Libretto

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Cover of a 1921 libretto for Giordano's Andrea Chenier Libretto Cover Andrea Chenier.jpg
Cover of a 1921 libretto for Giordano's Andrea Chénier

A libretto (lit. "booklet") is the text used in, or intended for, an extended musical work such as an opera, operetta, masque, oratorio, cantata or musical. The term libretto is also sometimes used to refer to the text of major liturgical works, such as the Mass, requiem and sacred cantata, or the story line of a ballet.

Opera artform combining sung text and musical score in a theatrical setting

Opera is a form of theatre in which music has a leading role and the parts are taken by singers, but is distinct from musical theater. Such a "work" is typically a collaboration between a composer and a librettist and incorporates a number of the performing arts, such as acting, scenery, costume, and sometimes dance or ballet. The performance is typically given in an opera house, accompanied by an orchestra or smaller musical ensemble, which since the early 19th century has been led by a conductor.

Operetta opera genre

Operetta is a genre of light opera, light in terms both of music and subject matter.

Masque courtly entertainment with music and dance

The masque was a form of festive courtly entertainment that flourished in 16th- and early 17th-century Europe, though it was developed earlier in Italy, in forms including the intermedio. A masque involved music and dancing, singing and acting, within an elaborate stage design, in which the architectural framing and costumes might be designed by a renowned architect, to present a deferential allegory flattering to the patron. Professional actors and musicians were hired for the speaking and singing parts. Often the masquers, who did not speak or sing, were courtiers: the English queen Anne of Denmark frequently danced with her ladies in masques between 1603 and 1611, and Henry VIII and Charles I of England performed in the masques at their courts. In the tradition of masque, Louis XIV of France danced in ballets at Versailles with music by Jean-Baptiste Lully.

Contents

Libretto (pronounced  [liˈbretto] ; plural libretti [liˈbretti] ), from Italian, is the diminutive of the word libro ("book"). Sometimes other language equivalents are used for libretti in that language, livret for French works and Textbuch for German. A libretto is distinct from a synopsis or scenario of the plot, in that the libretto contains all the words and stage directions, while a synopsis summarizes the plot. Some ballet historians also use the word libretto to refer to the 15–40 page books which were on sale to 19th century ballet audiences in Paris and contained a very detailed description of the ballet's story, scene by scene. [1]

Italian language Romance language

Italian is a Romance language of the Indo-European language family. Italian, together with Sardinian, is by most measures the closest language to Vulgar Latin of the Romance languages. Italian is an official language in Italy, Switzerland, San Marino and Vatican City. It has an official minority status in western Istria. It formerly had official status in Albania, Malta, Monaco, Montenegro (Kotor) and Greece, and is generally understood in Corsica and Savoie. It also used to be an official language in the former Italian East Africa and Italian North Africa, where it plays a significant role in various sectors. Italian is also spoken by large expatriate communities in the Americas and Australia. In spite of not existing any Italian community in their respective national territories and of not being spoken at any level, Italian is included de jure, but not de facto, between the recognized minority languages of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Romania. Many speakers of Italian are native bilinguals of both standardized Italian and other regional languages.

In the performing arts, a scenario is a synoptical collage of an event or series of actions and events. In the Commedia dell'arte it was an outline of entrances, exits, and action describing the plot of a play, and was literally pinned to the back of the scenery. It is also known as canovaccio or "that which is pinned to the canvas" of which the scenery was constructed.

Ballet form of performance dance

Ballet is a type of performance dance that originated during the Italian Renaissance in the fifteenth century and later developed into a concert dance form in France and Russia. It has since become a widespread, highly technical form of dance with its own vocabulary based on French terminology. It has been globally influential and has defined the foundational techniques used in many other dance genres and cultures. Ballet has been taught in various schools around the world, which have historically incorporated their own cultures and as a result, the art has evolved in a number of distinct ways. See glossary of ballet.

The relationship of the librettist (that is, the writer of a libretto) to the composer in the creation of a musical work has varied over the centuries, as have the sources and the writing techniques employed.

Composer person who creates music, either by musical notation or oral tradition

A composer is a musician who is an author of music in any form, including vocal music, instrumental music, electronic music, and music which combines multiple forms. A composer may create music in any music genre, including, for example, classical music, musical theatre, blues, folk music, jazz, and popular music. Composers often express their works in a written musical score using musical notation.

In the context of a modern English language musical theatre piece, the libretto is often referred to as the book of the work, though this usage typically excludes sung lyrics.

Relationship of composer and librettist

The composer of Cavalleria rusticana , Pietro Mascagni, flanked by his librettists, Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci Mascagni and Librettists.jpg
The composer of Cavalleria rusticana , Pietro Mascagni, flanked by his librettists, Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci

Libretti for operas, oratorios and cantatas in the 17th and 18th centuries were generally written by someone other than the composer, often a well-known poet.

