for that season and—most importantly—suggesting the substitution of La Dori, the opera that had marked her first great success on the Venetian stages. It is not hard to understand why, under pressure from both the most popular singer of the moment and her powerful protector, Faustini decided to produce Apolloni’s and Cesti’s “old” La Dori and postpone the production of Il Meraspe. Nevertheless, the fact that Marco Faustini agreed to set his late brother’s libretto aside makes the substitution rather striking and is indicative of the power that Masotti and Colonna were able to exert over the impresario. Finally, if we consider that revivals in Venice at this time were very rare occurrences, this last minute change of opera appears even more remarkable.[14]

2.7 Colonna and Masotti seem to have acted jointly, and both of them had vested interests in this substitution. The Colonna were some of the most enthusiastic champions of Antonio Cesti’s work. Lorenzo Onofrio’s involvement with Cesti dated back to just after he became head of the family, when in 1661 he had sponsored a series of productions of Cesti’s Orontea in his palace in Rome. After 1661 the Colonna commissioned music from Cesti, collected his scores, and supported his career until his death in 1669. Maria Mancini continued this support even after the composer’s death, promoting his Il Tito at the Teatro Tordinona of Rome in 1672.[15] The Colonna’s support of Cesti’s career was evident also during the years they spent in Venice, where during two opera seasons they were the dedicatees of three works by the composer: the newly composed Il Tito (1665–66) and the revivals of Orontea (1665–66) and La Dori (1666–67). As we have seen, at least in the case of La Dori we know that the opera was performed at their specific request. The dedication of the libretto by printer Francesco Nicolini to Maria Mancini Colonna makes reference to the protection that she (and arguably her husband) offered to many of the singers who performed in that production, including Antonia Coresi and Giulia Masotti.

2.8 Colonna’s decision to suggest a revival of the successful La Dori and Faustini’s debt of gratitude toward the Roman aristocrats for their support in recruiting the singer and suggesting the opera, however, should not make us overlook Masotti’s decisive role in this matter. Indeed, one of the most compelling aspects of Masotti’s career is the authority she acquired over the years to influence and shape the repertories of the theaters in which she performed. And as one of the most praised and appreciated prima donnas of the time, Masotti learned very quickly how to use her power to negotiate deftly with impresarios and noblemen alike.

2.9 During her intense career on the Venetian stages Masotti sang in a wide range of operas by some of the most popular composers of the time, including Francesco Cavalli, Giovanni Battista Volpe, Pietro Andrea Ziani, Antonio Boretti, and Giovanni Maria Pagliardi.[16] But when it came to choosing an opera or suggesting a substitution, as in the case of the 1667 La Dori, Masotti seemed to have no doubt as to what she preferred, and her choice often fell on Apolloni and Cesti’s La Dori and L’Argia.[17] And in fact, as we learn from a letter that agent Gasparo Origo sent to Faustini on October 2, 1666, before suggesting La Dori for the 1666–67 season, Masotti had expressed her preference for L’Argia as a possible substitution for Il Meraspe:

[La Sig. Giulia] told me what a great solution it would be if you staged instead of this [Il Meraspe] L’Argia or L’Alessandro, and that were you to resolve to produce L’Argia, Sig.ra Giulia would make sure that Apolloni, author of the opera, would add or take off all the scenes you wanted.[18]

2.10 Thus, in early October Giulia Masotti was already resolved to obtain a substitution, preferring Apolloni and Cesti’s L’Argia since in this case she could ask the poet to adapt the opera for her. From this letter it seems clear that Colonna came into the picture only a few days later, on October 20 of the same year. Faustini’s choice fell on La Dori, which probably seemed a safer bet just a few weeks before the opening of the season. Indeed, whereas L’Argia had never been performed in Venice before, La Dori had been very successful during the 1662–3 season, especially thanks to Masotti’s acclaimed performance in the title role. The fact that the Colonna owned a score of La Dori, moreover, might have facilitated the impresario’s otherwise arduous task of finding one at the last minute.[19]

2.11 Having failed to bring L’Argia to the Venetian stages in 1666–67, Masotti made another attempt two years later, this time in Siena. As Colleen Reardon has shown, in 1668 Masotti was able to convince the Sienese authorities to produce L’Argia as a substitution for Aurelio Aureli and Pietro Andrea Ziani’s Antigona delusa da Alceste. L’Argia premiered in Siena in May 1669, and surprisingly enough, even though Masotti did not sing in it, this accounts for another success of the young soprano in fostering the circulation of her beloved opera.[20]

2.12 Thus, despite having suggested performances of L’Argia in Venice in 1666 and Siena in May 1669, Masotti had never succeeded in performing the title role of the opera. An opportunity arose when the Teatro San Luca decided to stage L’Argia for the first time in Venice during the 1669–70 season: not surprisingly, Masotti was cast as Argia. The soprano played hard to get again, as we learn from a letter sent to Cardinal Sigismondo Chigi from Guido Passionei:

