For those interested in reading the program notes in advance of "Mad Women" on Sept 7, here they are. Program information is available on the Ars Lyrica website: www.arslyricahouston.org
Long a staple of the opera house, mad scenes have been around since the ancient Greeks, who used them for moments of eerie introspection or crazed virtuosity in their tragedies. One reason why mad scenes became so popular — not only in Greece but in Rome, where they served as ironic comic relief — was the fact that such moments, in which a character becomes irrational and imagines all manner of weirdness, heighten the drama’s separation from reality and the audience’s awareness of that separation. Baroque opera and cantata, with their larger-than-life characters whose identities, lovers, and even sexualities are extraordinarily fluid, proved even more effective vehicles for mad scenes. The period label itself nicely summarizes the effect of such moments: “baroque” was a pejorative in the 18th century for bizarrely shaped pearls.
During this era a detailed knowledge of myths and fables was essential for anyone who hoped to keep good company. Interestingly, both the stories themselves and the language used to tell them were recognized as highly artificial. Such discourse was indispensable, however, since it served to reinforce social boundaries while providing equals with a kind of coded language, whose implications they alone understood. Composers and librettists across Europe took advantage, supplying a steady stream of works that borrow freely from literary (and sometimes actual) history. Though the web of allusions for some of these pieces may be lost, the best settings have a musical power that transcends the circumstances of their creation and initial reception.
Women in Baroque opera and cantata are more reactive than proactive: their primary responsibility, in other words, is to respond to things done to them. And the things they have to endure! Euridice’s confinement in the underworld, Aeneas’s abandonment of Dido, Jason’s betrayal of Medea — it’s hard to imagine more compelling dramatic material than these women who love too well. In contrast, “mad scene” lyrics for songs and chamber duets tend toward the more abstract (Cesti's "Disperato morirò") or to singular characters (Purcell's "Bess of Bedlam") whose striking eccentricities make the listening process seem almost voyeuristic. Even instrumental music reflects this fascination with madness during the Baroque. The “folia,” originally a dance so energetic that it was said to induce madness, was well established as a ground bass pattern well before Corelli wrote his famous variations on it.
Louis-Nicholas Clérambault brought the cantata to prominence in France during his service to Madame de Maintenon, longtime mistress to Louis XIV. Adapting what had been an exclusively Italian genre to his own ends, Clérambault kept the basic formal outline of alternating recitatives and arias, while infusing the former especially with poignant melodic turns, highly charged declamation, and frequent instrumental obligatos. With its virtuosic display both for the voice and the accompanying ensemble, Médée is among his finest works in the genre. Though no blood is actually spilled in this cantata, Medea’s vengeful intentions against Jason and their children are made plain.
Most of Handel’s solo cantatas are the product of his youthful sojourn in Italy (1706–1710), during which time he perfected his craft and enjoyed the patronage of a number of highly literate aristocratic churchmen. Quite a few of early works are set to emotionally charged, sometimes even bloodthirsty librettos, in contrast to the gentle pastoral imagery favored by Handel’s Italian contemporaries. La Lucrezia tells a story from antiquity: the title character, the wife of a Roman general, has been raped by Sextus Tarquinius, son of the last Roman king. Handel’s gutsy heroine seeks not only vengeance but the restoration of her family’s honor; her mad scene thus runs the gamut from plaintive suffering to noisy suicide.
Handel also wrote mad scenes for a number of operas and at least one oratorio. Hercules centers on the eponymous hero’s triumphal return from battle and his wife Dejanira’s suspicion of his infidelity. After causing his death, she literally comes apart in the last act, exclaiming in desperation: “Where shall I fly / where hide this guilty head?” The mad scene from Imeneo, on the other hand, is a ruse concocted by the heroine Rosmene as she is forced, in the opera’s final scene, to choose between duty and love. Having spent the entire opera vacillating between the two, she first feigns madness then agrees to marry Imeneo (who fell in love with her in Act I) instead of her beloved Tirinto. Given such a context, the lovers’ tender final duet is a marvel of discretion.