Stefano Landi, 1631
Stefano Landi’s stay in Padua was brief. After only two years or so, he returned to
his home town of Rome to enter the service first of the Borghese family, then Cardinal Maurizio of Savoy, and ultimately
the Barberini. Yet his time in the north was noteworthy for the effect it had on his composition, particularly in
Cortona, Pope Urban VIII
(Wikimedia Commons) conservative Rome: it was already evident in Morte d’Orfeo. Landi’s clear feeling for drama would be even more prominent in his landmark opera Il Sant’Alessio of 1632, written and produced as a Barberini spectacle.
Through family ties, Maffeo Barberini had held various posts including papal legate to the court of Henri IV of France, and Archbishop of Nazareth. In 1623 he was elected Pope Urban VIII, and among those who benefitted from his favour was Landi himself, who was assigned clerical duties at Saint Peter’s Basilica the next year, and installed as maestro di cappella at Santa Maria ai Monti. In 1629, Landi was elevated as a subdeacon, and joined the choir of the Sistine Chapel. His association with the Barberini continued for the rest of his life.
The family maintained ancestral ties with Tuscany and Florence in particular, where the mounting of operas had become an
annual event. Among them were La regina Sant’Orsola (“Saint Ursula the Queen,”
Palazzo Barberini, Rome
(Wikimedia Commons) 1625) and La Giuditta (“Judith,” 1626), much admired by the Barberini. In 1631, Francesco Barberini — the dedicatee of Giuditta — and his brother Taddeo, both nephews of Urban, sponsored Il Sant’Alessio (“Saint Alexis”), with music by Stefano Landi and libretto by Giulio Rospigliosi, a prelate and future Pope Clement IX. All three works presented the stories of historical rather than mythological characters, all three were religious in nature. Alessio especially picked up the new Jesuit habit of clerical drama and cast it in a specifically Roman flavour.
The canonical Saint Alexis was the son of a fifth–century Roman senator; he
forsook his familial wealth and his wife for a life of poverty in Syria, caring for the poor. When a likeness of
Saint Alexis Falconieri
(Wikimedia Commons) the Blessed Virgin revealed his true identity, Alexis fled to Rome and took up habitation as a beggar under the stairs of his father’s palace. He remained there, unrecognised by his family until his death seventeen years later.
The opera was presented at the Barberini Palace on 2 March 1631, then once again in February the next year. The 1634 publication was dedicated to prince Alexander Charles of Poland, who was present at the 1632 performance to inaugurate the Teatro delle Quattro Fontane (“Theatre of the Four Fountains”).
- Prologo: A chorus of slaves surrounds Rome personified, who is seated on a heap of trophies and
treasures of war. After the chorus sing the praises of Rome, the Barberini, and Alexander Charles, Rome descends
Set for ‘Il Sant’Alessio’
(Original Score) to the stage and resolves to tell the story of Saint Alexis. In commemoration, she orders all the slaves who are present to be freed.
- Atto primo
Scena prima: Roman senator Eufemianus greets the soldier Adrastus who has returned from battle in the east. The latter observes that Eufemianus’s son, Alexis, is not with him, and Eufemianus relates his deep sadness that Alexis has not been seen since leaving the palace one night. Adrasto tells him of rumours about Alexis’s movements in the east, but is unable to say what has become of him.
Scena seconda: Alexis, now living as an anonymous beggar beneath the stairs of his father’s palace, contemplates the vanity and futility of earthly life, singing an arietta in which he longs for the release of death. The piece is reminiscent of the popular Chi da’ lacci d’amor from Gagliano’s Dafne.
If the hours fly and so take with them
what others have here, who shall give me wings
that I to the high pole may take flight,
and there repose?
Scena terza: Curtius and Martius, foolish pages in Eufemianus’s employ, sing an arietta in praise of their carefree outlook on life, then begin to tease Alexis, whose unruffled patience eventually angers them enough to drive Alexis away.
I want scarcely to do good [but] to live happy,
to keep myself amused, spontaneous, and carefree;
labour is inimical to me, and while I live thus
for me each day is a feast. Fa la la ...
Scena quarta: Meanwhile in hell, the Devil and a chorus of demons sing and dance a moresca, vowing to turn Alexis from his chosen path and make him return to his family’s extravagant way of life.
Scena quinta: Alexis’s Wife and Mother bewail his disappearance and continued absence, with some humorous asides by Curtius and Martius. Their Nurse, aided by a chorus of household servants, exhorts the two to prayer.
Let me weep nonetheless, oh my Nurse,
too miserable fate presses upon my breast
if not given leave to cry in such extreme pain ...
... while I with my miserable, weary thoughts,
with sobbing sighs, mark the pace of the silent nights.
Scena aggiunta: Curtius and Martius have journeyed to their master’s country estate, designing to lure Alexis there to make fun of him. They take advantage of the occasion to organize a dance for peasant girls.
- Atto secondo
Scena prima: Eufemianus imagines Adrastus’s happy reception at home and bewails his own misery.