Last night Signor Prince don Agostino had me summoned while I was at Signora Giulia’s to deliver the letters of Your Eminence, and thus I went to see what His Excellency needed. There, in the presence of Signor Contestabile, Signora Princess Chigi and Signor Cardinal Chigi, he asked that I, together with Signore Appoloni, encourage Signora Giulia to go to Venice to perform in L’Argia at the Teatro San Luca…. I can assure Your Eminence that all these people put a lot of pressure on her, and in particular the Signor Contestabile [Colonna]…. From Venice they want her to go next week; but the Contestabile, who knows that Signora Giulia knows most of her part already, says that she can stay here [in Rome] a few days longer and that it should be enough for them to know that she will go.[21]

2.13 Masotti’s reservations about singing in Venice were not insurmountable, and Colonna, with the help of other members of the Chigi family and of the poet Apolloni, was able to convince her to accept the engagement, not without negotiating the date of her departure from Rome. Masotti gave her version of the story to Sigismondo in a missive dated three days after the events ( MC 6). From letters she sent to Sigismondo after the opening night, we learn that the 1669 L’Argia at S. Luca marked another triumph for the soprano who had finally succeeded in singing one of her favorite operas ( MC 10 and 12).

2.14 The year 1671 marked a shift in Masotti’s attitude toward controlling the repertory she performed. Before 1671 her strategy had always been to encourage, often successfully, the production of operas that had already been performed elsewhere, namely La Dori and L’Argia. In 1671, however, she asked Sigismondo Chigi to have a new libretto by Apolloni written expressly for her to be performed at the Teatro SS. Giovanni e Paolo ( MC 27). Masotti might have been acting on behalf of the owners of the theater, the Grimani brothers, but her remarks that Apolloni “should create parts for many people, but I should have a part that does me honor above everyone else’s” and that “indeed [Apolloni] should write the opera with this goal in mind” seem to indicate that she was interested in having this libretto for her own sake at least as much as for the Grimani’s.[22] Masotti’s plot to obtain a new libretto from Apolloni failed for reasons that remain unknown. What we do know is that just a few weeks after this failed attempt she was after Sigismondo again, this time trying to obtain an “old” libretto by Apolloni, L’Alcasta ( MC 31 and 32). Masotti claimed that the Grimani had a copy of this libretto already, but that it appeared to her “altered in the scenes,” and thus she wanted to compare it with a supposedly “original” version to which Sigismondo might have had access.[23]

2.15 One of the most fascinating aspects of this discussion is that during her negotiations across the worlds of court patronage and commercial opera Masotti displayed a remarkable knowledge of operas she had never performed. She sang the title role of Cesti and Apolloni’s L’Argia only in the fall of 1669 but recommended productions of the opera first in Venice in 1666 and later in Siena in the spring of 1669. In 1671 she recognized alterations to Apolloni’s libretto of L’Alcasta, an opera that premiered in Rome only in 1673. Her familiarity with these works raises the question of her relationship with Cesti and Apolloni but also of the circulation of librettos and scores in the intellectual circles surrounding the Roman aristocracy even before they were performed or even set to music. Arguably, Masotti must have developed her command of the operatic repertory in these circles, while she was learning how to master her social skills.

2.16 Beth Glixon discusses in great detail Masotti’s early life and career, when under the patronage of the Princess Margherita Brangiforte di Butera the young and talented woman sang for the most refined audiences in Rome, probably attracting the attention of any composer and poet who heard of her prodigious voice.[24] It is very likely that Giulia Masotti met both Antonio Cesti and Giovanni Filippo Apolloni for the first time in that context, when composer and poet were in Rome for the 1661 Colonna production of Orontea. The cast that performed Orontea at Palazzo Colonna in 1661 is still unknown. A performance of the same opera in Florence later that year, however, shows that a still unidentified “Giulia” performed in it.[25] Could this “Giulia” be the promising Masotti, starring in an opera for the first time? Had she been part of the Roman production as well? And if she was in Florence during the fall of 1661, is it possible that she first heard La Dori performed there by Cesti and his musici from Innsbruck?[26] While these questions remain unanswered, we can, however, argue for Masotti’s familiarity with these works on other grounds.

2.17 Masotti must have been exposed to opera scores, arias, and librettos while she was in Rome, singing in the circles of her numerous devoted admirers. Indeed, the archives of Roman families reveal that scores, librettos, and collections of arias were copied and circulated in the private palaces of the nobility. Performances of this repertory abounded during conversazioni and other gatherings of aristocrats and intellectuals.[27] As the letter from Passionei cited above shows, in 1669, for example, Lorenzo Onofrio Colonna was able to guarantee that, even though she had never performed it before, Masotti knew her part for L’Argia by heart, and thus she could postpone her departure for Venice. It would not be surprising if Masotti had learned and performed passages of L’Argia at the Colonna palace for him or his guests as other singers did on other occasions.[28]

