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NOT THAT AGAIN: Reconsidering the da capo aria form in Vivaldi’s Griselda

September 5, 2011

This past July, my spouse and I went to see Vivaldi’s Griselda at the Santa Fe Opera.  Outdoors and up in the mountains, we watched an idyllic sunset with glasses of wine, before the production began.  Once the houselights dimmed and the dusty sun was tucked well into bed, at 9pm, the opera opened as any other would.  We were given plenty of exposition and noted that director Peter Sellars had modernized the production, turning King Gualtiero’s knights into camouflaged military men; but once the first aria was sung, I was surprised.  This aria went on unlike any I had ever heard before, repeating the same lyrics over and over.

It was my first encounter with the Baroque da capo aria.  For those of you unfamiliar as I was with this form, the da capo aria takes on an A-B-A sequence.  That is, there is one stanza verse, then another, and finally a repeat of the first.  Oftentimes, the first stanza verse presents the audience with a theme, and the second stanza verse will complement it by slight variation; the third stanza verse repeats the first verbatim, however including some ornamentation or elaboration in the music by the singer.

Upon the first stanza verse being repeated in Gualtiero’s aria, “Se ria procella,” my impression was that the supertitles were broken; they couldn’t possibly be singing the same verse again.  As a poet, I soon understood it was intentional.  Yet, I kept wondering why they’d do this.  It served no purpose to simply repeat the whole stanza verse; nothing new was learned as far as plot or emotions went.  Was it to just fill in space for the music?  I feared it was going to be a very long opera (and did I mention it started at 9pm?).

King Gualtiero (Paul Groves, left) banishes Queen Griselda (Meredith Arwady, right); photo from Santa Fe Opera.

GUALTIERO’S ARIA: “Se ria procella”
Text by Apostolo Zeno/Carlo Goldoni
Translated by Charles Johnston

Se ria procella  /  If a fierce tempest
sorge dall’onde  /  Rises from the waves
saggio nocchiero  /  The prudent helmsman
non si confonde  /  Is not disconcerted
né teme audace  /  Nor does he fear
l’onda del mar.  /  The ocean billows.

Serve il consiglio  /  Good counsel serves
di guida al fato  /  To guide the strong man,
e della sorte  /  And he can overcome
nemica infesta  /  Every peril
ogni periglio  /  Sent by wicked,
sa superar.  /  Hostile fate. 

(…and repeat!)
Se ria procella  /  If a fierce tempest
sorge dall’onde  /  Rises from the waves
saggio nocchiero  /  The prudent helmsman
non si confonde  /  Is not disconcerted
né teme audace  /  Nor does he fear
l’onda del mar.  /  The ocean billows.

The production extended well into the night, and when we later discussed it with family and friends over the next week, we talked about the repetitive nature of the arias.  We quoted lyrics from those repeated stanza verses; those regarding navigating a storm on the sea, others about good hunters being unintimidated by wild beasts, and how loving swallows keep enduring hearts while away from their nests.  Clearly, these stanza verses stuck out and made an impression.

Thus, the artistry of the da capo aria set in.  Just as Baroque architecture tends to place emphasis on bold massing supportive structures like colonnades and staircases, the da capo aria highlights the supportive literary devices of metaphor and allegory.  By repeating those images and themes over and over (with a hint of flourish on the recurrence), we were able to distinctly remember lines and their meanings of duty, fortitude, and determination in Griselda.

Vivaldi’s setting of the text was often breathtaking, but did the da capo arias, in their repetitive form and lyrics, add to that music?  I’d have to say somewhat yes, bust mostly no. Sure, the singer had the opportunity and did ornate the repeated stanza verse’s music.  This allowed for a unique artistic experience, indeed.  However, repeating the same lines over, and over, and over, from aria to aria, three hours long became exhausting (especially for this modern audience member).

In a culture of short attention spans, sound bytes, Red Eyes, txt mssgs, Tweets, and cupcakes, people prefer the short and sweet.  What’s gained by the da capo aria to me seems eclipsed by the fact that it develops into a tiresome experience if done too often.  I recognized this as the opera wrapped up around 12pm, with several folks asleep in their seats.

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