Scena seconda: The Devil exults that his plan is taking shape, as he has convinced Alexis’s wife to go in search of him, so that the saint will be forced to reveal himself to stop her.
Scena terza: The Nurse discovers Alexis’s Wife’s imminent departure, and retrieves Alexis’s Mother to intercept her. She, however, is so moved that she now intends do the same.
Scena quarta: Hearing of their intention, Alexis tries to dissuade his Wife and Mother, telling them that surely their husband and son would disapprove of such an undertaking. Overcome with anguish and indecision, his Wife faints.
Scena quinta: The story reaches a turning point as Alexis is in two minds concerning how he should respond to this crisis, expressed in his famous Alessio, che farai? (“Alexis, what will you do?”).
Alexis, what will you do?
Will you affect cruelty to those who, well you know,
wish by heaven and earth to show you solace?
Ah, cruel silence, cause of bitter quarrels!
I should hasten to reveal all.
Hold! for he alone who remains until the final hour
with steadfast heart shall gather its fruits.
Scena sesta: Because Alexis has resolved to remain constant, the Devil appears disguised as a Hermit, pretending to be a messenger sent by God. He attempts to persuade Alexis to give up his pledge and return to his family, but Alexis remains firm despite his doubts. An Angel descends from heaven and drives the Hermit away.
Scena settima: The Angel reveals the Hermit’s identity and exhorts Alexis to follow his chosen path, because he is soon to be released, to which Alexis responds with O morte gradita (“Oh welcome death”).
O welcome death, I yearn for you, I wait for you,
from sadness to delight your path leads.
O death, o welcome death ...
Scena ottava: Still appearing as a Hermit, the Devil vows to redouble his temptations against Alexis. He is met by Martius, who taunts him and tries to detain him to make further jest of him. The Devil, however, mocks Martius in his turn, and takes the shape of a bear to frighten Martius away.
Scena nona: Religion personified appears in a chariot surrounded by clouds to attend Alexis’s death, counselling all to follow the saint’s example.
Scena decima: As Eufemianus and Adrastus continue in their sorrow, a messenger tells of hearing a voice from heaven in the Chiesa Maggiore (“Great Church”), summoning those who are suffering in the world to be comforted. The act closes as the three observe in chorus that one should never lose hope.
- Atto terzo
Scena prima: The Devil, baffled at his failure to sway Alexis, falls back into hell with his chorus of demons.
Scenda seconda: Adrastus notes how ill at ease are the city’s inhabitants, to which the messenger responds that the voice in the Chiesa made special mention of the house of Eufemianus: Alexis has died and has now been recognised.
Scena terza: The body of Alexis rests beneath the palace stairs, attended by his mourning father, Mother and Wife, along with Curtius and Martius, who sorrow over their behaviour toward him. One of the chorus reads a letter left by the saint describing his sojourn in the east and the storm that brought him back to Rome. As his death approached, he was relieved of his earthly pain and is now at peace.
Scena quarta: From offstage, a chorus of Angels arrives to take Alexis’s soul to heaven, and prompt his family to leave off their mourning and rejoice.
Leave off weeping, for the array of heaven
with happy song call the soul of Alexis
to higher spheres.
Scena quinta: Religion, with a chorus of the Beatitudes, celebrate Alexis’s attainment of heaven and determine to dedicate the ancient Roman temple of Hercules to the saint, as a chorus of angels closes the story to a dance of the Virtues.
The part for Alexis is quite high, even though it was sung by a castrato. In fact, the cast was entirely male owing to its venue at the palace of a Cardinal. The parts for Alexis’s Wife and Mother — they did not merit being named — were also sung by castrati, and the parts for the pages, angels and other choruses were sung by boys, the Roman custom for boys’ school plays stretching back to Ignatius & Xavier and Eumelio.
Alessio is credited with a number of firsts, among them the inclusion
of comic scenes and characters from contemporary life, as represented by the palace pages. More accurately, it was the first opera that depicted the
turmoil and conflict within the mind of the hero. In that respect, Landi’s use of recitative —
monody — was
closer to the intent of its self–declared inventors, most conspicuously in the expressions of despair among Alexis’s
Il Sant’Alessio, Finale
(Original Score) wife, mother and father. On the other hand, aria and arietta passages are rather more frequent than hitherto, as characters pause and reflect on their circumstances, or anticipate future events.
Each of the opera’s three acts is preceded by a sinfonia in a manner very much like an overture, which would soon become typical. The orchestra comprises only ‘modern’ Baroque instruments — there are no viols, no cornetti. And it is premised on a historical, religious figure, one of the features of Roman opera.
Most importantly of all, however, is Alessio’s position as a watershed, in the history of opera entire, and in its Roman variety. The eponymous saint’s crisis is reached almost exactly at the halfway mark, in the fifth scene of the second act: the events of the first half lead up to that point, and its conclusion follows therefrom. Religious theme and boys–school production notwithstanding, there is none of the clumsy preachiness of Jesuit dramaturgy, and no officially approved interpretation of the events. The drama stands on its own.