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Crossing the Stages:
The Production, Performance and Reception of Ancient Theater


Robert C. Ketterer
Department of Classics
University of Iowa

Seneca and the "Sulla" Operas of Handel and Mozart

Opera seria, or "heroic opera," of the 17th and 18th centuries was fascinated by the colorful figures of antiquity, usually as examples of how the conflict of public duty and personal desire affected great personalities and the societies in which they lived. The tragic elements in the plots, inherited ultimately from the example of Senecan drama, was nearly always ameliorated by a happy conclusion (the "lieto fine") which asserted New Comic structure and values over the potential tragedy.

The tyrannical and nearly irredeemable figure of Lucius Sulla, as described in Plutarch's "Life", drew the attention of a handful of Baroque opera librettists. This paper examines two of these libretti: Silla by Giacomo Rossi, produced in London in 1713 with music by G.F. Handel, and Lucio Silla by Giovanni de Gamerra, produced in Milan in 1772 with music by the adolescent Mozart. A comparison of the two indicates that strongly neo-Senecan sensibilities in Rossi's text are accompanied by equally "Neronian" political considerations under which it was produced. The Gamerra/Mozart production, on the other hand, was affected far more by aesthetic considerations of reform opera, particularly as defined by the poet and theorist Metastasio, and as a result conforms to the 18th century perceptions of Greek tragic sensibilities.

Rossi and Handel's Silla was performed for (and perhaps paid for by) the Duc d'Aumont, French ambassador extraordinaire, newly arrived in London. Rossi's fulsome dedication to d'Aumont, praising the ambassador's Benignity, Magnanimity, Munificence and general Excellence, is of the kind familiar from the flattery of Seneca's day (e.g. Book 1 of Lucan's Bellum Civile, the pastorals of Calpurnius Siculus, or Seneca's own ad Polybium). Rossi's dedication is followed by his libretto that depicts in a particularly concentrated way a negative exemplum of the tyrant, such as one finds in Senecan tragedy: Sulla exhibits that Senecan quality of intense megalomania common in Senecan heroes (cf. G. Braden's in The Legacy of Rome, p. 258f). Sulla declares Marius' head his footstool and Rome his slave (Silla I.1). He slaughters a temple full of refugees and declares, when challenged, "Do the gods pretend to divide MY earthly power with themselves?...I can do as I wish!" (II.5). The opera consists largely of his efforts to have sex with every woman in the cast through seduction, force, or deceit. He is thwarted by his wife and a series of stalwart ladies who just barely succeed in reasserting the neo-comic instincts of opera seria.

In contrast, Gamerra's Lucio Silla begins with a very brief dedication which asserts the approval of the text by Pietro Metastasio, the 18th century Italian poet who had tried to bring Aristotelian perfection to his texts. In consequence, Gamerra's Sulla has early qualms of conscience that look like tragic hesitation. (II.1: "When I hasten to carry out massacres and atrocities, my heart is riven and crushed with the most terrible remorse.") He pursues only one woman, Giunia, the daughter of the dead Marius, who is devoted to another man. But Sulla in this case must be encouraged to violent action by an evil adviser. In the end, Senecanism returns, but in the guise of Stoic clementia rather than tragic megalomania. Sulla forgives all who have resisted him in an act of clemency that looks toward Mozart's last opera, a Metastasian text titled La Clemenza di Tito.

The two different approaches can be exemplified in the way each text treats the supernatural. In Rossi's and Handel's Silla, the world in which Sulla operates suffers from the same pathetic fallacy as Seneca's Stoic universe: in response to Sulla's violence, a lightening bolt destroys his triumphal arch (I.2); he is visited by deities that drive him mad (II.4); his statue, surrounded by dancing demons sinks into the earth, to be replaced by a cypress tree (II.9); as a final warning, he nearly dies in a sudden storm at sea that includes "a great comet, with thunder, lightening and thunderbolts" (III.11). In contrast, though Gamerra's Giunia grieves by night before the grave of her father, accompanied by a female chorus reminiscent of the libation bearers of Choephori (Lucio Silla, II.8), no spirit appears; elsewhere a character reports in an effective accompanied recitative that the dead Marius appeared in a dream to urge vengeance on Sulla (II.3), but the actions again remain human, and no real ghosts, storms or divine portents intrude.

This shift in emphasis from Senecan drama in Rossi to Greek tragedy in Gamerra appears to coincide with the loss of prestige which Senecan drama suffered toward the end of the 18th century, even as his legacy in enlightenment neostoicism continued to provide ideals of clemency and nobility for the stage.

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