STM-Online vol. 11 (2008)
Johanna Ethnersson

Music as Mimetic Representation and Performative Act

Semiramide riconosciuta and Musical Construction of Sexuality and Gender

Johanna Ethnersson

[1] Introduction

In the last few decades the music of opera seria has been reinterpreted and revaluated in socio-historical studies that focus on historical meaning and dramaturgical function. Its arias have been interpreted not only as a means through which the voices of the “virtuosi” could manifest themselves, but also as expressions and representations of ideas that were prevalent in the carnival context of their public performances and in the court culture of absolutist monarchies.[1] Although these studies have mainly focused on musical representations of power and virtue, there has also been some interest in the possibility of connecting these ideas with gender and sexuality.[2] However, musical representations of gender and sexuality are still a neglected aspect of opera seria.

To take a well-known example, in George Frideric Handel’s and Nicola Francesco Haym’s opera Giulio Cesare (London 1724), there seems to be a musical manifestation of the stoic ideal in the character of Cesare, as the music indirectly represents him with a specific constellation of affects and ethos. In contrast, musically, Cleopatra appears as a more realistic character who fits eighteenth-century ideas of affects. In addition to representing the characters in the drama, the arias were adapted to the voices of the singers, the alto castrato Senesino and the soprano Francesca Cuzzoni. According to the gendered descriptions of the music by literary critics in the early eighteenth century, adapted to the voice of Cuzzoni the character of Cleopatra also appears as “strong” and “androgynous,” partly constructed through a “masculine” musical style. However, musically strong female characters were not uncommon in opera seria, especially not in the operas that Handel wrote for the London stage.[3]

The question that this article wants to raise is the following: how did eighteenth-century audiences experience the characters/singers of the opera seria at the time? Through her sexuality, Cleopatra was a strong character in the classical story upon which the libretto was based upon (as a character she also had an oriental origin), and the music was a means to represent this trait.[4] However, it cannot be taken for granted that the musical constructions made these women strong and androgynous according to the ideas of masculinity and femininity that were dominant when the operas were written and performed. Thus, an investigation has to take into account the differences between traits in the characters that come from stories of an earlier tradition, and traits that were constructed in accordance with contemporary, eighteenth-century expectations of sexuality and gender.

More specifically, the aim of this article is to investigate the possibility to interpret the musical constructions of the two main characters/singers in the opera Semiramide riconosciuta (Venice 1745) by Pietro Metastasio and Johann Adolf Hasse as constructions of sexuality and gender. The music will not only be analyzed in relation to the drama, but of equal importance is the communication in the performance between composer/performers and the audience. The question that has been asked is, how can the modern concept of performativity contribute to our understanding of musical representations from the early eighteenth century?

My hypothesis is that the interpretative strategies that the concept of performativity enables have some affinity to how opera seria was experienced and theorized in the early eighteenth century. In the eighteenth century, commentators on opera not only described what they heard and saw, but how the singers performed the music and the text and how they as listeners experienced the performance.[5] In the dialogue Della tragedia antica e moderna (Rome 1715) the literary theorist Pier Jacobo Martello described the music in Italian operas as doing something to the audience.[6] During the performance the audience was also doing something to the music.[7] Thus, the performers’ acts were shaped by the audience as much as the acts of the audience were shaped by the performers. The music appears to have been understood not only as mimetic representation but also as a means providing what John L. Austin and Judith Butler call performative acts.[8] It had both the capacity to describe the world and to have an effect on it. According to this view the music did things to the world as much as it represented it.

The purpose of the investigation in the following article has been to broaden the understanding of opera seria as musical representation, not only through the use of alternative tools of interpretation, but also by giving attention to a hitherto less explored musical material. For that reason the choice of the object of the investigation is an opera seria that has not been investigated from the perspective of the music before.

Music as drama, mimetic representation and performative act

[2] Modern theories

During the last few decades, a reaction against earlier traditions of research which considered the music in opera seria as superfluous to socio-historical study, has generated scholarship that not only focuses on the potential of the music in opera seria to reveal dominant ideas in court and carnival culture,[9] but also involves analysis and interpretation of the music in relation to the drama. The aim has been not only to restore opera seria as a historical artifact, but also to restore opera seria as opera. According to Reinhard Strohm, through the connections between the arias and the situations in the drama, the music of opera seria can be seen as a dramaturgical tool.[10] However, the reinterpretation and revaluation of the music has often led to neglect in research of traits that contributed to negative evaluations by scholars of an earlier musicological tradition.[11]

In addition to its rationalistic (Arcadian) ideals, opera seria is also characterized by flexible constructions and by directness when it comes to expression and representation. As these constructions turn the spectators/audience into active participants in the “work of art”; scholars have, in the last few decades, come to describe these traits as belonging to a “baroque aesthetics.”[12] This flexibility and materiality can also be interpreted with the help of Erika Fischer-Lichte’s discussion of a performative aesthetics in theatrical forms of expression. Meaning is generated through factors such as the dynamics of the performance as an event, the interactivity between spectator and actor and the self-referential of elements and participants.[13]

Thus, the (musical) appearance of the singer should not only be understood as representing/signifying something (an affect, an ethos etc.), but also as self-referential. It attracted and activated the audience through a physical and material presence.[14]

In her interpretation of opera seria as a ritual in which the audience played an active part, Martha Feldman focuses on the performative aspect of the performance. Making use of comments by the French nobleman Charles de Brosses, she analyzes the music, not in terms of its ability to represent the drama or to create a continuous musical “work,” but in terms of its ability to attract the attention of the listeners/spectators.[15] Instead of interpreting the independence of the music/the voice in relation to the drama as “autonomy,” Feldman discusses the performative possibility created by the directness between what happened on stage and the audience.


This directness in communication between what is happening on stage and the audience is important in Fischer-Lichte’s aesthetics of the performative. Through the history of Western theatrical performance, she observes a dichotomy in the relationship between the performance and the audience; the reception emanates either in something that a modern interpreter would regard as hermeneutics/symbolism, or phenomenology/performativity. Audiences from the late eighteenth century until around 1960 appear to have had an interpretive relation to what was happening on stage, whereas the audiences in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, just like audiences of post-modern performances after 1960, were experiencing and acting.[16]

The performative effect can also be related to the concept of “phantasmagoria” (a term once used by Theodor W. Adorno to describe the effect of Wagner’s music drama: the repression of musical production in order to create a music without origin), recently used by film music scholars to interpret the effect of music in Hollywood film. At some moments the narration of the drama is broken by a direct musical expression with an absorbing effect on the audience. Through this directness the music exceeds the borders between fiction and reality, and makes the listener/spectator accept the message provided by the situation.[17] If we regard music as a possible means to manifest dominant ideas in eighteenth-century society, this communication seems to have been as important as mimetic representation.[18]

Butler’s concept of performativity also enables interpretative strategies that are relevant when it comes to interpretation of the music in opera seria. Arguing that gender/sex is a kind of social ritual that can be performativily defined, she means that the performativity of such rituals reflect the political and ideological constraints imposed in the power at the same time as they allow for subversion of constraints by those acting out such rituals.[19] Through the ritual performances of opera seria the music had the capacity to both reflect and undermine political and ideological constraints of a contemporary society through adhering to or deviating from traits typical of the genre. Especially useful for the interpretation of the music is Butler’s concept of performative acts, defined as processes of repetition and citation that necessarily evoke the earlier history and tradition:

If a performative provisionally succeeds (and I will suggest that “success” is always and only provisional), then it is not because an intention successfully governs the action of speech, but only because that action echoes prior actions, and accumulates the force of authority through the repetition or citation of a prior and authoritative set of practices.[20]

[4] The literary theorists of the early eighteenth century

The descriptions of Italian opera by the literary theorists of the Arcadian Academy in the early eighteenth century often give the reader a view that can be interpreted as performative in a modern sense.[21] Their interpretations of classical concepts and ideas do not reveal the older models as much as the way various kinds of expression were understood in the early eighteenth century. The scenic performances of opera seria, as well as Metastasio’s dramas still reflect many of the baroque traits that Pier Jacobo Martello criticized in Della tragedia antica e moderna (1715).[22] Martello’s ironic formulations, characteristic of their time, reveal two different views of the performance situation debated in the late eighteenth century, viz. between a performance where the drama was the main object of attention and a performance turning the spectators/listeners and their reactions into the main participants.[23]

That Martello understood opera from the perspective of the audience as much as dramatic and musical entities is evident in his interpretation of Aristotele’s concepts of peripety and recognition. Here, showing is described as the opposite of narrating, and seeing as the opposite of thinking in a way that is suggestive of Fischer-Lichte’s dichotomy between experience, on the one hand, and understanding and interpretation, on the other.[24]

In agnitions, or recognitions, let us be easily deceived by a sudden change of costume; by a chain of circumstances of which nothing was known earlier; by certain objects found in the cradle of a character when he was an infant which are later brought on the stage or described for the purpose of identifying him. But as for the peripeties (or reversals), you had better show those events than narrate them; for that which strikes the senses pleases the public better, since they have come to see, not think.[25]

Metastasio’s dramas not only reveal an adherence to the concept of “verisimilitude,” but also to the concept of “meraviglia,” making the spectators active participants in the performance.[26] In this way the dramas adhere to those that Martello criticized. For example, there is sometimes a combination of a firm and a flexible construction of identity in various characters. The flexibility functions both as a way to confirm “decorum,”[27] and as a way to attract the attention of the audience.

