|Banca Dati 'Giulio Rospigliosi'||indice|
LA VITA HUMANA
An operatic Pilgrim's Progress, which it predates by about twenty years; Catholic, of course, with the libretto written by a Monsignor who later became Pope, and the music composed by a harpist from the Sistine Chapel; but not as fanatically Catholic as one might expect from something created in the mid seventeenth century, a time of almost uninterrupted religious conflict: although it is made quite clear at the denouement of the opera that the true faith is to be found in Rome, this is done without any sideswipes at those more usually labelled by the Counter Reformation as heretics (now more often referred to as 'our separated brethren'). No sectarian pettymindedness, which is perhaps a tribute not only to the author but to the person (who later became a close friend) for whom the piece was written, Christina, ex-queen of Sweden.
Christina, ex-Queen of Sweden, rides into Rome,
Christmas, 1655. Engraving by G.M. Testana
Christina was the daughter of the great Lutheran King Gustavus Adolphus, the Protestant hero of the Thirty Years War, and on the face of it, an unlikelier candidate for conversion to the Roman Catholic faith could not be imagined. Gustavus Adolphus died in battle when she was six, and she was brought up very much as his heir: Elizabeth I was her role-model, and like Elizabeth, she found unbearable the thought of relinquishing power and independence to a husband. However, she realised that Elizabeth's solution was no real answer for her. She abdicated in 1654 at the age of 28, in favour of her cousin, Karl Gustav; converted to Roman Catholicism and went to live in Rome.
Every one of her many biographers has suggested a different reason for this decision. There must have been many reasons, but I am sure that this must have been among them: for an educated, intelligent woman, used to power but not willing to exercise it at the risk of dynastic conflict after her death, in love with theatre and music, French and Italian culture, what are the options? To marry and share the power in Sweden? To abdicate and go to another court - where she would always run the risk of being used as a political pawn, where precedence would always be given to its reigning Queen and not to her? In many ways, Rome was the only answer. She spent some time travelling around Europe - she was received formally into the Roman Church in Innsbruck - before arriving finally in Rome for Christmas, 1655, just in time for the Carnival.
The welcome given to her was spectacular. Among the most prominent of her admirers were the Barberini family, and it was they who organized the set of entertainments that culminated in the opera especially composed for the occasion, La Vita Humana. (In fairness, one ought to say that the real climax of the Barberini celebrations was the Carousel or horse ballet, given in the courtyard of their palace after the opera, featuring Amazons on horseback wearing headdresses of 500 ostrich and peacock feathers each; but we don't have the music for it, otherwise, of course...)
Therefore the dedication to Christina, the intelligent, independent, theatrical queen, is not arbitrary, but central to the whole work. The story of the soul's journey through the snares of illusion, seduced by Guilt and rescued by Innocence, could easily have been, like so many other similar allegories of the period, emblematic, twodimensional, the plot wholly predictable, yet Rospigliosi's characterisations have remarkable depth: they plot, deceive, are deceived, suffer, triumph; the relationships between them are subtle and strong; they develop throughout the course of the opera. Again, although in accordance with the principles of the reigning Pope all the characters were sung by men - when Rospigliosi became Pope things became much more liberal, and women were allowed to perform in public - the characters are also clearly perceived in terms of gender, with the central character, Vita, as a young girl accompanied by Intendimento, her (male) intellect. Pre-echoes of a jungian anima/animus system: one might compare it to the Aquarian Tippett's Midsummer Marriage, though not to the Enlightened Mozart's Magic Flute, where the women, however enchanting, have little autonomous development, and are dependent on the prowess of their men. Here it is Vita who is strongest, and Intendimento who collapses under the strain - life has resources other than intellect, intellect cannot stand alone - an argument certainly used by the church to bolster faith against science, but perhaps not entirely unsympathetic to our holistic, post rationalistic age. The other characters have unexpected depths, too: Innocence is by no means innocent in our debased sense of the word - she is far from naive, sees clearly what is happening, but will not compromise free will; her role is simply to reveal truth. Guilt is knowing, seductive, androgynous, attractive to both life and intellect, chameleon-like, assuming whatever form will work best. Her sidekick, Pleasure, is Mephistophelean, in the Marlowe/Goethe sense rather than Gounod: he is fun, the life and soul of the party, and hell burns inside him.
This is what we are given by the opera itself and the facts of its genesis. There is in fact a quite extraordinary amount of information available to us: detailed narratives exist of all the festivities, and of this one particularly; engravings exist of the sets, together with some working drawings; the household accounts of the Barberini reveal precisely what was used and how much was paid for it, what the sets and costumes were made of and who made them, what the machines were made of, though sadly not always how they worked, how many candles and lamps were used. But the very existence of such material means that one must start to deal seriously with the highly controversial notions of 'authentic' performance - how far do you, should you, can you go in recreating a 17th-century performance? Indeed, what are exactly are you trying to recreate - the look, the sound, the impact? How much information, what attitudes can you assume to be common to the 17th and 20th-century audiences? How do you balance the facts that what seems exotic and enchanting to us was everyday to them - the costumes, the dances - and what was new and arresting for them may have become a cliché for us - the gestures, the effects? No matter how much material you have, you cannot recreate the seventeenth century, only an idea of it. But if you believe that the idea is worth having then the answer must lie, I think, in the sort of approach familiar to us from the best of the 'early music' interpreters: it must of course involve fairly extensive knowledge of period conditions, both real and ideal, but that in itself is more like learning the language the piece is written in, and alone does not guarantee either good music or good theatre - one must start with the life inherent in the piece itself; in the case of opera, a truth about the human predicament which is independent of time; which one then presents in a setting that speaks from their time to ours.
Vita journeys through Illusion to Reality, Christina journeyed from icy Sweden to sunlit Italy, we live from dawn to dusk, passing through the dark night to the light again with the aid of hope; these are the arches, given by the librettist, by history, by our own experience, on which we build our story.
Grimaldi's original set for the final scene of 'La Vita Humana' (1656),
showing the banks of the Tiber, St Peter's and the Castel Sant'Angelo
[cliccare sull'immagine per ingrandirla]