Ballo delle ingrate
Claudio Monteverdi, 1608
The music and spectacle for events like the 1608 wedding of Francesco Gonzaga and Margherita of Savoy were created especially for the occasion. They were impermanent by nature and not meant to be left as a kind of historical legacy. Hence, like most of Arianna, Monteverdi’s introductory music for l’Idropico is lost. Fortunately for us, the Ballo delle ingrate (“Ballet of the Ungrateful”), written at the same time, was later revised for presentation in Venice, and published in Monteverdi’s eighth book of madrigals in 1638.
The work is meant to be a spectacle of dance in the French style, albeit with opening dialogue and moralizing for the audience. It takes place at the mouth of the underworld, complete with fire and belching smoke, where Venus and her son Amor (Love, Cupid) express dismay that some ladies — Venus addresses the audience — have scorned his arrows. She bids him to ask Pluto to recall from the underworld those who have rejected love during life, so that all can see their fate. At first Pluto is sympathetic yet disinclined to do so, but Love reminds him of his passion for his wife, Proserpina, and the unlucky souls are brought forward. Venus and Cupid sing a duet expressing their pity on seeing only the shadows of the souls that once were.
The lost shades enter two by two and dance slowly and solemnly as Pluto lectures the ladies in the audience about the folly of arrogance and ungratefulness.
He then bids the dancers return to the underworld and their eternal weeping. The dancing continues as the souls make their way back into Hades, but one of them sings her own lament, sorrowful at once again leaving the sight of the sun and of fresh air forever.
Ahi troppo, ahi troppo e duro
Ah too hard
crudel sentenza e viè più dura pena!
cruel sentence and even harsher punishment!
tornar a lagrimar ne l’antro oscuro!
to turn to weeping in the dark cavern!
A chorus of unhappy souls echoes her in refrain as the work closes.
Much of our understanding of the première version of the Ballo naturally comes to us through the revisions published later. The bass part for Pluto, for example, has an unusually large range, featuring wide leaps in addition to the fully notated passaggi that also are written for Venus.
The set, on the other hand, would have been familiar: similar ones — perhaps the very same ones — would have been used for Orfeo, as would machinery and effects like smoke, sulfur and fire. Both Vincenzo and Francesco are said to have danced in the ballet. And the instrumentation, presumably, would have been as varied and colourful as that of the earlier opera. In any event, it was said that the ladies of the audience demurely took its message to heart.