According to eighteenth-century comments on opera seria, the music had a particularly strong effect on the audience.[28] Martello uses the term “chiaroscuro” to describe this effect, a term that was also used to describe the effect of changing between light and darkness in baroque painting.

Mind, however, that when you end a scene with an exit aria you do not begin the very next one with an entrance aria. That would rob the music of its chiaroscuro. The instrumental ricercare would tumble over each other and instead of helping hinder the effect.[29]

The music appears to have been understood in two ways. First, it functioned as a mimetic representation of affects (the vocal-line imitating the expression of a human being). Second, since the time of the birth of opera, it had also been viewed as an independent force that could affect the listener directly.[30] Martello’s descriptions in Della tragedia suggests that the music as such, independent of other means of expression, was understood as the most important means to make an impression on an audience.

… a mediocre poem that spreads easy sentiments and affections in fluent, intelligible recitatives and lilting, natural ariettas gives the composer of the music greater freedom to roam at will and vent his inspiration; which, the less it is cramped by the closeness of sentiment, the nimbler it will be and the readier to stimulate (by way of the ear) the spirits of the listener, thus with sweet harmony delighting him and moving him to applause. [31]

A more savage critic of music in opera, Ludovico Antonio Muratori in his Della perfetta poesia italiana (1706), also describes the music according to the effect it had on listeners.

… it cannot be denied that our present theatre music has become unduly effeminate (effeminato), and thus more apt to corrupt the soul of those in the audience than to purge and improve them as did ancient music. This is the primary defect of modern operas, nor would it be necessary to go to great lengths to provide evidence of this assertion, were the matter not so pressing. We all know and feel what emotions are sparked within us when we listen to skilful musicians in the theatre. Their singing always inspires a certain softness and sweetness, which secretly contributes to further debasing the common people, turning them toward lowly vices, as they drink in the affected languor of the singing voices, and savour the vilest passions, seasoned with unwholesome melodies.[32]

According to Martello, the music as well as the words and the text (the Italian language, which in turn guided the outline of the music), was understood as a material that attracted the audience directly, rather than as signs demanding understanding and interpretation.[33]

I believe this type of composition, such as it is, calls for moderation and charm rather than gravity and magnificence; music, an art invented to delight and lift the spirits, needs to be buttressed by words and sentiments clothed in the spirit of delightfulness. … Let me repeat, therefore, that your constructions must be easy, your sentences clear and not long, the words plain and attractive, the rhymes not insipid, the verses fluent and tenderly sonorous. In the arias I advise you to use similes involving little butterflies, little ships, a little bird, a little brook: these things all lead the imagination to I know not what pleasant realms of thought and so refresh it; and just as those objects are charming, so too are the words that conjure them up and portray them to our fancy; and the musical composer always soars in them with his loveliest notes; and you will have noticed that even in the worst operas the singers win particular applause in these arias, to which the diminutives (so hateful to the French language and temperament) add much grace.[34]

Martello also describes a musical effect on the audience that can be compared to the “phantasmagorical effect” described by Weiner in his interpretation of music and narration in Hollywood film.[35] The directness between the music and the audience could pass the border between fiction and reality.[36]

This type of entertainment, then, is such that it can lift people’s spirits above all cares and absorb them in restful forgetfulness, making them content; and coming away from the music and the sights, they feel stronger and fitter for all human endeavors. Therefore, both physically and morally, this is as useful to the State as are the satyr play, the comedy, and the tragedy. But we must take it as a fundamental truth that in this charming entertainment music must not be denied pride of place: for she is its soul, and to her must defer all who are called upon to collaborate, whether with poetry or with furnishings.[37]

Music alone, in action, contains the all-important secret of separating the soul from all mortal cares for at least as long as the notes can keep it absorbed, through the skillful management of consonance, whether vocal or instrumental.[38]

A further resemblance with the modern concept of performativity is revealed in Martello’s description of love as the most important affect. The music seems to have been understood as a means that indirectly constructed citizens according to the decorum in the society.[39]

Let the passions be various and opposing. If possible let hatred be opposed by love, love by hatred. Anger, too, must play a part. But the amorous passion must triumph over all: let the others merely serve to bring love to the fore, which, being common to all mankind, is seen with the greatest pleasure. True, you must like decorum for the good of the State; but that being preserved, the amorous affection is of the greatest utility to the citizenry, urging it into legitimate unions, whence springs the benefit of a growing population, which is the very soul of the states.[40]

Accordingly, Martello’s and Muratori’s accounts of the music, based on interpretations of classical models, reveal two kinds of acts, connectable to two definitions of the modern concept of performativity. On the one hand, the music functions as a material that generates direct bodily expressions acted out in the performance, and makes the spectators/listeners active participants in the operas.[41] On the other hand, through engaging and absorbing qualities the music generates acts indirectly, affecting the minds and the bodies of the audience. The effect on the listeners/spectators seems to have been based not only on recognition of mimetic representation, but also on manifestations through processes of repetition and citation in accordance with Butler’s concept of performative act.[42]

Thus, the acts performed by the performer had an influence on the spectator/listener not only during the performance, but also on their behavior in general, manifesting a behavior in accordance with the decorum of the early eighteenth century. In this way the acts appears as both self-referential and as what Butler labels “dramatic,” in the way they create and manifest the identity of the spectators/listeners.[43]

[5] Constructions of identity

In many ways opera seria appears to confirm Thomas Laqueur’s both influential and contested “one-sex model.”[44] For example, this was the case when it came to the use of castrato singers and to the fact that the male and female roles were distributed irrespective of the singers’ actual sexes. According to Don Neville’s description of the Metastasian drama in relation to Cartesian moral philosophy, it seems as if men and women had equal abilities to use reason. He mentions Semiramide as having the same potential as Tito to act as the hero, viz. to be performed according to a stoic ideal.[45] This statement reflects the Cartesian view of the reasonable human being as independent of sex.[46]

The Metastasian drama also confirms a gender ambiguity through flexible constructions of identity. Cross-dressed characters were not only important in comic opera but in opera seria as well.[47] Cross-dressing was an important trait in the performance as it had a certain effect on the audience. This effect seems to have been erotic as well as surprising. When she had got the message that she was going to perform the cross-dressed character of Emira in Hasse’s version of Metastasio’s Siroe (Bologna 1733), the contralto Vittoria Tesi Tramontini, who was praised for her performances of both male and cross-dressed characters, wrote that she was going to compensate the uncomfortable male clothes by wearing something that was as open as possible on the upper part of her body.[48]

The effect of this gender-bending act on the audience is also indicated by a comment on the performance of Lampugnani’s version of Siroe, where the singer Regina Mingotti was praised for her ability to perform the character of Emira.

Last night I went to the opera, and they are giving Siroe at present. Signora Mingotti changed her skirt for a tunic, and in that masculine costume she conquered the air and breeze for grace and delicacy … I find that there are two persons in her: the perfect imitation of a man, with the addition of all the grace that Signora Mingotti possesses as a woman.[49]

This gender flexibility can be seen as being in line with the baroque concept of “meraviglia,” but also as being in line with Butler’s concept of performativity.[50] Scholars have interpreted the cross-dressing in Italian eighteenth-century opera as an act of subversion of a heterosexual norm, in accordance with Butler’s theory of drag and in this way as a manifestation of the flexible constructions of sex and gender proposed by Laqueur.[51]

The ambiguity of gender is, however, not only to be seen as a confirmation of the “one-sex model,” but as a means to manifest a difference between two sexes and two sexualities according to decorum.[52] In Metastasio’s Siroe the character Emira, princess of Cambaia, dresses as a man to be able to act as an avenger of her father. In Semiramide by the same dramatist, Semiramide, princess of Egypt, dresses as a man to be able to act as a ruler. The flexible constructions reflected real circumstances that pervaded early eighteenth-century society, as it happened that women acted as men to be able to undertake acts considered unsuitable for a woman without jeopardizing her chastity.[53] Gender studies have shown in what way the neutrality of sex existed only partially in theory and marginally in reality, because men and women performed different roles in society.[54] To be accepted as rational human beings, women were forced to give up their role as women and perform male sex and sexuality.

The characters in the Metastasian opera can be seen as constructed according to different statuses, different gender models and different sexualities, performing acts connected to decorum of the early eighteenth century. Thus, the flexibility of sex and gender were only temporary constructions, and they finally turned into firm constructions suggesting two ideal states based on the ideas of decorum in the socio-historical context.