An oratorio is a large musical composition for orchestra, choir, and soloists. Like most operas, an oratorio includes the use of a choir, soloists, an instrumental ensemble, various distinguishable characters, and arias. However, opera is musical theatre, while oratorio is strictly a concert piece – though oratorios are sometimes staged as operas, and operas are sometimes presented in concert form. In an oratorio the choir often plays a central role, and there is generally little or no interaction between the characters, and no props or elaborate costumes. A particularly important difference is in the typical subject matter of the text. Opera tends to deal with history and mythology, including age-old devices of romance, deception, and murder, whereas the plot of an oratorio often deals with sacred topics, making it appropriate for performance in the church. Protestant composers took their stories from the Bible, while Catholic composers looked to the lives of saints, as well as to Biblical topics. Oratorios became extremely popular in early 17th-century Italy partly because of the success of opera and the Catholic Church's prohibition of spectacles during Lent. Oratorios became the main choice of music during that period for opera audiences.

A cantata is a vocal composition with an instrumental accompaniment, typically in several movements, often involving a choir.

Pietro Trapassi, known asMetastasio (1698–1782) was one of the most highly regarded librettists in Europe. His libretti were set many times by many different composers. Another noted 18th-century librettist was Lorenzo Da Ponte. He who wrote the libretti for three of Mozart's greatest operas, and for many other composers as well. Eugène Scribe was one of the most prolific librettists of the 19th century, providing the words for works by Meyerbeer (with whom he had a lasting collaboration), Auber, Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini and Verdi. The French writers' duo Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy wrote a large number of opera and operetta libretti for the likes of Jacques Offenbach, Jules Massenet and Georges Bizet. Arrigo Boito, who wrote libretti for, among others, Giuseppe Verdi and Amilcare Ponchielli, also composed two operas of his own.

Lorenzo Da Ponte Italian librettist

Lorenzo Da Ponte was an Italian, later American opera librettist, poet and Roman Catholic priest. He wrote the libretti for 28 operas by 11 composers, including three of Mozart's most celebrated operas, Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Austrian composer of the Classical period

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, baptised as Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart, was a prolific and influential composer of the classical era.

Eugène Scribe French dramatist and librettist

Augustin Eugène Scribe was a French dramatist and librettist. He is known for the perfection of the so-called "well-made play", a mainstay of popular theatre for over 100 years, and as the librettist of many of the most successful grand operas.

The libretto is not always written before the music. Some composers, such as Mikhail Glinka, Alexander Serov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Puccini and Mascagni wrote passages of music without text and subsequently had the librettist add words to the vocal melody lines. (This has often been the case with American popular song and musicals in the 20th century, as with Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's collaboration, although with the later team of Rodgers and Hammerstein the lyrics were generally written first.)

Some composers wrote their own libretti. Richard Wagner is perhaps most famous in this regard, with his transformations of Germanic legends and events into epic subjects for his operas and music dramas. Hector Berlioz, too, wrote the libretti for two of his best-known works, La Damnation de Faust and Les Troyens . Alban Berg adapted Georg Büchner's play Woyzeck for the libretto of Wozzeck .

Pages from an 1859 libretto for Ernani , with the original Italian lyrics, English translation and musical notation for one of the arias Ernani Libretto 1859.jpg
Pages from an 1859 libretto for Ernani , with the original Italian lyrics, English translation and musical notation for one of the arias

Sometimes the libretto is written in close collaboration with the composer; this can involve adaptation, as was the case with Rimsky-Korsakov and his librettist Vladimir Ivanovich Belsky  [ ru ; de ], or an entirely original work. In the case of musicals, the music, the lyrics and the "book" (i.e., the spoken dialogue and the stage directions) may each have their own author. Thus, a musical such as Fiddler on the Roof has a composer (Jerry Bock), a lyricist (Sheldon Harnick) and the writer of the "book" (Joseph Stein). In rare cases, the composer writes everything except the dance arrangements – music, lyrics and libretto, as Lionel Bart did for Oliver! .

Other matters in the process of developing a libretto parallel those of spoken dramas for stage or screen. There are the preliminary steps of selecting or suggesting a subject and developing a sketch of the action in the form of a scenario, as well as revisions that might come about when the work is in production, as with out-of-town tryouts for Broadway musicals, or changes made for a specific local audience. A famous case of the latter is Wagner's 1861 revision of the original 1845 Dresden version of his opera Tannhäuser for Paris.

Literary characteristics

The opera libretto from its inception (ca. 1600) was written in verse, and this continued well into the 19th century, although genres of musical theatre with spoken dialogue have typically alternated verse in the musical numbers with spoken prose. Since the late 19th century some opera composers have written music to prose or free verse libretti. Much of the recitatives of George Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess , for instance, are merely DuBose and Dorothy Heyward's play Porgy set to music as written – in prose – with the lyrics of the arias, duets, trios and choruses written in verse.

