Text, Rhythm, Action!
New Priorities in Historically Informed Performance
Many opera fans have a certain impression of recitative: it’s the boring, unmemorable bit in-between the nice tunes. Performers of the first operas from early 17th-century Italy must escape this false impression, since Cavalieri’s Anima e Corpo (1600, the earliest surviving) Peri’s Euridice (1600, the earliest surviving on a secular subject) and Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607, the earliest to have found a regular place in modern opera- houses) consist almost entirely of recitative! Worried that this might be boring, today’s early music conductors teach singers a modern performance practice based on rhythmic freedom and improvised ornamentation.
My study of the writings of these three composers and an anonymous guide for the artistic director of an opera production, Il Corago (1630) reveals quite a different view. These early music-dramas are not called ‘operas’, but rappresentatione (Show), spettacolo (Spectacle), favola in musica (Story in music), azioni armoniche (harmonic Actions) . Then as now, the Italian word recitare meant ‘to act’. So musica recitativa is ‘music for acting’, and that other period name for recitative, in genere rappresentativo means ‘in the form of a Show’. 17th-century writers are unanimous that this style should not be ornamented, that it was not conducted, and that the accompaniment directs the rhythm in a slow steady beat comparable to the human heartbeat or to the regular movement of the stars and planets. Composer Gulio Caccini in 1601 mentions briefly a certain noble sprezzatura di canto: this is not about rhythmic freedom, but rather describes a particular vocal production, a nonchalant or ‘cool' way of singing, something between speech and song. Caccini's single example of senza misura (off the beat) is explained by a frequently occuring feature of Monteverdi's notation : the singer is free to anticípate or delay, but the accompaniment continues in rhythm. So recitative is rhythmic and dramatic, but also cool: Ella Fitzgerald meets William Shakespeare!