Semiramide riconosciuta (Venice 1745)[55]

[6] The drama Semiramide by Pietro Metastasio (Rome 1729)[56]

The most obvious historical model for the character Semiramide is Saurmuramat, wife of the Assyrian king Shamsi-Adad V (823–811. B.C.), who after the death of her husband successfully reigned over the Assyrian Empire for six years, since the son and heir to the throne, Adad-nirari III, was under age. As was the case with Cleopatra, in Classical Antiquity, this strong woman transformed into a passionate character with strong erotic undertones.[57] In the legends she is portrayed as sexually threatening and appears as a negative character.[58] However, in eighteenth-century dramas, Semiramide appears as both a positive and negative character; portrayed either as a murderer having desire for her own son, or as a successful ruler.[59]

In Metastasio’s libretto Semiramide is an Egyptian princess who, after the death of her husband, king Nino, changes identities with her son to become ruler of the Assyrian Empire. The withdrawal of the son, and the transvestisms (of both Semiramide and Nino) are thoughtful acts of the empire and of the people. Semiramide thus appears as a virtuous character. Neville describes the background to the subject of the drama by Metastasio in the following words:

Scitalce, an Indian prince, masquerading under the name of Idreno, won the love of the Egyptian princess, Semiramide, with whom he eloped. He made an attempt on her life, however, when Sibari, also in love with her, suggested that she was unfaithful. Surviving the ordeal, Semiramide made her way to Assyria where she became the wife of Nino, the king; upon his death, she disguised herself as their son and heir, also named Nino, and now rules Assyria.[60]

Thus, Semiramide is one of the characters in the Metastasian drama who has a double ethos, marked by the fact that she is a cross-dressed character. In public she performs the status of a man, the king, whereas in private she performs the status of a woman. The cross-dressing remains throughout the drama, and only in the final scene her true identity as Semiramide is revealed publicly. Semiramide’s flexibility is manifested already in the opening scene, in the dialogue between her and Sibari.

Sibari Sibari
…ma non sperai …but I did not expect,
in sembianza viril sul trono assiro in masculine appearance on the Assyrian throne
di ritrovar la sospirata e pianta to find the lamented and moaned
principessa d’Egitto princess of Egypt
Semiramide. Semiramide.



Ah taci; in questo luogo Ah quiet; in this place
Nino ciascun mi crede e il palesarmi everyone believes I am Nino and to announce
vita, regno ed onor potria costarmi.[61] myself would cost me life, rein and honour.

The gender ambivalence is indicated further by the fact that it is the resemblance between mother and son that makes the transvestism possible.

Sibari Sibari
E all’estinto tuo sposo And at the death of your husband
non successe nel regno il picciol Nino? the young Nino did not succeed to the throne?



Il crede ognun: la somiglianza inganna This everyone believes: deceived by the
del mio volto col suo.[62] resemblance between his and mine visage.

The reason why Semiramide performs the status of the young Nino is that the son is “effeminato e molle.”

Sibari Sibari
Ma come soffre But how does he endure
il legitimo erede the legitimate heir
te nel suo trono? with you on his throne?



Effeminato e molle He is feminine and soft
fu mia cura educarlo. Ora in mia vece through my upbringing of him. In my place
gode vivendo in feminili spoglie he now lives in feminine appearance
nella regia racchiuso; e il regno teme, enclosed in the palace; and he fears the reign,
non lo desia.[63] he does not desire it.

Under her influence as a mother, Nino has come to perform traits that prevent him from performing the status as a king. The terms “effeminato” and “mollezza” were, in the early eighteenth century, still used to imply deviations from the ideal of masculinity. These deviations were seen as a result of devotion to women.[64]

Also, the main male character, the Indian prince Scitalce, is constructed with a flexible identity. Once he was the lover of the Egyptian princess, but masqueraded under the name of Idreno. When he now appears in the new environment (the drama is set in Babylonia) as a suitor to princess Tamiri, he adopts his real role as Scitalce. As soon as he meets king Nino, however, he recognizes his former love Semiramide. The meeting awakes his passions anew, creating an irresolute state of mind. Scitalce’s vacillation between reason and passion makes him appear with two different identities. In public he is the suitor of Tamiri—who fails to behave appropriately—and in private (being on stage alone or soliloquizing) he is the unhappy lover of Semiramide.


The question of identity is important throughout the drama, and the whole time there is a tension between what is genuine and what is fictitious.[65] Even if flexible identity is important it is criticized. Semiramide’s cross-dressing and Scitalce’s irresoluteness are not proper ways of behaving (the oriental origin of the characters is probably not unimportant for these behaviors). According to Metastasio’s “argomento,” the main action of the drama, viz. what de Van labels “azione principale,” is the revelation of Semiramide.[66]

The “lieto fine” is achieved through the revelation of Semiramide, who in this way can be reunited with Scitalce. The Assyrian Empire is restored and the people get a male ruler. Thus, the implication of the conclusion of the opera is that monarchy is restored and flexible identity gives way to the ideal states of the man and the woman according to decorum. [67]

Let us for a moment return to Neville’s description of the Metastasian drama from the perspective of Cartesian moral philosophy, and particularly to one important feature that I have only touched upon until now: that he mentions the character Semiramide in his account of the heroic hero/heroine.

Indeed, morality was seen to exist, above all, in the power of the individual to gain control over the desires that arise from human passions and so prevent the actions to which these passion-incited desires may lead. In demonstrating such a process, Metastasian drama became a drama of moral forces personified by specified characters who are differentiated by emotionally charged actions and reactions that drive them towards either personal moral victory or moral self-defeat. At the centre is a moral hero or heroine, like Titus or Semiramide, who must not only triumph over his or her own spontaneous desires but also uphold a moral vision against the onslaughts of the morally weak who fall victim to their personal desires. For the sake of the veiled exhortation to moral endurance, the moral crusader must succeed in the lieto fine, and the power of the achievement will be marred if the antagonists are not brought to moral truth (along with the audience) by the example.[68]

Even if Semiramide finally appears as a Cartesian ideal performing an act of generosity,[69] throughout the drama she is driven to “moral self-defeat” rather than to “personal moral victory,” like Tito.[70] She is not a character who prominently gains “control over the desires that arise from human passions.” On the contrary she repeatedly falls victim to the passions, and in her actions she appears to be driven by the desire aroused from the passions. Thus, the construction of the character Semiramide can be seen as connected to the descriptions of the character in earlier legends. She also appears as realistic (she acts as a woman was expected to act in early eighteenth-century society) rather than as manifesting the “one-sex model” suggested by Neville’s description.

[8] The context of the performance

The opera Semiramide riconosciuta, which Johann Adolf Hasse set for Venice in 1745, is a revision of Metastasio’s drama for Rome in 1729.[71] The opera was a success, performed at San Giovanni Grisostomo during the carnival season 1744–1745.[72] The love couple (primo uomo and prima donna) was performed by two of the celebrated virtuosi of the time: the contralto Vittoria Tesi Tramontini, and the soprano castrato Giovanni Carestini. The casting was as follows:

Semiramide riconosciuta (1745)
Semiramide Vittoria Tesi Tramontini (c3)
Scitalce Giovanni Carestini (c1)
Mirteo Lorenzo Ghirardi (c1)
Tamiri Girolama Giacometti (c3)
Ircano Ottavio Albuzzi (c4)
Sibari Giuseppe Perini (c1) [73]

The importance of the singers in the performance manifested itself through their physical and musical appearances on stage. Bodily Semiramide is the main character, appearing on stage in 20 of 42 scenes, whereas Scitalce appears on stage in 15 scenes. Musically they are of equal importance, however, performing five arias each: two in the first and second act, and one in the third act. Furthermore, Tesi/Semiramide performed two recitativi accompagnati, whereas one of the arias by Carestini/Scitalce was performed at the end of an act. That the singers were competing for the attention of the audience is indicated through the way their arias were often performed in scenes following each other.

Atto I
I:3 Semiramide “Non so se più t’accendi”
I:4 Scitalce “Vorrei spiegar l’affanno”
I:5 Tamiri “Che quel cor, quel ciglio altero”
I:7 Mirteo “Bel piacer saria d’un core”
I:8 Sibari “Come all’amiche arene”
I:11 Scitalce “Ardo per te d’amore”
I:12 Tamiri “Ei d’amor quasi delira”
I:13 Semiramide “Voi non sapete quanto”
I:14 Ircano “Talor, se il vento freme”
I:15 Mirteo “Rondinella, a cui rapita”

Atto II
II:2 Tamiri “Tu mi disprezzi, ingrato,”
II:3 Scitalce “Voi che le mie vicende,”
II:4 Ircano “Saper bramate tutto il mio core?”
II:6 Semiramide “Il pastor, se torna aprile,”
II:8 Ircano “Tu sei lieto, io vivo in pene”
II:9 Mirteo “Siete barbare, amate stelle”[74]
II:11 Tamiri “Non so se sdegno sia,”
II:12 Semiramide “Tradita, sprezzata”
II:13 Scitalce “Passaggier, che su la sponda”

Atto III
III:3 Ircano “Il ciel mi vuole oppresso,”
III:5 Sibari “Quando un fallo è strada al regno” [75]
III:7 Semiramide “Fuggi dagl’occhi miei,”
III:9 Scitalce “Se vi lascio, o luci amate”
III:10 Tamiri “D’un genio che m’accende”
III:11 Mirteo “Sentirsi dire dal caro bene:”
III:14 (ult.) Coro “Viva lieta, e sia regina”
III:14 (ult.) Coro “Viva lieta, e sia regina[76]

[9] Musical constructions of sexuality and gender in relation to the drama

An investigation of how the two main characters, Semiramide and Scitalce, appear in the opera shows that the music only in a very limited sense can be said to represent the flexibility of identity that characterizes these roles in the drama. The double ethos of Semiramide is only vaguely indicated in her arias, which are mainly uniform in rhythm and melody.[77] In Act 1, Scene 3, the combination of a flexible and a firm construction of identity is particularly prominent. The princess Tamiri is going to choose which one of the three suitors is going to be her husband.[78] The suitors present their merits, after which Tamiri informs Nino/Semiramide of her opinion. The two suitors, Ircano and Mirteo, appear with firm identities and specific characters: Tamiri describes Mirteo as “weak and boring” (“molle e noioso”), and her description of Ircano is “barbaric and strange” (“barbaro e strano”). Scitalce, however, does not manage to present his merits and appears elusive and ambivalent.