2.18 Masotti might also have had access to the impressive collections of scores and librettos that had been assembled by the Colonna and the Chigi. Colonna owned scores of Orontea and La Dori even before these two operas were performed in Venice, and several records show that he collected arias, cantatas, and librettos.[29] Members of the Chigi family owned impressive collections of scores and librettos. Renato Lefevre has discussed the extraordinary collection of librettos in the library of Agostino Chigi, while Flavio Chigi’s collection of scores, now held in the Fondo Chigi at the Vatican Library ( I-Rvat), includes some of the most popular works of the time. Masotti’s correspondence with Sigismondo Chigi reveals that one of her tasks while in Venice was to send members of the Chigi family updates on the latest operas performed there as well as copies of librettos ( MC 8, 11, 12, 19, 21, 22, 33, 34, 41, 42). It is thus very likely that Giulia Masotti, like other singers, contributed to increasing the collections of members of the Chigi family. In exchange, as Colleen Reardon has shown, Sigismondo sent Masotti librettos that she could not find otherwise, which suggests that she might have had a collection of her own.[30]

2.19 In addition to her familiarity with scores and librettos, Giulia Masotti must have entertained personal relationships with both Cesti and Apolloni. As we saw, she might have met Antonio Cesti when he was in Rome between 1659 and 1661, the years during which Masotti was making her public debut in gatherings at the palaces of the Roman aristocracy. But their relationship must have continued to grow if in 1669 the singer could claim, as she did in a letter to Sigismondo Chigi, to be helping Cesti as his assistente for the 1669 L’Argia in Venice ( MC 8). Her correspondence with Sigismondo Chigi reveals an even more intimate relationship between the singer and Apolloni, who had visited Rome repeatedly during the early 1660s and entered the service of the Chigi family in 1668.[31] At this exact time Giulia Masotti begins to write to Sigismondo Chigi and begins to benefit from his “most powerful protection” ( MC 18). Thus, by 1668 Masotti and Apolloni shared the same patrons, the Chigi, and the epistolary exchanges between both of them and members of the Chigi family show that poet and soprano were always well informed of each other’s health as well as of each other’s professional engagements, travels, and career developments ( MC 10, 14, 15).[32]

2.20 Some evidence seems to indicate that Masotti and Apolloni were so close that the singer could have played a role in shaping or revising his librettos. In 1666, for example, before suggesting the substitution of Il Meraspe with her beloved La Dori, she actually proposed a performance of L’Argia, making clear that she could have used her familiarity with Apolloni to obtain any changes the impresario and owners of the Teatro SS. Giovanni e Paolo (and arguably she herself) would have required. And in 1671, as we have seen, when asking Sigismondo to commission a new libretto from Apolloni she did not hesitate to provide specific requests, especially about the fact that her part had to be the best, “as Apolloni already knows.” ( MC 27) All these elements seem to suggest the possibility that Masotti might have had a say in Apolloni’s creative process.

2.21 Masotti’s tight personal ties with Cesti and particularly with Apolloni could indicate that her effort to foster the production of their operas was based on reasons of friendship or, in the case of Apolloni, loyalty toward their common patrons, the Chigi. However, her correspondence also suggests that she found Cesti and Apolloni’s operas particularly appealing and that she considered them of superior quality compared to other works of the time, lending a fascinating insight onto the tastes of the seventeenth-century prima donna.

3. Giulia Masotti on Opera

3.1 From Masotti’s letters to Chigi the young soprano emerges not only as an enthusiastic performer and supporter of Cesti’s music and Apolloni’s poetry, but also as a refined connoisseur of their work and more broadly of contemporary opera. In particular, Masotti expresses her opinions on L’Argia, La Dori and L’Alcasta, and even though her comments do not address specific issues but are instead general expressions of discontent or praise, they do nonetheless raise a few questions and point us in the direction of what Masotti might have criticized or appreciated in an opera.

4. The “prima parte”

4.1 As we have seen, in 1671 Masotti wrote to Sigismondo to ask for a new libretto by Apolloni, one written especially for her, with a part that could do her “honor above everyone else’s” ( MC 27). But what were the characteristics of the role she envisioned? While her correspondence with Sigismondo does not provide any details, letters concerning Masotti and preserved in Venice in the Faustini correspondence point at least to one aspect, that of the prima parte. During the extended negotiations between Masotti and impresario Faustini for the opera season 1666–67, one of the singer’s most pressing requests was to have the prima parte in both operas of the season. This was such a crucial matter for Masotti that her contract had to include a formal stipulation that she would have the first part.[33] According to what we read in Faustini’s papers, one of the main features of the prima parte was that it had to be the longest role in the opera, both in terms of number of verses and arias. Indeed, as a letter Faustini sent to Gaspare Origo during the fall of 1666 shows, this involved counting the verses to make sure that Masotti’s part was “forty lines longer” than that offered to the seconda donna, Antonia Coresi.[34] The libretto that was finally chosen, La Dori, reveals that Dori’s part indeed has sixty more lines of recitative than Arsinoe’s and more than twice as many arias as the seconda donna.

4.2 The number of arias was becoming an increasingly important meter to gauge the relative importance of singer’s roles, as Nicola Coresi explains to Faustini in a letter of August 1667:

In order for the parts to do someone honor, it does not suffice to have quantities of verses, because if there were one thousand but they were all quick exchanges [botte e resposte], these would not be called good parts, and you either don’t know [this] or you pretend not to know [it]; since in that part [you sent me] there is not one line of canzona. [35]

4.3 Audiences had obviously played an important role in shaping the proportion between recitatives and arias, as Apolloni writes to a friend apropos his L’Argia in 1654:

I am at present working on a dramma per musica, which I’d better write quickly and poorly to compose “alla moda di Venezia” and to please those curious people who are by now bored to hear well-written things, but want only canzoni. [36]

In fact, Apolloni and Cesti’s La Dori responds to the demands of the times, with the increasing number of arias, duets and lyrical sections, something Masotti, as well as the Venetian audience, might have found appealing.

