ESSHC 2016: Ancient Rulers in Baroque Opera

Like no other medium opera offered (and still offers) possibilities to create, transform and recycle common historical images and figures. This makes opera particularly suitable for investigating the reception and transformation processes of antique fabrics. In particular the comparison of the representation of female rulers of the western and eastern hemisphere on opera stages of the Baroque formed an auspicious starting point for this session. The section was consequently not about music history, or music theory studies, but rather about the question of how librettists, composers and stage in the Baroque period processed the ancient materials in order to present them on stage. Both gender aspects as well as typical Orient-topoi that stand out – in particular a magical, highly sexually charged image of ‘the Orient’ but also the proverbial wealth of the East – came up for discussion.

The session was opened by Kerstin Droß-Krüpe (Kassel), who also initiated the session, presenting a paper entitled “Semiramide riconosciuta – The queen of Babylon as seen by Baroque opera”. It was Ctesias of Knidos, who first draws a detailed picture of Semiramis. His account is in great parts lost, but other ancient authors give us an idea of his version. She is presented as both a highly successful stateswoman (mainly Diodorus) and a lustful, man-murdering tyrant. Later Christian and renaissance authors present her as an example of immorality and promiscuity. The initial spark for her success on opera stages was the libretto “Semiramide riconosciuta” by Pietro Metastasio in 1729. Based on this libretto various operas dealing with the queen of Babylon came into being. Metastasio decided to portray Semiramis as a virtuous ruler, torn between duty and love, a victorious military commander and clear sighted leader of her people. Interestingly enough Droß-Krüpe was able to stress, that neither the acting characters nor the settings of this libretto are explicitly ‘oriental’.

This paper was followed by a joint communication by Agnès Garcia-Ventura (Rome) and Marta Ortega Balanza (Barcelona), dealing with “Agrippina – femininity between history and stories: redemption through music”. Agrippina (music by Georg Friedrich Händel, libretto by Vicenzo Grimani), was premiered in 1709. In this opera, the librettist achieved his goal, i.e. making a critique of 18th century European politics, by using a political thriller set in ancient Rome dominated by corruption and intrigue. Also with this aim, he fit the female characters of the opera into 18th century female models. Agrippina, the title character, embodies all negative female features that are considered typical of women who are not acting appropriate to their “nature”, as in the practice of politics. Moreover Garcia Ventura and Ortega Balanza included David McVickar’s staging of this opera (Liceu opera house, Barcelona, 2013) in their analysis to demonstrate how Agrippina’s characterization with 21st century AD attire is still an active element in regards of the construction and performance of femininities.

Next was Valeska Hartmann (Marburg) with a talk entitled “The power of imagination: The reception of antiquity in the stage design of the 18th century”. As an art historian she focussed on the changes in stage design of ‘oriental’ operas during the 18th century, using two Cleopatra-themed operas as case studies (“Cleopatra”, composed by Johann Sigismund Kusser, libretto by Friedrich Christian Bressand, 1690 and “La morte di Cleopatra”, composed by Sebastiano Nasolini, libretto by Antonio Simeone Sografi, 1791). She was able to demonstrate that despite an exponential increase of historical and oriental-exotic themes in the opera of that time, going along with early archaeological and historical researches, excavations and travel reports, the presentation of the last queen of Egpyt, did not correlate with an accurate perception of Egyptian architecture and art at the time. On the contrary depicting historically accurate settings was not relevant for the visualisation of an opera until well into the 18th century.

The last paper of the session was presented by Kerstin Weiand (Frankfurt). As an Early Modern Historian she provided a contemporary background in terms of the history of ideas and discourses for the involvement of ancient topics during the 18th century: „The polyvalence of ancient images in early modern discourses”. In establishing five research categories (1. Antiquity as a source of legitimation; 2. Antiquity as a means to formulate identities and alterities; 3. Antiquity as a role model; 4. Antiquity as a social code; 5. Antiquity as a learned diversion) she was able to vividly exemplify the various functions references to antiquity could have in Early Modern Times, when ancient images, narratives and symbols dominated the political as well as cultural sphere. Renaissance did rather invent then rediscover antiquity and used to as a legitimation and representation of power (on stage and in real life circumstances) as well as a place of longing in an age of crises.

The following discussion, chaired by Arjan Zuiderhoek (Gent), focussed on various aspects as e.g.  the question of the historical awareness of the audience, or the use of Classical Antiquity instead of the Ancient Near East as a frame of reference for an ‘European’ identity. Apart from that, is was noted that the choice to present ancient Roman or ‘oriental’ stateswomen on an opera stage – be as positive or negative examples – was particularly meaningful, considering that there was quite a number of female rulers on the European thrones of that age. On the whole the session demonstrated the potential of ancient receptions studies when seen from different methodological angles of different scientific disciplines.


Report by Kerstin Droß-Krüpe



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