Also Semiramide’s ambivalent status is prominent in the scene: for Tamiri, Mirteo and Ircano she appears to be King Nino, whereas Scitalce and Sibari see Princess Semiramide behind the disguise. The aria ending the scene “Non so se più t’accendi” (I:3) is textually a manifestation of this flexible construction of Semiramide. In the guise of Nino, she gives Tamiri advice about the suitors and warns her against the ambivalent Scitalce. If interpreted in relation to the situation of the drama, the text also reveals Semiramide’s passion that awakens in her when she meets her former love.

Semiramide Semiramide
A Tamiri. To Tamiri.
Non so se più t’accendi I do not know what arouse you most
a questa, a quella face, to this, to the other fire,
ma pensaci, ma intendi: but think twice, but understand:
forse chi più ti piace maybe the one you like most

più traditor sarà.

will be the worst traitor.

Avria lo stral d’amore The arrow of love would appear
troppo soavi tempre, with a too lovely character
se la beltà del core if the beauty of the heart
corrispondesse sempre always corresponded
del volto alla beltà. with the beauty of the visage.
Parte con Sibari.[79] Makes her exit with Sibari.

The key of the aria is D major, a key that was often used to represent magnificence in opera seria (originally this was partly because it allowed the use of trumpets). In this way it can be seen as a means to confirm the authority of Nino. Besides choice of key, however, the aria should be seen as a representation of the lyric passion of love aroused in Semiramide, instead of as a representation of Nino’s authority. The melody of the vocal line, gently billowing in short, regularly patterned phrases in a continuous movement, can be characterized as “gracious.” It is this kind of melody Muratori terms “effeminato” because of its ability to “corrupt the souls of the audience” in his Della perfetta poesia italiana.[80]

Semiramide never appears in accordance with her status as a ruler with musical magnificence and glorification. Her arias are either characterized by a lyric and gracious style, like the aria “Non so,” or by declamatory expressive complaint. Certainly Strohm has shown that the musical appearance of the ruler as well as of the hero, changed in the early eighteenth century.[81] However, one question that has to be raised is whether the musical construction of Semiramide in this specific opera can be seen as a manifestation of the ruler’s status.

A comparison between the appearances of the two main characters shows that it is Scitalce rather than Semiramide who is constructed musically as having a powerful status. As with Semiramide, the ambivalent construction of Scitalce is only vaguely indicated through the music. The character is constructed with a musical style that is mainly uniform in melody and rhythm. Scitalce’s arias, however, are characterized by magnificence rather than lyrical grace and emotionality.

Also Scitalce’s first aria occurs in a situation where he appears with an ambivalent status. He has not been able to present his merits to Tamiri, and in the aria “Vorrei spiegar l’affanno” (I:4) he turns to the princess to explain the situation. His words increase the ambivalence of him as a character. The aria represents textually his vacillation between real and fictitious love, and the vacillation between the status of a suitor (reason) and the status of a lover (passion).

Scitalce Scitalce
Vorrei spiegar l’affanno, I would like to explain the striving,
nasconderlo vorrei, I would like to conceal it,
e mentre i dubbi miei and while my doubts
così crescendo vanno, so constantly increase,
tutto spiegar non oso, I cannot explain it all,

tutto non so tacer.

I do not know how to silence it all.

Sollecito, dubbioso, Eager, hesitant,
penso, rammento e vedo, I think, remember and see,
e agli occhi miei non credo, and I do not believe my eyes,
non credo al mio pensier. I do not believe my thought.
Parte.[82] He makes his exit.

The aria opens directly with his words, without an initial ritornello, intensifying the directness of his address to Tamiri, which in the presence of the other suitors appears as a violation of decorum.[83] Also the choice of key, E-flat major, can be seen as a means to represent his hopelessness.[84] Beside these traits, however, the aria has a majestic rather than an emotional character. In tempo Andantino the vocal melody is initially rising in a declamatory style with dotted rhythms. This melody would certainly have been considered appropriate for a heroic ideal according to Muratori, as it gives prominence to the words.[85]

As in the above-mentioned aria performed by Semiramide, the music does not emphasize the ambivalence in the text and the situation. Instead the music seems to narrate something else. With the middle section the magnificence turns into vacillation, however, marked by a change of musical character, with a turn from E-flat major to C minor. The vocal-line is incoherent and irregular rhythmically, with short phrases, emphasizing the words in the text one by one. The magnificent character with the da capo, creating a rhetoric effect on the audience, frames this representation of passion.[86]

Even if it remains problematic to conclude that Hasse, through the music, constructs two main characters with different genders and sexualities, after an analysis of the music in relation to the drama, one can establish the fact that the two characters appear as constructed with musical difference. It can also be concluded that the music does not represent Semiramide’s status as Nino in a traditional manner, as her arias are lyrical and gracious, also in serious situations where she/he expresses authority as a king.[87] It is instead Scitalce who performs a high-ranking status musically, appearing with a magnificent musical style. The ambivalence of the characters, so prominent in the drama, is not represented musically. Instead Hasse seems to have seized upon the ideal states of the characters that are revealed by the main message of the drama.

[10] Musical construction of sexuality and gender in the performance

The main question, however, is in what way the audience may have experienced the musical appearances of the two characters during the performance. According to contemporary comments about Tesi’s and Carestini’s voices and vocal abilities, the music provided by Hasse seems to have suited the two singers very well.[88] Tesi’s voice, often described as expressive and powerful, was given vent to, not only through lyrical and gracious arias, but also through a declamatory expressive complaint.[89] The magnificence of Scitalce’s arias, on the other hand, seems to have suited the powerful and clear soprano voice and the virtuosity of Carestini.[90]

So, is it possible to reveal constructions of identity based on early eighteenth-century decorum through the communicative act that was expected to occur in the performance? If one takes the context of the performance situation into consideration, it becomes evident that the music was only in part understood in relation to the drama. In addition to taking an active part in the opera, people attending the performances—not the least during the carnival seasons—seem to have been involved in other activities as well.[91] The audience was also made up of many foreign visitors not familiar with the Italian language.[92] Thus, the audience seems to have been expected to experience rather than understand and interpret.[93] From descriptions by contemporary commentators, the music appears to have been the means that could above all attract the attention of the audience.[94] Then, in what way might the concept of performativity serve as a useful tool for the interpretation of the musical construction of sexuality and gender in opera seria?

The musical high points of an opera seria performance often occurred at the end of the first and second acts. Accordingly, it was at these moments that the audience most likely turned to the stage with their expectations. It was also at these moments that they most likely were affected by the music, and that they in turn affected the musical performance. In Semiramide riconosciuta there is a gradual build-up of musical intensification, starting after the middle of the second act and culminating with the two final arias of the same act (II:12 and II:13). Even if the audience did not follow the progress of the events in the drama, they certainly were affected by the positions and the statuses of the two main characters in the way they were manifested by this musical climax.

Act II, Scene 12 consists of a confrontation between Semiramide and Scitalce. Semiramide reveals her true identity as the Egyptian princess and declares her love to Scitalce. Scitalce, however, mistrusts her fidelity and turns her away. He is also conscious of his new status as a suitor. Thus, the situation shows Semiramide revealed as a woman expressing passionate love and Scitalce is no longer irresolute but determined to follow his reason.

The music manifests these different states and positions of the characters. When Semiramide’s passion finally reaches it’s climax and she hands over the sword to Scitalce to stab her, the music explodes in a “recitativo accompagnato,” which was a conventional way of representing violent and shifting passions. The act ends with the singers/characters performing one aria each. In this way there was an emphasis not only on the conflict between the characters in the drama, but also and above all an emphasis on the performative difference between the characters and between the singers. They did different things to the audience and the audience did different things to the singers and indirectly also to the musical constructions of the characters.

So, how did the characters/singers appear at this important moment? The aria performed by Tesi, in the guise of Semiramide/Nino, textually manifests the strong passion the character expresses at the end of the dialogue. She alternates between uttering the words to herself, and turning directly to Scitalce.

Semiramide Semiramide
Da sé. To herself.
Tradita, sprezzata, Betrayed, despised,
che piango! Che parlo! what crying! What talk!
se, pieno d’orgoglio, if, full of pride,
non crede il dolor? he does not believe in the grief?
A Scitalce. To Scitalce.
Che possa provarlo Let him suffer
quell’anima ingrata, that ungrateful soul,
quel petto di scoglio, that breast hard as a rock,
quel barbaro cor. that barbaric heart.
Da sé. To herself.
Sentirsi morire Feeling like dying,
dolente painful
e perduta! and lost!
Trovarsi innocente! Finding oneself innocent!
Non esser creduta! Not being believed!
Chi giunge a soffrire Who arrives to a more
tormento maggior? painful suffer?
Parte.[95] She makes her exit.

The most important means employed to represent this affect was the music, with an irregular opening ritornello, rhythmic shifting between a syncopated rhythm and semiquaver figures in tempo Allegro assai. The key, C minor, was often used by Hasse to represent violent passions.[96] The mimetic representation of the passion was reinforced through the incoherent melody of the vocal-line, interrupted by pauses and emphasizing the words one by one.

