The shepherd Tirsi was considered a model of faithful love from the earliest days of opera. He had appeared in works by Theocritus and Virgil, and was synonymous with all things pastoral. He is a character in one of the earliest surviving operas, La Dafne, by Marco la Gagliano, written in 1608 – the same year as Monteverdi’s L’Arianna and his Ballo delle Ingrate.
Monteverdi included this Ballo of Tirsi and his beloved Clori in the seventh book of Madrigals. The libretto is by Alessandro Striggio, who also collaborated with Monteverdi on his opera L’Orfeo. Almost a century later, Handel seems to have been equally charmed with the lovers, immortalising them in the cantata we perform tonight and in another piece also composed for the Ruspoli family, “Aure soavi e lieti” – both of which were written in 1707. Although she’s a shepherdess in all of these versions of the story, Clori also shares her name with a variety of comely Greek nymphs, all associated with flowers and Spring.
Handel had used Fileno as an example of a fickle boyfriend in yet another 1707 cantata, “Tu fedel? Tu costante?” – wherein a female protagonist berates him for his repeated infidelities. In our story, written later the same year, Handel introduces him as a third party distraction for the fickle Clori. Fileno winds up with some of the most beautiful music in the piece as he slowly comes to realise that maybe his feelings for Clori are genuine – feelings that she probably won’t reciprocate. Although a countertenor would have performed the role of Tirsi in the aforementioned Dafne, in tonight’s piece a countertenor sings the role of Fileno.
The two pieces in this double bill – one a sung ‘ballo’ and one a cantata – present an opportunity to see these two great opera composers at work in miniature. Both pieces were written when their respective composers were in the employ of major Italian families – Monteverdi at the Gonzaga court in Mantua, and Handel at the Ruspoli estate during his formative years in Italy. Both also share a sense of urbane city-folk enjoying the idea of idyllic life in the country. Given the intimacy and immediacy that would have characterised their original performances, we are delighted to be able to share these pieces in this setting here at Project Arts Centre.
This year is the 400th anniversary of the Monteverdi piece and of Shakespeare’s death, and as a result we have gleefully woven echoes from a variety of his works throughout. Essential elements of these versions of Tirsi and Clori include a pastoral sense of romance, mistaken identity, lovelorn shepherds, girls dressed as boys, masked balls, jealous boyfriends, cheating girlfriends, seeing double, and a variety of misplaced letters, handkerchiefs and rings – which sounds like a recipe for almost any Shakespearean comedy!