5. The Music

5.1 As Colleen Reardon has noted, Masotti was well aware of the individual contributions of music and poetry to the outcome of an opera. In 1672, having seen only the libretto of an opera being prepared in Venice, she refrained from sending Sigismondo her final opinion because she wanted to hear the music first ( MC 40).[37] Despite that, most striking to the modern reader of the correspondence is that Masotti’s letters to Sigismondo do not make any reference to the music, the way Cesti’s writing affected her voice, or how she performed it. We should remember that unlike other singers active in Venice who wrote to Marco Faustini with specific and practical concerns in mind, Masotti was expressing general opinions of an aesthetic nature to her aristocratic patron. In this light, Masotti’s letters and the lack of references to specific aspects of the music appear perfectly in line with the practice of the time. As Lorenzo Bianconi and Thomas Walker have observed, when it comes to letters, diaries or reports and avvisi, “For the Seicento there is no ‘competent’ musical judgment, nor, for Italian music and particularly theatre music, is any ‘rhetorical’ classification to be found.”[38] This is no negligible detail, as it reminds us that early modern opera was considered as a multifaceted entertainment, carrier of multiple meanings, in which music was only one among several visual and auditory elements that made the genre popular.

5.2 The only reference to a specific piece in Masotti’s letters to Chigi is to the aria “Duri lacci Argia sciogliete” from L’Argia (Act III, scene 1). Describing to the cardinal what people were saying about the 1669 production at the Teatro San Luca in Venice (and consequently about her performance), Masotti recounts ( MC 12):

But to mention more pleasurable things, I will tell Your Eminence that the people of the Teatro SS. Giovanni e Paolo have come up with a remarkable opera, one that could be called royal, which could not have possibly been staged more sumptuously. The singers could not be better, and I’ll send you the opera so that Your Eminence can consider by himself; but despite the living camels, [i.e.,] not made of plaster, people are not giving them enough praise, and they say that the staging is more appropriate for vulgar people than for the aristocracy, and say that deaf people could go to that theater, whereas blind people could come to ours; and that the Grimani could not do more than what they did, and that Beregan could do better, and that Partenio could not do worse, and that “Duri lacci Argia sciogliete” is worth more than the entire competing theater and everyone who is inside it, so that so far we cannot declare them the winners, and it’s not of little satisfaction that two breaths have been enough to bewilder all of them there, and even if they sold out, they would still be short six thousands ducats, and we laugh.

5.3 It is worth considering Masotti’s rhetorical strategy to understand how this aria served her purpose. Masotti mentions “Duri lacci” as the aria “people” praised as being worth more than Partenio and Beregan’s Il Genserico, the entire Teatro SS. Giovanni e Paolo—including the living camels—and everyone in it. Indeed, at the outset of the final act, Argia’s “Duri lacci” marks a climactic moment in the opera: Laurindo (Argia in disguise) is found at night in the secret garden in the company of Dorisbe, whereupon Argia’s father, Atamante, King of Cyprus, imprisons him and condemns him to death. In prison, the innocent Argia/Laurindo, about to be executed, laments her fate and addresses her chains, asking to be released since they are of no use to a heart enslaved by the webs of love ( Example 1 ). But if the aria fulfills a crucial dramaturgical function, the musical setting of “Duri lacci,” with its regular musical phrases and tonal structure, appears as rather simple and balanced ( Example 1 ). And it might have been just because of this simplicity that “people” were praising “Duri lacci” as an example of L’Argia‘s superiority over Il Genserico. The fact that the aria was sung by Masotti herself adds a discreet twist of self-flattery to the report.

6. The Libretto

6.1 If specific comments on the music are scant, Masotti’s letters to Chigi express frequent concerns with the quality of librettos: in 1669, writing to Sigismondo, she deliberately withheld the libretto of L’Argia because, according to her, it had been “ruined” ( MC 10); in 1671 she asked Sigismondo to commission a libretto from Apolloni, sending specific instructions ( MC 27); later that year, she expressed her concerns with the alterations made to the libretto of L’Alcasta, asking for the “words”—not the music—to be sent to her from Rome ( MC 31). These letters reveal Masotti not only as a performer with distinctive aesthetic opinions on the repertory she performed, but also as a singer who was concerned with the quality of the libretto as much as with that of the music. Her comments on the alterations made to two librettos she knew well—L’Argia and L’Alcasta—raise a few questions about her tastes and opinions and shed some light on the kind of changes these works underwent in Venice. It is to an overview of these librettos that I now turn.

