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PERIOD SOURCES for Historical Action

Il Corago o vero alcune osservazioni per metter bene in scena le composizioni drammatiche is an anonymous manuscript from around 1630, describing how Il Corago, the artistic director of a music-theatre should direct a show, uniting the whole production around the poetic text

What does Il Corago say?


No empty theorising:

Il Corago offers down-to-earth practical advice from a director experienced in the everyday challenges of actual productions. 


Unified Aesthetic:

every element of production tells the same story


Priority 1: Text

the poet's libretto is a blueprint

for every element of production 

No conducting!

recitative is NOT conducted;

the principal continuo player

can show the Tactus for large ensembles

Dance & Swordsmanship

Action in Harmony: spectacular shows

are azione armoniche 

What do other historical sources say?

The preface to Cavalieri's Anima e Corpo (1600) 

gives pragmatic advice, remarkably similar

to Il Corago:

  • The production is led by the poet's text
  • Rhythm is prioritised
  • Variety is essential
  • Singers should not add ornaments
  • Detailed instructions for continuo-players and dancing masters. 

Complete text and English translation

from The Early Music Company here 

The Preface to Jacopo Peri's Euridice (1600) explains howrecitar cantando is derived from spoken declamation, just as Il Corago writes.

  • Only Good (significant) syllables are sustained
  • Bad syllables are passed over lightly, almost unpitched
  • The result is something between song and speech
  • Singers normally follow the accompaniment
  • Peri's freedoms are in his counterpoint, not in his rhythms!

English translation and commentary here

Shakespeare's Hamlet (c1600) has advice for the Players: Suit the Action to the Word!

Complete Text here

Giovanni Bonifacio L'Arte de' Cenni (1616) - The Art of Gesture - is a catalogue of signs and gestures of the whole body, especially the face and eyes.

Full text here

Monteverdi's Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (1624) includes staging instructions:

  • The protagonists perform the Action precisely as described in the text.
  • Singers should not add ornamentation to recitar cantando.

Text, English translation & commentary here

John Bulwer's Chirologia - the language of the hand - & Chironomia - the art of manual rhetoric - were published together in 1644.

Facsimile edition here.

Historical Action for modern performers & today's audiences.

Il Corago's Vision of Historical Action

Andrew Lawrence-King writes: ​

Anyone working on historical staging of early operas must be aware of the legacy of Australian researcher Dene Barnett, whose pioneering book The Art of Gesture (1987) remains an indispensable resource. Barnett’s work concentrated on 18th and early 19th century sources, mostly French, and his approach when coaching performers was to emphasise precision and accuracy, discouraging experimentation or improvisation.

My work with Il Corago concentrates on early 17th century repertoire, mostly Italian and English. And my  approach to coaching performers is to give them 'ownership' of this Historical Action, by encouraging them to improvise.

In Early Music, continuo-players learn complicated rules of harmony and voice-leading, and then improvise their realisations; soloists learn how to improvise ornamentation within particular historical styles. Those improvisations are usually not totally new - rather the performer assembles familiar elements, making spontaneous choices from a rich collection of well-prepared options.

This is my model for Historical Action: a text-based approach to period acting that combines the latest understanding of historical sources, dramatic timing and strong rhythm, the performer's spontaneous vision and a passionate intention to communicate with the modern audience. 

Critics have praised how The Harp Consort makes old music new, combining the spontaneity of improvised jazz and the perfection of state-of-the-art early music: a stupendous mixture of historical accuracy and improvisatory freedom. My vision is for Il Corago to do similarly with Historical Action. 

The wheel has come full circle wrote William Shakespeare. Radically 'authentic' 17th-century Action has now become cutting-edge theatre. I don't claim it's easy to achieve, but I do believe it's worth striving for. And thus far, our audiences agree!

Press quotes: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Frankfurter Allgemeine, Frankfurt Rund-Schau

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