Research project

Antonio Cesti’s Orontea in Rome (1661): Visual Splendour and Issues of Performance Practice

Project overview

Among opera libretti of the seventeenth century, few can lay a claim to fame comparable to Giacinto Andrea Cicognini’s Orontea. No fewer than five composers set it to music between 1649 and 1687, and among them was Antonio Cesti, one the most successful opera composers of the century. Indeed, Cesti’s Orontea, premiered in Innsbruck in 1656, went on to become one of the most popular and influential operas of its time. As it always happens when operas circulate in diverse socio-political contexts, Orontea underwent numerous changes during the course of its journeys. Scholars agree that one of the fundamental stages in the development of this opera was its March 1661 production in the Colonna palace in Rome, where it was performed with a modified libretto by Giovanni Filippo Apolloni and a revised musical setting that presented new voice types. Both Cesti and Apolloni were in Rome in March 1661 and very likely supervised and assisted with the staging of this opera; for this reason alone, this particular version of Orontea constitutes a crucial testimony in the history of the circulation of early-modern opera. Furthermore, the Roman Orontea influenced in remarkable ways not only subsequent productions of this opera, but also other works that followed in its wake and were influenced by it.
Although scholars have agreed on the importance of the 1661 Orontea in the history of the circulation and reception of this opera, all traces of this production seemed to be lost. Thus far, only scant attempts have been made to reconstruct the context and the ways in which the opera was produced. An opportunity to reconsider the Roman Orontea in light of primary evidence emerges from the private archive of the Colonna family, until recently held in private hands and almost inaccessible to scholars. The sources for the Roman Orontea in the Colonna Archive include correspondence, extensive payment records; detailed descriptions of sceneries, lighting techniques, costumes, headgear, jewellery and shoes worn by singers and dancers; information concerning the building of the stage and boxes; lists of musical parts that were copied, which provide important insights into the number of musicians and composition of the orchestra, information on the singers and their voice types; and details of the prologue prepared for this specific occasion. This rich body of documents sheds new light onto several fundamental issues related the history of cultural transfer in early modern Italy, with particular emphasis on the transformation that Orontea underwent going from Vienna to Rome; performance practice in contemporary Rome, engaging with the writings and ongoing discussions of scholars on the voice types of comic characters in opera of this time; the seventeenth-century notion of opera as a spectacle in which music, text, dance, visual effects, lighting, costumes, and sceneries contributed to the creation of a highly multi-referential event; a little-explored page in the history of opera in Rome, made even more relevant by the fact that Orontea was the first “Venetian-style” opera to be staged in the city.


Lead researcher

Dr Valeria De Lucca

Associate Professor

Research interests

  • Early modern opera
  • Patronage and systems of music production
  • Singers and performance practice
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