The libretto of a musical, on the other hand, is almost always written in prose (except for the song lyrics). The libretto of a musical, if the musical is adapted from a play (or even a novel), may even borrow their source's original dialogue liberally – much as Oklahoma! used dialogue from Lynn Riggs's Green Grow the Lilacs , Carousel used dialogue from Ferenc Molnár's Liliom , My Fair Lady took most of its dialogue word-for-word from George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion , Man of La Mancha was adapted from the 1959 television play I, Don Quixote , which supplied most of the dialogue, and the 1954 musical version of Peter Pan used J. M. Barrie's dialogue. Even the musical Show Boat , which is greatly different from the Edna Ferber novel from which it was adapted, uses some of Ferber's original dialogue, notably during the miscegenation scene. And Lionel Bart's Oliver! uses chunks of dialogue from Charles Dickens's novel Oliver Twist , although it bills itself as a "free adaptation" of the novel.

Language and translation

Henry Purcell (1659-1695), whose operas were written to English libretti Henry Purcell portrait by John Closterman.jpg
Henry Purcell (1659–1695), whose operas were written to English libretti

As the originating language of opera, Italian dominated that genre in Europe (except in France) well through the 18th century, and even into the next century in Russia, for example, when the Italian opera troupe in Saint Petersburg was challenged by the emerging native Russian repertory. Significant exceptions before 1800 can be found in Purcell's works, German opera of Hamburg during the Baroque, ballad opera and Singspiel of the 18th century, etc.

Just as with literature and song, the libretto has its share of problems and challenges with translation. In the past (and even today), foreign musical stage works with spoken dialogue, especially comedies, were sometimes performed with the sung portions in the original language and the spoken dialogue in the vernacular. The effects of leaving lyrics untranslated depend on the piece.

Many musicals, such as the old Betty GrableDon AmecheCarmen Miranda vehicles, are largely unaffected, but this practice is especially misleading in translations of musicals like Show Boat , The Wizard of Oz , My Fair Lady or Carousel, in which the lyrics to the songs and the spoken text are often or always closely integrated, and the lyrics serve to further the plot.[ citation needed ] Availability of printed or projected translations today makes singing in the original language more practical, although one cannot discount the desire to hear a sung drama in one's own language.

The Spanish words libretista (playwright, script writer or screenwriter) and libreto (script or screen play), which are used in the Hispanic TV and cinema industry, derived their meanings from the original operatic sense.

Status of librettists and the libretto

Poster for La figlia di Iorio where the librettist, Gabriele D'Annunzio, is given top billing Adolfo De Karolis (1874-1928), La figlia di Iorio (1914).jpg
Poster for La figlia di Iorio where the librettist, Gabriele D'Annunzio, is given top billing

Librettists have historically received less prominent credit than the composer. In some 17th-century operas still being performed, the name of the librettist was not even recorded. As the printing of libretti for sale at performances became more common, these records often survive better than music left in manuscript. But even in late 18th century London, reviews rarely mentioned the name of the librettist, as Lorenzo da Ponte lamented in his memoirs.

By the 20th century some librettists became recognised as part of famous collaborations, as with Gilbert and Sullivan or Rodgers and Hammerstein. Today the composer (past or present) of the musical score to an opera or operetta is usually given top billing for the completed work, and the writer of the lyrics relegated to second place or a mere footnote, a notable exception being Gertrude Stein, who received top billing for Four Saints in Three Acts . Another exception was Alberto Franchetti's 1906 opera La figlia di Iorio which was a close rendering of a highly successful play by its librettist, Gabriele D'Annunzio, a celebrated Italian poet, novelist and dramatist of the day. In some cases, the operatic adaptation has become more famous than the literary text on which it was based, as with Claude Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande after a play by Maurice Maeterlinck.

The question of which is more important in opera – the music or the words – has been debated over time, and forms the basis of at least two operas, Richard Strauss's Capriccio and Antonio Salieri's Prima la musica e poi le parole .

Publication of libretti

Libretti have been made available in several formats, some more nearly complete than others. The text – i.e., the spoken dialogue, song lyrics and stage directions, as applicable – is commonly published separately from the music (such a booklet is usually included with sound recordings of most operas). Sometimes (particularly for operas in the public domain) this format is supplemented with melodic excerpts of musical notation for important numbers.

Printed scores for operas naturally contain the entire libretto, although there can exist significant differences between the score and the separately printed text. More often than not, this involves the extra repetition of words or phrases from the libretto in the actual score. For example, in the aria "Nessun dorma" from Puccini's Turandot , the final lines in the libretto are "Tramontate, stelle! All'alba, vincerò!" (Fade, you stars! At dawn, I will win!). However, in the score they are sung as "Tramontate, stelle! Tramontate, stelle! All'alba, vincerò! Vincerò! Vincerò!"

Because the modern musical tends to be published in two separate but intersecting formats (i.e., the book and lyrics, with all the words, and the piano-vocal score, with all the musical material, including some spoken cues), both are needed in order to make a thorough reading of an entire show.

See also

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References

Notes

  1. See, for example Smith 2000 , p. 3

Sources

Further reading