To Draw from a Thousand Hearts a Thousand Sighs
In the late Spring of 1608, a tragedy brought together the worlds of comedy and opera in Mantua for a magical performance. The singer of the first great “aria” – Arianna’s famous lament – was best known at the time in the commedia roles of Florinda, Columbina, Isabella or those of the female zanni, Franceschina or Smeraldina.
The connection between the nascent Italian theater of the 16th Century, commonly referred to as “commedia dell’ arte”, and the development of opera at the end of that century has been well established by musical scholars. Nino Pirrotta, in a memorable Musical Quarterly article from 1955, observed:
If I may be permitted to make a comparison, I would choose, even though it is old and much abused, that of two branches growing from a common trunk-two branches not quite opposite and divergent, but near each other in their origin, then sometimes separated, sometimes brought nearer by the imponderable factors of air, of light, of the juices running through them and nourishing them.
We tend to think of commedia as rowdy, bawdy, low-brow entertainment and that certainly was a popular and enduring aspect of the commedia. So it is somewhat surprising to learn that in the 16th and 17th century the commedia, whether performed by actors or puppeteers, was equally beloved by the nobility and the lower classes – at least as respected as any professional artist at the time, though that wasn’t all that much.
The Medici, like the delle Rovere in Modena and especially the Gonzagas in Mantua, sponsored several troupes of comici, and their performances were an essential element of any grand occasion and especially during the Carnival season. The troupes were itinerant and would take up residence in different cities in Italy, and eventually in France and Spain, with the various ruling families vying for their services.
In the last decades of the 16th Century, the troupe calling themselves I Gelosi were particularly favored by the Medici, and they performed as part of the spectacular festivities surrounding the marriage of Catherine of Lorraine and Grand Duke Ferdinando de Medici. The marriage celebrations also included the elaborate intermedii for Giolamo Bargagli’s La Pellegrina that played a seminal role in the birth of opera.
Another commedia troupe, I Accesi, performed in Florence during the celebrations surrounding the marriage of Marie de Medici and Henri IV of France in October 1600, which also included the performance of what is generally regarded as the first opera Euridice, with music by Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini. Marie de Medici eventually brought I Gelosi to France, where they were resident for several seasons. Beginning in 1611, one of I Gelosi’s rivals, I Confidenti, enjoyed the patronage of Don Giovanni de’ Medici, the member of the family charged with managing the affairs of the Uffizi Palace.
During the final stages of preparation for the premiere of Monteverdi’s second opera Arianna in Mantua, the talented singer Caterina Martinelli, who was to sing the title role with it’s epoch-making lament, tragically contracted smallpox and died. Her replacement was Virginia Ramponi-Andreini, a member of I Fedeli and one of the most celebrated female commedia actresses of the time.
Virginia was the wife of Giovan Battisa Andreini, also known as Lelio, who an actor and the leader of I Fedeli. She had acquired the nickname La Florinda from a memorable performance in her husband’s play of the same name several years before.
I Fedeli were in Mantua for the performance of L’Idropica, and her availability was indeed fortuitous, as her acting abilities were evidently matched by her skills as a singer, which she furthered displayed in Monteverdi’s Ballo delle ingrate later in the same week. Paolo Fabbri writes that “Ramponi earned the praise and admiration of, among others, Giovan Battista Marino, who says in his Adone (VIII.88):
And in such a way you heard Florinda, o Manto
there in the theatres of your royal roofs,
unfold the harsh torments of Arianna
and draw from a thousand hearts a thousand sighs.”
High praise indeed! This suggests that not only was there plenty of music in the improvised comedies of the time, which we know was the case, but that it was performed at the highest standards – at least in some cases.
 It seems I Gelosi were appropriately named and they were apparently somewhat concerned that their performances would be overshadowed by the monumental intermedii, that featured the newly minted style of cantar recitando, soon to become the basic vehicle for the expression of human emotion in the Baroque. As John Rudlin recounts in Commedia dell’ arte: a handbook for troupes:
“A public row broke out between the two prime donne, Vittoria di Piisimi and Isabella Andreini over whether the command performance should be of La Zingana (with Vittoria in the lead) or La Pazzia d’Isabella (Isabella’s speciality). This may have been partly a cunning ploy to double their income: eventually the former piece was given on Sunday the 6th and the latter, a week later. The altercation also presumably had the effect of ensuring that they were not playing in the atmosphere of anti climax, after the main feature of La Pellegrina.”
 Fabbri, Paolo, Monteverdi, translated by Tim Carter (Cambridge University Press; 1994), p. 83. Marino’s original:
E in tal guisa Florinda udisti, o Manto,
là ne’ teatri tuoi regi tetti,
d’Arianna spiegar gli aspri gli martiri
e trar da mille cor mille sospiri.