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“Zazzerino” – Jacopo Peri and the Birth of Opera

Jacopo Peri as Orfeo

Jacopo Peri as Arion

August 20 is the birthday of Jacopo Peri, who was closely involved in the development of what we now call “opera”, staged drama set entirely to music. He was known affectionately as “Zazzerino” (from zazzera, mop of hair) in recognition of his striking, and long, blond hair – a sort of 16th century Robert Plant.

Though born in Rome in 1561, Peri is most closely associated with Florence, where he served along with Giulio and Francesca Caccini, Jacopo Corsi, Marco da Gagliano and many other in the extraordinary musical establishment of the Medici court. He has also been associated with the Florentine Camerata of Giovanni de’ Bardi and throughout his career was a leading voice (in all senses) for the “new music” that the Camerata was promoted.

The style promoted by the Camerata was perceived as a re-discovery of the music of Classical Greece, though there is little to suggest that the recitar cantando, the “heightened speech” that eventually became the operatic recitative, bore any resemblance to the music of the ancients. This in no way diminished the power of a musical style that sought to directly communicate human passion and emotion in a narrative context.

Peri sang an aria of his own composition in one of the intermedi that accompanied Barbagli’s comedy La Pellegrina, staged in honor of Fernando de Medici’s marriage to Christine of Lorraine in 1589. According to the commentary included with the publication of the music from the festivities, Peri captivated the audience, accompanying himself with amazing skill on the chitaronne. Peri contributed music in the new style to In 1597 Peri collaborated with Corsi and the poet Ottavio Rinucini in a production of Dafne, which exhibited the characteristics that later defined the operatic genre. Sadly the music for Dafne does not survive, but Peri’s next effort with Rinucini, Euridice, performed in October of 1600, does survive thankfully.

It has been suggested that the 13 year old Francesca Caccini may have participated in the production of Euridice along with her father and most likely other members of her extraordinary musical family. Indeed, all the great musicians of the Medici court were involved in Euridice, and there was inevitably competition among the musicians at the Medici court for bragging rights regarding the “invention” of this new style and all the key claimants had a role in the production of Euridice, particularly Giulio Caccini, who rewrote the parts sung by his family, and Emilio de’ Cavalieri, who apparently directed the production. It is likely that Peri himself sang the role of Orfeo. As noted William Porter’s article in the 1980 Grove dictionary:

“Euridice received high praise, particularly from Marco da Gagliano, who was impressed not only by the work but also by Peri’s own expressive singing. The composer’s rivals, however, found the recitatives tedious and the stage designs inadequate.”

Indeed, music criticism was already well underway even in opera’s infancy. For every accolade that survives there seems to be a corresponding slur from a jealous competitor (singers!), most notably a satirical sonnet by Francesco Ruspoli.

Peri continued to serve the Medici court for the rest of his life, primarily as a composer, though there are occasional reference to his appearances as a singer. He also maintained a close relationship with the Gonzaga court in Mantua, though his proposal for a setting a libretto by Francesco Cini for wedding festivities in Mantua in 1608, were rejected in favor of a setting of Arianna by a certain Claudio Monteverdi.

Composition was apparently a laborious and difficult taks for Peri, and he left few finished compostions, but those that survive show him to merit the praise and high esteem he enjoyed during his lifetime. Much more can be learned about Peri in an excellent 1980 article by Tim Carter in Music and Letters (Carter, Tim. “Jacopo Peri”, Music and Letters 1980 61(2):121-135; doi:10.1093/ml/61.2.12.

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