6.2 In early January 1669, Nicolò Minato wrote to Colonna:

Argia has appeared on the stage of this theater, and it obtained the applause of the entire city, and a house full of people. It has become the torment of the competing theater, which remained empty; and they have no hope of recovering, if not by changing opera. Your Excellency will see how Argia has been shortened to make it to our taste; I am not sure what the author will say: I know that no one is objecting. This is the extent to which theaters resonate with the name of Your Excellency since everyone knows that this good comes from you.[39]

Someone, however, was indeed unhappy with the changes that Argia had undergone. Following the opening performance of the 1669 Venetian production of L’Argia, Masotti sent her usual report to Cardinal Sigismondo Chigi ( MC 10):

If your Eminence requests more news, I will tell you that on Monday L’Argia was performed with the greatest applause, to the detriment of those who hope we will not make any money, and those of the competing theater are asking us not to perform when they do and that they are desperate, and Signor Apolloni will tell you more honestly what will happen. For now we are triumphing but I don’t know what is going to happen next. I won’t send you the opera for now, since you already know what it is and also because they have ruined it to make it to the taste of this place. If, however, Your Eminence wants me to send it, let me know and I will send it right away.[40]

6.3 The note to the reader of the 1669 libretto confirms Masotti’s observations:

You will hear in it a few ariette already heard on another occasion: but since it is known that they were taken from this drama, they have been left [here] because they were both very few in number and also of singular exquisiteness. [The drama] has also been shortened, and a few alterations have been made, only with the intent of conforming to the brevity and characteristics of the parts, and never to transfigure the well-known mastery of he who brought it exquisitely to its first being.[41]

6.4 As Jennifer Williams Brown has shown, the “ariette already heard on another occasion” were in fact arias from the original 1655 version of L’Argia that had been borrowed for the Venetian production of Orontea in 1666, thus heard by the audience on that occasion.[42] As Williams Brown has argued, the author of the note to the reader, probably the printer Francesco Nicolini, felt the need to justify this inclusion to prevent any criticism from the audience for the use of “old arias.” Novelty was, after all, one of the most valuable qualities of a Venetian opera.[43]

6.5 According to the note to the reader, the libretto of L’Argia had also been “altered” and “shortened,” probably seeking the “brevità veneta” which was often invoked as one of the winning characteristics of Venetian operas.[44] This seems to be confirmed by Masotti, who claimed that the changes had been done to adapt the opera “to the taste of this place,” that is to say, transforming it “alla moda di Venezia.” But which L’Argia is she thinking about? Assuming that Masotti had first seen the poetry of L’Argia in Rome, in the hands of Apolloni or of the Chigi, the libretto she had in mind was in all likelihood the 1655 version, first performed in Innsbruck while Apolloni was living and working at the Imperial Court.[45] A thorough comparison of the 1655 and 1669 versions of L’Argia is beyond the scope of this article. A close examination of the manuscript scores might illuminate some of the details that influenced Masotti’s view of the Venetian adaptations. Here, however, I am concerned primarily with the points about the libretto which she mentions in her letter and which were clearly of paramount importance to her.[46] To be sure, the libretto of the 1669 Venetian production of L’Argia differs substantially from the earlier version. One of the most significant changes was the elimination of large portions of recitative, so that the action becomes denser and the dialogues tighter. As one would expect, at times this came at the expense of clarity. Act III, scenes 13–18, in particular, suffer greatly from this compression; the longer and more explanatory dialogues of the 1655 libretto help the audience/readers make more sense of the complicated intrigues, disguises, and relationships between characters that have unfolded for almost three acts and are finally revealed and resolved at this point of the plot. In comparison, the last few scenes of the 1669 version make for a rushed and abrupt ending.[47]

6.6 The texts of some arias and lyrical sections were also shortened in 1669. Arias that in the 1655 libretto consist of more than one stanza are often reduced to one or two: The “Coro di Naviganti” in Act I, scene 1 and Feraspe’s aria in II, 4 are reduced from two stanzas to one; Lurcano’s four-strophe aria in II, 12 is replaced by a two-strophe aria, whereas another of Lurcano’s arias, in II, 17 (II, 18 in the 1655 libretto) goes from two stanzas to one; Dema’s aria in III, 2 is similarly reduced to one stanza. Furthermore, several passages of the 1655 libretto are replaced altogether in the 1669 Venetian version: Dorisbe’s aria in II, 7; Feraspe’s aria in I, 13; Filaura’s aria in I, 15; Alceo’s arias in I, 16 and II, 5. Act II, 17 of the 1655 libretto, a short dialogue between Feraspe and Aceste, is omitted, as are the last two scenes of Act III—a quartet with the two couples reunited and an “epilogue” in which Venus and Innocence are joined by choruses of numi and amorini.