Throughout the first part of the aria declamatory passages in the vocal line were suddenly broken by leaps, creating exclamations. The lamentations in which Semiramide first turns directly to Scitalce “Che possa provarlo quell’anima ingrata, quel petto di scoglio” (line 5–7 in the first stanza) and later speaks to herself “soffrire tormento maggior” (line 6–7 in the second stanza), were reinforced in a conventional manner through a rising chromatic figure in the vocal-line. Thus, in this moment the rhetoric of Tesi as Semiramide seems to have been focused on evoking the compassion of the audience through a mimetic representation of the lament.[97]


In the guise of Scitalce, Carestini appears to have provided the audience with a totally different experience at this moment of musical climax. In the monologue following the exit of Semiramide, he gives an account of the oscillating passions that the confrontation has aroused in him in a simple recitative.

Scitalce Scitalce
Partì l’infida, e mi lasciò nel seno She went, the deceitful, and left me in my chest
un tumulto d’affetti a tumult of affects
fra lor nemici. Il suo dolor mi spiace, hostile to one another. Her pain hurts me,
la sua colpa abborrisco, e il core intanto I despise her crime, while the heart
di rabbia freme e di pietà sospira, shivers of rage and sighs of compassion,
e mi si desta il pianto in mezzo all’ira. in me the sorrow arise in the midst of hate.
Così fra i dubbi miei So in the midst of my doubts
son crudo a me, non son pietoso a lei.[98] I become hard to myself and I have no mercy for her.

In the following aria his inner turmoil is formulated textually in a strong natural metaphor, this in a conventional manner for a hero in this kind of situation.

Scitalce Scitalce
Passaggier, che su la sponda The passenger, who stands at the border
sta del naufrago naviglio, of the sinking ship,
or al legno ed or all’onda to the ship and to the wave by turns
fissa il guardo e gira il ciglio: he fixes his look and he turns his look:
teme il mar, teme l’arene, he trembles at the sea and trembles at the shores
vuol gittarsi e si trattiene he both wants to plunge and to remain

e risolversi non sa.

and he does not know what to do.

Pur la vita e lo spavento Both his life and his fear
perde alfin nel mar turbato, he finally lose in the restless sea,
quel momento fortunato that fortunate moment
quando mai per me verrà? when shall it ever arrive to me?
Parte.[99] He makes his exit.

Accordingly, the strong passions were not manifested directly through musical representation. On the contrary it appears as if Scitalce/Carestini musically turns away from the passions that are aroused in the situation; the music imitates the image of the metaphor (the billowing sea imitated by the strings and by the vocal-line in the coloraturas) instead of the expression of a human being.[100]

Assuming that the audience consisted of persons experiencing instead of interpreting, the aria “Passaggier, che su la sponda” (II:13) probably created a dissociation from the situation in the drama, not only textually, but above all musically, and the music is characterized by a fascinating virtuosity and bravura. After the recitative the attention of the audience was attracted through the magnificent character of the opening ritornello, with an ascending melody in large intervals in Allegro in common time and with horn and oboes intensifying the sound effect of the strings. The choice of key, D major, can be seen as a means to manifest a magnificent status as it was conventionally used as a means of glorification. Important for the glorifying effect was above all the vocal-line, however, shifting between a declamatory style and extensive coloratura-passages, suitable to a Carestini.

Interpreting the performance as a performative act, the effect on the audience in this case appears to have been overwhelming in a direct way instead of working through identification with a mimetic representation, the mimetic feature connected to an impressive metaphor instead of to a human being. In this way power and virtue were mainly constructed through a direct experience and in accordance with Martello’s description of the response of the audience in the performance situation.[101] The character of the aria was brought about by its position at the end of the act. As Tesi in the previous scene had the opportunity to manifest her status through a “recitativo accompagnato,” Carestini might have demanded an aria in this position in order not to end up in an inferior position. In this way the audience experienced a female character manifested through musical means conventionally used to represent strong passion and a male character musically turning his passion into a magnificent self-display.

The next musical high point of the performance—in the middle of the third act (III:7 and III:9)—makes Tesi/Semiramide and Carestini/Scitalce appear in similar positions and with similar statuses as at the end of the second act. The music also appears to have had the same two different effects on the audience. The repetition of a specific musical and dramaturgical pattern in a new dramatic context can be seen as a performative manifestation of the statuses of the two main characters in the opera.[102]


In Act III, Scene 7, there is again a dramatic confrontation between the two main characters. Semiramide, revealed as Semiramide, tries to persuade Scitalce to reunite with her, but yet again he firmly turns her away. The dialogue ends with Semiramide giving herself over to strong passion. As in the previous scene, she turns directly to Scitalce, in this case with a violent expression, creating a violation of decorum. [103]

Semiramide Semiramide
Fuggi dagl’occhi miei, Fly from my eyes,
perfido, ingannator; faithless, deceiver;
ricordati che sei, remember that you are,
che fosti un traditor, that you were a traitor,

ch’io vivo ancora.

that I still live.

Misera, a chi serbai Unfortunate me, to who should I adhere
amore, fedeltà? love, fidelity?
A un barbaro, che mai To a barbarian, who never
non dimostrò pietà, demonstrated me mercy,
che vuol ch’io mora. who would like me to be dead.
Parte.[104] She makes her exit.

Again Semiramide’s unstable state of mind is represented mimetically, here by means of a vocal melody shifting between violent repetitions in a declamatory style, running figures and a halting syncopated rhythm. Also the choice of key, E-flat major, can be seen as a way of representing her instability.[105]

The emotionally strong words “fuggi” and “perfido” were emphasized through rhythmic repetition and isolated through halting pauses. In the more stoic middle section a sudden change of character certainly had a surprising effect on the audience. With the words “A un barbaro, che mai” the lamenting character of the first part of the middle section abruptly changes back to the violent character of the main section. The change is manifested through an unexpected shift from C minor to C major and from uncommon to common time.

In the scene following Semiramide’s exit, Scitalce appears again as hesitant, reasoning about the vacillating passions that the confrontation has awakened in him. Finally, he decides to leave the doubts behind and follow his reason: “Ah si scacci dal petto la tirannia d’un vergognoso affetto.”[106] (Ah, drive out from the breast the tyranny of a shameful affect.). Apologizing to Tamiri for his behavior, he is suddenly thrown into a new situation, as Mirteo enters and demands revenge for his sister Semiramide. In Metastasio’s original drama this situation generates an aria text connected to the passion aroused in Scitalce through this accusation.[107] In Hasse’s opera, however, neither the confrontation with Semiramide, nor the confrontation with Mirteo generates a musical expression of passion. Instead Scitalce turns his thoughts in another direction. Metastasio’s dramatic text is replaced by a metaphor that initially is lyrical, as the character appeals to the stars in the sky.

Scitalce Scitalce
Se vi lascio, ò luci amate, If I leave you, oh lovely lights,
il trofeo dell’Alma mia; the trophy of my Soul;
qualche vato almen lasciate, a Tam some promise at least give, to Tam

care stelle, al mio valor.

dear stars, to my strength.

Tanto fasto, e tanto foco Much splendor, and much fervor
saprò ben cangiar fra poco I will very well know how to change
in viltade, ed in terror.[108] into cowardice, and into terror.

Once again it appears as if Scitalce turns from the passion, here both textually and musically.[109] The music has a gracious character, described by Martello (and by Muratori) as having a particularly absorbing effect on the audience, with a gentle billowing vocal melody that is lyrical, diatonic and gradual.[110] The unpretentious character of the aria is further marked by the harmonic structure, with a tonal stability, without the conventional polarity between two tonal centers.

What is Hasse trying to say with these two musical high points? Can the arias be said to reveal society’s view of a woman with masculine ambitions? Semiramide is the only character in the opera who expresses anger musically (“Fuggi dagl’occhi miei,” III:7), a passion not only suitable to Tesi’s voice and vocal ability, but also important for the heroic ideal that permeated early eighteenth-century opera seria.[111] Can this trait be interpreted as a musical gender subversion in accordance with Butler’s theory of drag? Also Scitalce is expressing this passion in Metastasio’s drama, but Hasse never takes the opportunity to let these expressions of him be represented musically. On the contrary he seems to have avoided it. In Act II, Scene 3, Scitalce expresses anger in the situation in the drama. The passion is finally manifested in the aria “Voi che le mie vicende,” but only textually. Musically Hasse instead lets Carestini/Scitalce appear with the magnificent character typical of him in the opera. The act of letting Tesi/Semiramide express this passion musically, and at one of the high points of the performance, can be seen as a way to manifest both Tesi’s voice and the violation of decorum, letting a woman perform the status of the king.

Thus, at the musical high points of the performance the audience experienced Tesi as a cross-dressed female character textually emphasizing her status as a woman and musically expressing strong passions. The passions expressed were lamentation, in opera seria often connected to a female character, and anger, a passion connected to an older heroic ideal. So, what effect did the music have on the audience? In both cases it evoked compassion through a mimetic representation of human expression.

Carestini, as Scitalce, appears to have performed another musical action at these moments. The act of turning away from the situation and the passion is particularly prominent in the music. Carestini’s arias were meant to affect the audience through a direct expression independent of mimesis and of the drama. Instead of affecting the audience through a mimetic representation of passions the music was meant to overwhelm and to please.

