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
Fabbri & Pompilio (eds) Il Corago o vero alcune osservazioni (Florence, 1983) Complete text in Italian here
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.
every element of production tells the same story
Priority 1: Text
the poet's libretto is a blueprint
for every element of production
Singers should imitate the declamation of a good actor, varying the sound according to the words.
Read more about Redefining Recitative here.
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?
Quintilian Institutio Oratoria (1st cent) remained a respected authority throughout the 17th-century.
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
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!
Shakespeare's Hamlet (c1600) has advice for the Players: Suit the Action to the Word!
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.
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.
John Bulwer's Chirologia - the language of the hand - & Chironomia - the art of manual rhetoric - were published together in 1644.
Historical Action for modern performers & today's audiences.
Why do we need Historical Action, how can we implement it?
"Setting up integrated courses is one of the first conditions for making progress"
Read the complete text of Julie and Frans Muller's article in Early Music Now here
How do modern performers and audiences respond to Historical Action?
"The avant-garde... has become commonplace...
the spirit of the original works is now, by default, cutting edge"
Read the complete text of Robert Harris' review of
Opera Atelier's work on Mozart and French repertoire here
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
Cesare Ripa's Iconologia was first published in 1593 in Rome, and was reprinted many times, also in Siena and Padova. Ripa shows how every visual image is an 'Emblem' that carries a rhetorical message.
Rouillé (2007) analyses this concept for period art in Peindre et Dire les Passions [Paint and Speak the Passions: Baroque Gesture in the 17th and 18th centuries, available to buy here]
Francesca Gualandri (2001) takes many illustrations from Ripa for her study of the rhetoric of gesture in 17th-century theatre: Affetti, passiioni, vizi e virtu [Free Download here]