6.7 Despite the clear intent to shorten the 1655 libretto, the 1669 Venetian version presents some noteworthy additions when it comes to the part of the protagonist. New arias for Laurindo are added in II, 8; II, 11; and III, 7. The seconda donna, Dorisbe, has a new aria in I, 7, and a new aria for Solimano appears in I, 10. Furthermore, Argia/Laurindo’s aria in II, 16 is longer in the 1669 than in the 1655 libretto. One noteworthy addition is an entire scene in Act III (scene 16) for Argia and Dorisbe. In this scene, which contains new arias for both women, the action freezes after Argia reveals her disguise, giving Dorisbe some time to realize that the man she was in love with was in fact a woman and placing new emphasis on the homoerotism embedded in the plot:

L’Argia (1669) Act III, 16
Dor.: Prencipessa ove vai?
Non m’involar sì tosto i vaghi rai
Lascia ch’io disimpari
A crederti Laurindo
E che m’avvezzi a confessarti Argia.
Dor.: Princess where are you going?
Do not deprive me so soon of the beautiful rays.
Let me unlearn
to believe you [to be] Laurindo
and to get used to acknowledging you as Argia

6.8 The adaptation of the libretto of L’Argia for the 1669 Venetian production points to three elements that could be recognized as changes “all’uso di Venezia”: the addition of a large number of arias (particularly for the title role and the seconda donna), the shortening of the recitative sections, and an increased emphasis on the homoerotic elements of the plot.[48] Of these, the alteration that has the strongest impact on the Venetian libretto seems to be the compression and shortening of the original, especially in Act III, which generated some loss of clarity. Was this the change that ruined the libretto in Masotti’s eyes? Regardless of the answer, the singer was well aware that the audience did not share her concerns, since the 1669 production of L’Argia received great applause, as she proudly reported to her patron after opening night ( MC 10).

6.9 Masotti’s comments on L’Alcasta offer another example of her attention to librettos. In 1671, having failed to obtain a new libretto by Apolloni from Sigismondo, Masotti tried her luck again. This time she was asking for the libretto of L’Alcasta, a work that Apolloni had written a few years earlier and that was destined by Lorenzo Onofrio Colonna to be set to music by Antonio Cesti.[49] Given Cesti’s death in 1669, L’Alcasta had never been performed. From Masotti’s letter we learn that in 1671 the Grimani had obtained a copy of the libretto but, in Masotti’s words, it had been “altered in the scenes” so that she wanted to “compare it” to one in Rome, presumably in the hands of Apolloni himself ( MC 32). For this reason, Masotti asked Sigismondo to send it to her as soon as possible, stating that “if there is no music it does not matter, because for me it is enough to have only the words” ( MC 32).

6.10 It is very likely that Masotti had seen the libretto in Rome and was now thinking of performing it in Venice during the upcoming season. The question of why she wanted to compare the two libretti, however, is more puzzling. Librettos were altered regularly at that time, and the fact that she had offered to obtain changes for L’Argia by Apolloni himself in 1667 indicates that Masotti was sensitive to the implications of this practice. Was Masotti protecting the authorship of Apolloni’s libretto, accepting changes only by the author? As tempting as it sounds, this hypothesis appears in complete contradiction with the common practice in Venice, where poets were recruited regularly to alter and adapt already existing (and often already performed) librettos by other authors. To make matters more complicated, it is not completely clear which version of L’Alcasta Masotti saw in Venice in 1671. A letter from Guido Passionei to a Cardinal Chigi (Sigismondo or Flavio), however, adds an intriguing detail to the story. As we learn from another missive from Passionei, in 1671 Masotti had asked both Sigismondo and Lorenzo Onofrio Colonna to send her the libretto of L’Alcasta, adding that she knew the libretto was being set to music by the maestro di cappella of the Emperor.[50] The maestro di cappella of the Emperor at the time was Giovanni Bonaventura Viviani, but nothing more is known of the intrigues surrounding the story of the revised L’Alcasta and of Masotti’s involvement with it. L’Alcasta premiered in Rome at the Teatro Tordinona in 1673, as Colonna had determined.

6.11 In 1677, however, a heavily revised version of L’Alcasta appeared on the stage of the Teatro SS. Giovanni e Paolo as Astiage.[51] Giovanni Bonaventura Viviani was the author of the music, and the libretto had been revised by Matteo Noris, who acknowledges both the changes he had made and the name of the author of the original libretto in the note to the Benigno lettore:

Only to oblige the supreme orders of notable superiors, and to conform with the current usage and genius, it was resolved to add some action to the present drama already marvelously composed under the wondrous name and the prolific pen of Signor Cavalier Apolloni, and in some places [it was resolved to add] some proper visual element, since it has to be performed in the great and always famous Teatro Grimani.[52]

6.12 A quick look at the libretto confirms that Astiage is a revised version of L’Alcasta: even though many new arias were added to the Venetian version, some appear only slightly modified, most recitatives of L’Alcasta appear in Astiage unchanged, and the main plot of the two operas is identical. Is it possible that in 1671 Masotti saw a version of Astiage, which was then set aside by the Grimani until 1677? Assuming Astiage is what she saw, a comparison of the librettos of the 1673 Roman L’Alcasta and the 1677 Astiage indeed reveals major differences. Instead of shortening the libretto and compressing the action as in L’Argia of 1669, the Venetian libretto was expanded. The most extensive change appears to be the addition of fourteen new preliminary scenes to the beginning of Act I, even before the main action of L’Alcasta begins. L’Alcasta opens in the heat of the action, as the young queen, dressed as a man, prepares to murder Arconte, the man who killed her brother:

Amor per vendetta ovvero L’Alcasta , Act I, 1
Pur al fin vi giungesti o del mio sangue
Implacabil tiranno:
Dormi pur, dormi infido,
Che sia l’ultimo sonno; ecco t’uccido.
Ma qual ignota forza
La man mi lega, et il mio sdegno ammorza?
At last you reached this point,
implacable tyrant of my blood:
Sleep, sleep traitor,
and let this be your last sleep; here I kill you.
But what unknown power
stops my hand, and lessens my rage?