It was this kind of music that an older school of musicologists called autonomous, viz. not to be connected with the drama or with ideas in the historical context. According to Martello’s and Muratori’s descriptions, however, this seems to have been a musical rhetoric that had a particularly strong effect on the audience and that in this way was especially useful. The gap between the music (signifier) and the drama (signified) was not only “filled by the voice,”[112] but can be seen as a bearer of meaning from the perspective of the audience. One can compare how music—from opera—has been used in Hollywood film in the last few decades. Through the music the listener/spectator is dissociated from the course of events in the drama and mentally absorbed (phantasmagoria). In this way the border between fiction and reality dissolves and the audience comes to accept the message provided for them.[113] The message to the audience of Semiramide riconosciuta was the two ideal states of human beings permeating the socio-historical context of the early eighteenth century, woman connected with passion and man connected with reason.

[13] Summary

The purpose of this article has been to investigate the question of the musical construction of sexuality and gender in the opera Semiramide riconosciuta (Venice 1745), set by Johann Adolf Hasse to the drama by Pietro Metastasio. Earlier investigations of opera seria have shown that the music can be seen as an indirect means to represent ideas concerning gender in the early eighteenth century, through representations of affects connected to the drama. The question that not has been posed before, however, is in what way the audience might have experienced this representation.

Apart from analyzing the music in relation to the drama, the method of this investigation has been to analyze and to interpret the music in relation to the concept of performativity. In an earlier tradition of musicological research, the descriptions by literary theorists in the early eighteenth century of the music as independent from the drama have resulted in an interpretation of the music as autonomous. In this way it has been rejected as a possible means of manifesting ideas that were dominant in the socio-historical context as well as in the drama. However, in the last few decades scholars have questioned this view, and research on opera seria has come to show the way in which the music can be related to the drama through the rules of the French classical drama and through the rhetorical ideas. In this way, scholars have been able to interpret the music as a means of manifesting ideas of power and virtue. The question that has been posed in this article, however, is whether the view provided by the literary theorists of the early eighteenth century, who considered the music independent, can be interpreted as a means to manifest eighteenth-century ideas as well, if interpreted with the help of the concept of performativity.

The investigation in this article has consisted of a comparative analysis between the musical appearances of the two main characters in the opera Semiramide riconosciuta, and between the two singers performing these characters. The musical appearances have been analyzed both in relation to the drama and in relation to the expected reaction of the audience during the performance. In spite of the fact that Metastasio has made Semiramide appear as a virtuous king, the main message of the drama (as well as of the libretto) manifests two ideal states of the two main characters according to ideas of decorum of the early eighteenth century, making them appear as a female, on the one hand, and as a male character, on the other.

This manifestation is underlined by the music. The flexible construction of the identity of the characters throughout the drama is only vaguely represented musically. Semiramide’s arias, performed by Vittoria Tesi Tramontini, are either lyrical and gracious or characterized by declamatory emotionality. This is also the case in the situations when her status as Nino is prominent. Scitalce’s arias, performed by Carestini, on the other hand, are mainly characterized by their magnificent style. The music represents his irresolution only vaguely. An interpretation of the musical appearances from the point of view of the theorist Muratori’s description of opera makes Semiramide appear as constructed through a feminine musical style whereas Scitalce appears as constructed as a musical ideal.

If the concept of performativity is taken into consideration, the question is in what way the music affected the audience during the performance. At the two high points of the performance, when the audience most likely were attentive to what happened on stage, there seems to have been a performative manifestation of the two main characters musically. In these moments Tesi performed as Semiramide, revealing herself as a woman and adopting the status of a character connected to passion, through a mimetic musical representation. The music functioned as a means of evoking compassion in the audience. Carestini in the guise of Scitalce, on the other hand, was shown as a character using reason, and musically he was distanced from passion. The music in his arias affected the audience directly and independently of the situation in the drama, creating amazement and delight. According to analyses of modern film music, which display affinities to Martello’s descriptions and to Fischer-Lichte’s concept of performativity, this was an effective means of getting an audience to accept the message of the performance. In this way, it seems as if Hasse, who provided the singers with vocally suitable material, musically confirmed the message of Metastasio’s drama.

As it provides the interpreter with tools that makes it possible to take the expected reactions of the audience in a historical context into consideration, the concept of performativity can add something to more established interpretative strategies, also when it comes to opera seria and musical construction of ideas pervading the socio-historical context. The interpretative possibilities enabled by the concept also reveals two important discrepancies in the opera Semiramide riconosciuta, which both can be seen as bearers of meaning, on the one hand between the text/drama and the music, and on the other hand between a flexible and a firm construction of identity.



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Unprinted sources: libretto and score

1745. Semiramide Riconosciuta. Dramma per musica da rappresentarsi nel Famosissimo Teatro Grimani di S. Gio. Grisostomo nel Carnevale 1745. Dedicato A Sua Eccellenza il Sig Roberto Conte di Holdernesse, Viceconte d’Arcy Barone d’Arcy, di Convers e di M(…)il, Gentiluomo di Camera del Ré della Gran Bretagna Luogo tenente nelle Parti settentrionali della Provincia di York ed Ambasciado Straordinario di SM alla Serenissmia Republi di Venezia &. Museo internazionale e biblioteca della musica, Bologna, Collocazione Lo. 2500.

Hasse, Giovanni Adolfo. 1747. La Semiramide posta in musica dal Sig.r Gian-Adolfo Hasse detto il Sassone per il teatro di S. Giovan Grisostomo in Venezia l’anno 1747.—Partitura ms.In tre volumi in fol. Obl. Museo internazionale e biblioteca della musica, Bologna, Collocazione FF. 241.

The research for this article has been carried out with support from Il Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo (DAMS) at Alma Mater Studiorum, Università di Bologna. I would especially like to thank Prof. Lorenzo Bianconi and Dott. Raffaele Mellace. I also want to thank Mårten Snickare, Ph.D., the Department of History of Art, Stockholm University and Stefano Fogelberg Rota, Ph.D., the Department of Literature and History of Ideas, Stockholm University.


[1] Strohm 1997, 270–93. See also Barnholdt Hansen 2002, 51–73 and 2003, 8–23.

[2] Strohm 1997, Heller 1993, 93–114, Mellace 2007, Ethnersson 2005.

[3] See for example the musical construction of the character Alcina, performed by Anna Maria Strada del Pò in Alcina (1734–35).

[4] In Classical Antiquity Cleopatra was described as a powerful female character connected to passion and eroticism. Gaining power through seductiveness her sexuality and emotionality made her appear as a strong character. However, she is also described as the morally weak “Other”—on the grounds of both her sex and her exotic origin—in relation to the ideological model of the Roman emperor Cesar (see Frenzel 1962, 438–42). In Dante’s Divina Commedia, 5, she is placed in Inferno together with Dido and Semiramis on the grounds of her sensuality (see Cancik and Schneider 2001, 1225).

[5] Snickare’s performative approach to architecture is based on a similar observation (Snickare 2009).

[6] This investigation is based on Giuseppe Vecchi’s edition of the fifth part “Dell Opera in Musica” from the dialogue text Della Tragedia antica e moderna (Bologna 1978) and on the English translation of this text made by Piero Weiss (Weiss 1980, 378–403).

[7] See for example Feldman’s observations based on the descriptions made by Charles de Brosses (Feldman 1995, 423–84 and 2007, 13).

[8] Austin 1962, Butler 1990 and 1993.

[9] See for example Strohm 1997, Heller 1998, 562–81 and Barnholdt Hansen 2002, 51–73 and 2003, 8–23.

[10] Strohm 1997, 18–19. See also Dahlhaus 2003, 73–150.

[11] See for exemple Kerman 1956, Fubini 1985, 39–53 and Freeman 1981.

[12] See for example Deleuze 2004 and Jay 1988, 3–27.

[13] See Fischer-Lichte 2004, 15.

[14] Calcagno uses a similar perspective in his investigation of opera and vocal music in seventeenth-century Venice in relation to the writings of the Accademia degli Incogniti (Calcagno 2003, 461–97).

[15] Feldman 1995, 423–84. See also Feldman 2007, 42–96.

[16] Fischer-Lichte 2004, 19–20.

[17] Weiner 2002, 81–84. See also Calcagno’s interpretation of the voice in seventeenth-century Venetian opera as an “oscillation characterized as alternatively mimetic and diegetic” (Calcagno 2003, 493).

[18] This reception could be achieved during the performance of arias. When it comes to the performance in its entirety, Feldman has argued that the spectacle form of opera seria also imposed a distance between the stage and the opera house and restricted the viewers’ experiences of the entire event (Feldman 2007, 95). See also Calcagno’s differentiation between musical imitation and representation (Calcagno 2003, 461–97).

[19] See Butler 1990 and 1993.

[20] Butler 1993, 226–27.

[21] See also Neville’s description of Metastasio’s view of his work as a dramatist (Neville 1982, 29).

[22] See di Benedetto’s account of descriptions of opera seria made in the first half of the eighteenth century (Benedetto, di 2003, 23–38).

[23] See Feldman 1995, 423–84 and 2007, 11–41. These observations have affinities to Jay’s discussion of the three “scopic regimes of modernity” (see Jay 1988, 3–27).

[24] Fischer-Lichte 2004, 19–30.