The first few lines of recitative of L’Alcasta thus convey to the audience the central dilemma of the opera: Alcasta is torn between her love for Arconte and her duty to avenge his brother’s death.

6.13 The scenes Noris added to Astiage before the plot reaches this point serve two main purposes. First, they introduce the valiant warrior Cambise, a new character and the protagonist of a new subplot. As Wendy Heller has noted, Cambise serves Noris’s purpose of creating an opportunity for a series of “homoerotic innuendos” when he unknowingly falls in love with a man in disguise as a woman.[53] It is probably to this addition to the Venetian version that Noris refers in the preface of the 1677 printed libretto when he claims that changes had to be made to Apolloni’s original libretto “in order to conform to current usage and taste,” referring again to the “uso di Venezia.”[54] And indeed, the homoerotic scenes that arose from the confusion generated by the use of the disguise were among the Venetian audiences’ favorite conventions. The second purpose of the new scenes is to enhance the spectacularity of the visual elements on stage, as promised by the libretto’s note to the reader. An excellent example can be found near the beginning of the opera. After the first few scenes introduce some of the protagonists of the opera on the battlefield, in Act I, scene 5 Astiage falls asleep and has a dream, which  provides the opportunity for a spectacular set change, from the battlefield to a “horrid infernal scene” (I, 6 and 7).

6.14 It is worth noting that whereas in the case of L’Argia Masotti plainly stated to Sigismondo that the libretto had been ruined, with L’Alcasta she merely (more cautiously) expresses curiosity and interest in comparing the two versions. Nevertheless, the fact that the opera was “altered in the scenes” did have an impact on the libretto. The action of Astiage appears far less concentrated and streamlined than that of L’Alcasta, and the introduction of a new character and subplot creates a diversion from the main action of the drama, complicating the storyline. Masotti’s desire to compare the libretti might mean that she felt uncomfortable with the changes, even though she does not explain why and to what extent. We might only wonder if her discomfort with this version might have caused the production of L’Astiage to be postponed for several years.

7. Opere eroiche

7.1 When it came to the subjects of her favorite operas, Masotti shared—and to a certain extent influenced— the tastes of the Venetian audiences. As Colleen Reardon shows, in Masotti’s intent to educate Cardinal Sigismondo she reproached him because of his preference for comedie rather than the “heroic operas” that were all the rage in Venice ( MC 46).[55] And indeed Masotti’s favorite heroines, Argia and Dori, are the protagonists of utterly “heroic” events and the victims of unexpected twists of fate.

7.2 Apolloni and Cesti’s La Dori was undoubtedly Masotti’s favorite opera. Her performances in the title role in 1663, 1667, and 1671 contributed enormously to the success of this opera as well as to her career, so much so that she came to be identified with “Dori” herself.[56] In 1672, upon learning that a performance of La Dori in Rome had been coldly received, she proclaimed to Sigismondo:

I send vivid thanks to Your Eminence for the opera you sent me of the poor Dori, and since I feel so much affection toward her, I was saddened to learn that she received scant applause, and I don’t know why, since if they decided to produce it again here [in Venice] it would be appreciated, given the extent to which it struck the souls of this city.[57] ( MC 35)

7.3 The plot of Apolloni’s La Dori is rather intricate, with two main characters in disguise for most of the opera—Dori as the servant Alì, and Tolomeo as Celinda. Princess Dori’s drama consists in having to choose between her happiness with Oronte, the man she loves and who was promised to her as a husband before she was kidnapped by pirates, and the happiness of her sister Arsinoe, who is now in love with the same Oronte. Argia shares many features with Dori. A  princess herself seduced by a cruel nobleman, Argia gives birth to his child and, dressed as a man, abandons her kingdom to hide her shame and find the traitor. Once she finds him, however, she also discovers that he is in love with another woman, who, in turn, falls in love with Laurindo, the disguised Argia. These extremely dramatic situations allowed for laments and lyrical moments of deep anguish but also required a certain degree of vigorous onstage action (e.g., jumping in the water, faking her own death) on the part of the prima donna, who was aptly wearing male clothing for most of the opera.[58]

7.4 Indeed, La Dori and L’Argia share a well-established topos dear to the Venetian audiences: the homoerotism that originates from the heroines’ use of disguise for most of the opera.[59] The disguise offered Apolloni the possibility to create extremely effective moments, charged with sexual tension and dramatic accents, as in Act I, 10 of La Dori, between Tolomeo/Celinda and Arsinoe, or a very similar scene in Act I, 8 of Argia, where Argia as Laurindo has an animated exchange with Dorisbe, who has fallen in love with “him.” Playing with notions of social status and gender, Apolloni creates a tight dialogue between the prima and the seconda donna in which they can both reveal their feelings, even though because of the disguise the meaning of their words is explicit only to the members of the audience:

L’Argia, Act I, 8
Laurindo: Dorisbe, anima mia,
Vicino a gl’occhi tuoi
Non ho duol che m’annoi,
Sol poc’anzi languia
Per te l’egro mio core;
Or, che piacque ad Amore
Di ricondurmi a te, pago ho’l desio,
E torna a la sua sfera il foco mio.
Laurindo: Dorisbe, my soul,
close to your eyes
I no longer feel the pain that annoys me.
Just a little while ago
my sorrowful heart languished for you;
Now that it pleases Love
to take me back to you, my desire is content,
and my fire goes back to its sphere.
Dorisbe: O se pari è l’ardor, pari è lo stato
De le nostr’alme; ah non poteva il Fato
Render ancora eguali
Le fortune, e i natali?
Dor: If equal is our ardor, equal is the state
of our souls; alas, why could not Fate
make our fortunes,
our births, equal?
Lau: Ah Dorisbe, Dorisbe,
Se tu sapessi il vero
Cangiaresti pensiero.
Lau: Ah Dorisbe, Dorisbe,
if you knew the truth
you would change your mind.
Dor: Forse eguale a me sei? Dor: Maybe you are equal to me?
Lau: Più, che non credi. Lau: More than you believe.
Dor: O se ciò fosse vero
Fortunata Dorisbe!
Dor: Oh, if this were true,
fortunate Dorisbe!
Lau: Anzi infelice. Lau: Rather, unhappy.
Dor: Dimmi perchè non sveli
Quanto racchiudi in sen?
Dor: Tell me, why don’t you reveal
what you hold in your heart?
Lau: Perchè non lice. Lau: Because it is not permitted.
Dor: E se eguale a me sei, perchè non speri
Di godermi Consorte?
Dor: And if you are my equal, why don’t you
hope to enjoy me as a consort?
Lau: Tropp’eguale è la sorte. Lau: Our fortune is too equal.
Dor: E ciò m’affida,
Ch’avrò sposo Laurindo.
Dor: And this makes me believe
that I will have Laurindo as my spouse.
Lau: Et io la morte. Lau: And I death.
Dor: Forse di me non curi? Dor: Maybe you don’t care about me?
Lau: Anzi t’adoro. Lau: In fact I adore you.
Dor: Io per te vivo. Dor: I live for you.
Lau: Io moro. Lau: I die.

Masotti undoubtedly liked L’Argia and La Dori also because of the possibilities the title roles could offer a performer of her caliber, including the fact that they are both portrayed as arousing and sexually ambiguous characters.[60]

8. Conclusions

8.1 The picture of Giulia Masotti that emerges from this discussion is that of an informed and opinionated singer who had a profound knowledge of the repertory she performed and of the opportunities it offered her as singer and actress. Thanks to her talents and skills, Masotti learned how to negotiate her way in the court as well as in the public theater, promoting her repertory of choice and obtaining the help of noble patrons and impresarios alike. Her artistic choices were to a significant extent embedded in her social responsibilities: Apolloni and Cesti operated in the intellectual circles of the Colonna and Chigi families and were thus familiar to the soprano since her youth. In particular, her close relationship with Apolloni granted her privileges that other singers could only dream of since she was able to ask him not only to make changes to the librettos she wanted to perform, but also to write new works with her in mind.

8.2 Even more striking is that Masotti displayed an extraordinary command of the operatic repertory of the time and an unusual awareness of what was fashionable in diverse cultural and social milieux. This was undoubtedly a consequence of her privileged position, not only at the court and in the public theater but also within the most influential aristocratic and intellectual circles of the time, from Rome to Venice. Furthermore, it was the result of her unusual sensibility, developed through years of exchanging librettos with her patrons, reading scores in their libraries, singing in their salons, and traveling abroad to perform and attend operas and musical gatherings.

8.3 Masotti’s letters remind us of the importance that librettos and their quality had for some of the agents of the “business” of opera. Far from being commodities easily susceptible to random changes and adaptations, in Masotti’s letters we sense that she placed great weight on the quality of the libretto and the ways in which changes to the poetry could influence the overall efficacy of an opera. It is difficult to gather specifically what she did or did not like in an opera from her letters to Sigismondo. Nevertheless, her letters convey the picture of a performer profoundly committed to the operas she performed, who used her social skills, artistic virtuosity, and command of the repertory to become one of the first extraordinary prima donnas.


A shorter version of this paper was presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society in Nashville, TN, in 2008 as part of the panel “In Private, in Public, at Court: The Rise of the Prima Donna in Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century Italy and Austria” and at the joint meeting of the Royal Musical Association and the Society for Musicology in Ireland, Dublin 2009. I would like to express my gratitude to Francesco Dalla Vecchia, Beth Glixon, Wendy Heller, Colleen Reardon, Jennifer Williams Brown, and the anonymous reader for improving this article with insightful comments and suggestions. Many thanks also to the staff of the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana and to Don Romano and Elia Mariano of the Biblioteca di Santa Scolastica, Subiaco, for their assistance. I am very grateful to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation/American Council of Learned Societies and the British Academy for their generous support of my research.

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