[25] Weiss 1980, 392, (my italics). “Nelle agnizioni, o riconoscimenti, si creda facilmente ad un’abito improvisamante cangiato; ad una combinazione di circostanze, che prima era occulta; a certi arredi trovati nella cuna del personaggio, quand’ era bambino, e che poi all’uopo del riconoscerlo, vengono in scena, o son raccontati. Ma quanto alle peripezie per te si può far più tosto veder le cose, che immaginarle, perchè ciò, che percuote i sensi, più piace al popolo assiso più per vedere, che per pensare” (Martello 1978, 33–34).

[26] However, in his analysis of the Metastasian drama, de Van shows how many of these baroque traits can bee seen as subordinate to a rationalistic structure, (see Van, de 1998, 161–72). See also Helga Lühning’s analysis of the drama Semiramide riconosciuta (Lühning 1991, 131–38). For analyses of the Metastasian drama, see also Seidel 1991, 345–66. For a modern interpretation of a “baroque aesthetics”, see Deleuze 2004, 55–56.

[27] According to Strohm the concept of decorum “… varied from a strictly ethical view of the purposes of tragedy to a purely social-aesthetic principle of not offending the tastes of the aristocratic spectators” (Strohm 1997, 210).

[28] See di Benedetto’s readings of comments by for example Rousseau (1754), de Brosses (1739–40) and Martinelli (1758), (Benedetto, di 2003, 30–36).

[29] Weiss 1980, 394. “Ma avverti bene, che terminando una scena con aria d’ingresso, non cominci l’altra con canzonetta di escita. Lo chiaroscuro allora non è nella musica. Le ricercate degli strumenti intoppano l’una nell’altra, ed invece di spalleggiarsi, si opprimono”, (Martello 1978, 38). See also Fubini 1986b, 57. In his interpretation of Leibniz and a baroque aesthetics, Gilles Deleuze views this way of letting some parts be revealed from a dark background as a “baroque technique.” The arias can be seen as the musical “light” revealing various affects, thoughts or ethos and in this way attracting the attention of the audience, (see Deleuze 2004, 72–73). For analyses of how this way of using the music dominated throughout the eighteenth century, see for example the often quoted passage by Goldoni in his Mémoires (1787): “The leading characters’ fifteen arias must be distributed in such a way that there are not two consecutive arias in the same mood, and the other characters’ arias serve to create an effect of chiaroscuro” (Benedetto, di 2003, 23).

[30] On this effect of the music, see Monteverdi’s letter to Alessandro Striggio (9th December 1616), (see Benedetto, di 2003, 8). For the practice of distinguishing between arias labelled “parlante” (talking) and “cantabili” (singing), in the eighteenth century, see Benedetto, di 2003, 31–32. See also Calcagno 2003, 488.

[31] Weiss 1980, 383, (my italics) “… perciocchè la poesia mediocre, che dilata agevoli sentimenti, ed affetti in recitativi andanti, ed intelligibili, ed in saltellanti, e naturali ariette lascia in maggior libertà il compositor della musica di spaziarvisi a suo talento, e di sfogar la sua idea, che, quanto meno è storpiata dall’angustia de’ sentimenti, tanto esce più agile, e svelta a solleticare per via dell’orecchio lo spirito di chi ascolta, e perciò con la soavità del concento lo muove al compiacimento, e all’applauso” (Martello 1978, 15). See Fubini 1986b, 50.

[32] Fubini 1994, 39–40, (my italics). See also Heller 1998, 568. “… egli non si può negare, che la Musica Teatrale de’ nostri tempi non si sia condotta ad una smoderata effemminatezza, onde ella piú tosto è atta a corrompere gli animi de gli uditori, che a purgarli, e migliorarli, come dall’antica Musica si faceva. E questo è il primo difetto de’ moderni Drammi; né sarebbe necessario lo stendersi molto in portarne le pruove; e in priprovarlo, se l’affare non fosse di gran premura. Ognuno sa e sente, che movimenti si cagionino dentro di lui in udire valenti Musici nel Teatro. Il Canto loro sempre inspira una certa mollezza, e dolcezza, che segretamente serve a sempre piú far vile, e dedito a’ bassi amori il popolo, bevendo esso la languidezza affettata delle voci, e gustando gli affetti piú vili, conditi dalla Melodia non sana” (Fubini 1986b, 43). Muratori’s view of the music can be compared to the view of the “lecherous language” in baroque literature as a moral danger (see Malm 2004).

[33] This view can be compared to Fischer-Lichte’s performative aesthetics (see Fischer-Lichte 2004, 9–30).

[34] Weiss 1980, 397, (my italics). “Io credo, che a questo qualunque componimento convenga più il moderato, e venusto, che il grave, e magnifico; perchè la musica, essendo arte inventata per delizia, e alleviamento degli animi, dee pure rimaner secondata da parole, e da sentimenti, che vestano la piacevol natura delle delizie. (…) Però ti replico, che le costruzioni si vogliono agevoli; i periodi chiari, e non lunghi; le parole piane, e vezzose; le rime non ispide; i versi correnti, e teneramente sonori. Ti raccomando nelle arie qualche comparazione di farfalletta, di navicella, di augelletto, o di ruscelletto: queste son tutte cose, che guidano l’idea in non sò che di ridente, che la ricrea; e siccome sono venusti questi obbietti, così il son le parole, che li rammentano, e li dipingono alla fantasia; ed il compositor della musica sempre vi si spazia con avvenenza di note: ed avrai osservato anche ne’ pessimi melodrammi, che il musico riporta distinto applauso, cantandone una di queste, nelle quali i diminutivi tanto odiosi alla lingua, e genio franzese, aggiungono leggiadria.” (Martello 1978, 42–43). See Fubini 1986b, 59.

[35] Weiner 2002, 81–84.

[36] See Fischer-Lichte 2004, 9–30. Feldman’s anthropological approach results in a somewhat different interpretation of this phenomenon (Feldman 2007, 95–96).

[37] Weiss 1980, 383, (my italics). “Questo spettacolo adunque è tale, che solleva gli animi da tutte le cure, e gli assorbe in una spensierata quiete, che di sè contenti li rende, di maniera che ritornando dagli uditi concenti, e dalle vedute apparenze così ristorati di lena, che poi si trovano più forti, e più vegeti a tutte le operazioni umane, e così tanto fisica, quanto moralmente è utile alla repubblica non meno della satirica, della commedia, e della tragedia. Mi bisogna supporre per fondamento, che in questo vago spettacolo non dee negarsi la preminenza della musica: ella è l’anima di un tale recitamento, e ad essa debbesi il principale riguardo di chi è chiamato a parte o per poesia, o per apparato, di simil componimento” (Martello 1978, 16). See Fubini 1986b, 51.

[38] Weiss 1980, 402. (my italics). “La sola musica ridotta all’atto contiene il segreto importantissimo del separar l’anima da ogni umana cura per quello spazio almeno di tempo, in cui le note possono trattenerla, maneggiando artificiosamente la consonanza, sia delle voci, o degli strumenti. (Martello 1978, 55). See Fubini 1986b, 62. See also Benedetto, di 2003, 26.

[39] See Hall 1997, 13–74.

[40] Weiss 1980, 391–92, (my italics). “Le passioni sian varie, ed opposte. Se puoi, l’odio si contraponga all’amore, l’amore all’odio. L’ira vi abbia ancor la sua parte; ma l’amorosa passione di tutte le altre trionfi; e le altre non servano, che a far spiccar questa, la quale essendo la più comune a tutti gli uomini, si vede rappresentata più volentieri. Ben è però vero, che per amore della Repubblica ti dee piacer l’onestà: con questa l’affetto amoroso è utilissimo a’ cittadini, invitandogli a’ legitimi accoppiamenti, da’ quali nasce il bene del crescer popolo, che è l’anima delle cittadi” (Martello 1978, 33). See Benedetto, di 2003, 27.

[41] See Fischer-Lichte 2004.

[42] Butler 1990, 191–92 and 1993, 226–27.

[43] “By dramatic I mean (…) that the body is not merely matter but a continual and incessant materializing of possibilities. One is not simply a body, but, in some very key sense, one does one’s body…” (Butler 1990, 273). See also Fischer-Lichte 2004, 37.

[44] Laqueur 1990, 149–63. For a critique of this theory, see for example Park and Nye 1991, 53–57 and Parker 1993, 337–64.

[45] Neville 2007a.

[46] Tuana 1992, 36–42.

[47] On the practice of cross-dressing in Neapolitan comic opera, see Treadwell 1998, 131–56.

[48] “Un mese più tardi la cantante, attraverso il marito, si dice soddisfatta della scelta del Siroe, nonostante la scomodità dell’abito maschile che dovrà vestire (scrivendo poi di persona, dichiarerà: “vedrò di vestirmi legieri e piú aperto nel petto che sia possibile”).” (Lettere di Giacomo Tramontini del 28 gennaio e di Vittoria Tesi del 4 febbraio 1733. Archivio di Stato di Bologna, busta 48, Mellace 2004, 108).

[49] Benedetto, di 2003, 36. Concluding that Martinelli’s memory “must have played him false” inflatuated with Mingotti’s androgynous feint, Feldman has not considered the fact that Emira is a cross-dressed character, and as such provides Mingotti with two genders, (see Feldman 2007, 25–26).

[50] “Gender ought not be construed as a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts follow; rather, gender is an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts” (Butler 1990, 191–92).

[51] See Treadwell 1998, 131–56, Butler 1990, 186–88 and Laqueur 1990, 149–63.

[52] On the concepts of sex and sexuality see for example Park and Nye 1991, 53–57.

[53] See Treadwell 1998, 140–41.

[54] See Parker 1993, 337–64.

[55] The score dates from 1745 (Schmidt-Hensel 2004, 635). The opera was performed for the first time during the carnival season in Venice on the 27 December 1744 (Mellace 2004, 56).

[56] There are two versions of Metastasio’s drama dating from 1729; one was performed at Teatro delle Dame during the carnival in Rome with music by Leonardo Vinci (the first performance occurred on February 6); the other was performed at Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo during the carnival in Venice with music by Nicola Porpora (the date for the first performance of this version is unknown). Hasse’s opera for Venice in 1745 is based on the version performed in Rome (see Schmidt-Hensel 2004, 658–59). This investigation is based on the edition of Metastasio’s Roman version, by Giovanna Gronda and Paolo Fabbri in Libretti d’opera italiani dal Seicento al Novecento (Milano 1997), and on the printed libretto used during the performance of Hasse’s opera in 1745 (Museo internazionale e biblioteca della musica, Bologna, Collocazione Lo. 2500).

[57] See Frenzel 1962, 719–22, Lühning 1991, 132 and Heller 2003, 225–27.

[58] See Frenzel 1962, 719–22, Neville 2007b. On the subject of Semiramide used as libretto during the seventeenth century, see Heller 1993, 93–114 and 2003, 225–27.

[59] See Frenzel 1962, 719–22 and Lühning 1991, 131.

[60] Neville 2007b.

[61] Gronda and Fabbri 1997, 456.

[62] Gronda and Fabbri 1997, 457. See Lühning, who describes this passage as a way to confirm the “verisimilitude” of the transvestism (see Lühning 1991, 131–38).

[63] Gronda and Fabbri 1997, 457.

[64] See Laqueur 1990, 123 and Forment 2007, 15.

[65] See Lühning’s analysis of the drama, where she observes the traits she means rather is to be connected to a comedy and discusses the genre of the drama (Lühning 1991, 131–38).

[66] “È noto per l’istorie che Semiramide Ascalonita, di cui fu creduta madre una ninfa d’un fonte e nudrici le colombe, giunse ad esser consorte di Nino re degli Assiri; che dopo la morte di lui regnò in abito virile, facendosi credere il picciol Nino suo figliuolo, aiutata alla finzione dalla similitudine del volto e dalla strettezza colla quale vivevano, non vedute, le donne dell’Asia; e che al fine, riconosciuta per donna, fu confermata nel regno dai sudditi, che ne avevano esperimentata la prudenza ed il valore. L’azione principale del dramma è questo riconoscimento di Semiramide, al quale per dare occasione e per togliere nel tempo istesso l’inverisimilitudine della favolosa origine di lei, si finge che fosse figlia di Vessore, re d’Egitto; che avesse un fratello chiamato Mirteo, educato da bambino nella corte di Zoroastro re de’ Battriani; che s’invaghisse di Scitalce, principe d’una parte dell’Indie, il quale capitò nella corte di Vessore col finto nome d’Idreno; che, non avendolo potuto ottenere in isposo dal padre, fuggisse seco; che questi nella notte istessa della fuga la ferisse e gettasse nel Nilo per una violenta gelosia, fattagli concepire per tradimento da Sibari, suo finto amico e non creduto rivale, e che indi, sopravivendo ella a questa sventura, peregrinasse sconosciuta e che poi le avvenisse quanto d’istorico si è accennato di sopra” (Gronda and Fabbri 1997, 452–53). See Van, de 1998, 163.

[67] See Van, de 1998, 163. According to Strohm this kind of subject, showing the fall of an oriental (“barbarian”) absolutist regime was popular in the republic of Venice in the seventeenth century (Strohm 1998, 551–52).

[68] Neville 2007a, (my italics).

[69] See Neville 1982, 28–46.

[70] On the status (ethos) of Tito in Metastasio’s La clemenza di Tito, see Seidel 1991, 345–66 and Neville 1982, 28–46.

[71] For a comparison between Metastasio’s original drama for Rome in 1729 and the version set by Hasse for Venice in 1745, see Schmidt-Hensel 2004, 659–62.

[72] The first performance occurred on the 27th of December 1744 (see Mellace 2004, 56–57).

[73] Schmidt-Hensel 2004, 663.

[74] This aria is from the Venetian version, 1729 (see Schmidt-Hensel 2004, 661).

[75] Only the first stanza is set by Hasse (see Schmidt-Hensel 2004, 661).

[76] The italicized titles are new in relation to the Roman version of Metastasio’s drama. The investigation is based on the score in manuscript, La Semiramide, available at Museo internazionale e biblioteca della musica in Bologna (Collocazione FF. 241). This is a copy of the score which where written for and performed in Venice 1745 (Schmidt-Hensel 2004, 635–36). The investigation is also based upon the printed libretto from this performance, that is preserved at the same library in Bologna. Schmidt-Hensel has given an account of the source situation concerning the opera Semiramide riconosciuta by Hasse and Metastasio (Schmidt-Hensel 2004, 635–79). Also Mellace (2004) and Deldonna (2000, 171–84) have mentioned the circumstances surroundning this opera.

[77] Compare with the more ambivalent musical construction of Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare by Handel (Ethnersson 2005, 16–18).

[78] This is the “azione d’intreccio” of the drama (see Van, de 1998, 164–65).

[79] Gronda and Fabbri 1997, 463.

[80] Fubini 1994, 39–40.

[81] Strohm 1997, 270–93.

[82] Gronda and Fabbri 1997, 464.

[83] See Strohm 1997, 216.

[84] See Forment 2007, 14, Wheelock 1993, 201–21 and Steblin 1983, 108.

[85] Heller 1998, 568.

[86] Compare with the musical construction of Cesare as a hero in Giulio Cesare by Handel (Ethnersson 2005, 10).

[87] Compare with how the character Clelia musically appears as comparable in status with the main male character Osroe in Hasse’s and Metastasio’s Il Trionfo di Clelia (Vienna 1762) (Mellace 2007, 130–45).

[88] See for example Mellace 2004 and 2007, Mücke 2003, 185 and 304–05, Hortschansky 1986, 207–34.

[89] See Burney’s description of Tesi’s voice (Fubini 1986a, 201–02). See also Mellace 2007, 202–04 and Mellace 2004, 199 and 203. For an investigation of how the aria’s sung by Tesi as Semiramide (Venice 1745) were modified to suit the voice and the vocal abilities of Faustina Bordoni as Semiramide (Dresden 1747), see Mücke 2003, 185.

[90] See Burney’s description of Carestini’s voice (Fubini 1986a, 203). See also Mücke 2003, 210, Mellace 2004, 224, Hortschansky 1986, 207–34. See also Korsmeier 2000. For how the music in the aria’s for Carestini was adapted to suit the voice and the vocal ability of the altist Domenico Annibali in the version of the opera for Dresden 1747, see Mücke 2003, 210.

[91] See Charles Burney’s comment on the audience during a performance of an opera buffa in Milano 1770: “There was an adominable noise except during 2 or 3 arias and a duet, with which everybody was in raptures. During this last, the applause continued till the performers returned to repeat it. This is the method of encoring an air here” (Burney 1969, 46).

[92] On the performance context of opera seria, see Rosselli 1992, Bianconi and Walker 1984, 209–96, Bianconi and Pestelli 2002, Feldman 1995, 423–84 and 2007, 1–41, Treadwell 1998, 152.

[93] See Fischer-Lichte 2004, 9–57.

[94] See Benedetto, di 2003, 23–38.

[95] Gronda and Fabbri 1997, 504.

[96] Strohm 1997, 275. See also Ethnersson 2005, 12.

[97] On the musical turns and ornaments expected to have been performed by the singer, see Tosi 1987, Quantz 1985, Heinichen 1986 and Mattheson 1999.

[98] Gronda and Fabbri 1997, 504.

[99] Gronda and Fabbri 1997, 504–05.

[100] This musical action can be compared to Neville’s description of the ideal behaviour according to Cartesian moral philosophy. Musically turning the thoughts in another direction, it appears as if Scitalce manages to prevent the passion from arousing a desire leading his actions in an improper direction (see Neville 1982, 37).

[101] See Weiss 1980, 392.

[102] See Butler 1990, 191–92 and 1993, 226–27.

[103] See Strohm 1997, 216.

[104] Gronda and Fabbri 1997, 516.

[105] See Forment 2007, 14, Wheelock 1993, 201–21 and Steblin 1983, 108.

[106] Gronda and Fabbri 1997, 517.

[107] Gronda and Fabbri 1997, 518. See also Schmidt-Hensel 2004, 662.

[108] Hasse 1745, 64.

[109] See Neville 1982, 37.

[110] Weiss 1980, 383 and 402, Heller 1998, 568.

[111] See Strohm 1997, 270–93.

[112] See Calcagno 2003, 493–94.

[113] See Weiner 2002, 75–91. See also Fischer-Lichte 2004, 9–30.

©Johanna Ethnersson, 2008

STM-Online vol. 11 (2008)


ISSN: 1403-5715