Stage & Scene | Words for the Music – the Libretto | Early & Middle Baroque | Opera
A libretto – Italian for ‘small book’ – enabled audiences to read the words of an opera or, in the case of a foreign language, a translation. Some of the earliest libretti were quite substantial in size, around 21.6 cm. However, they were not too unwieldy and were read by members of the audience, in confined seating space, while the performance was going on. The auditoriums of opera houses and theatres were lit by candles, which were dimmed while the performance was taking place. Instead, individual candles were available as an aid to reading. Some early libretti that have survived show grease spots where candle wax dripped onto the pages.
A libretto normally began with a preface dedicated to the librettist’s patron and then went on to a prologue explaining the context of the opera’s action. A list of characters came next, then details of the scene-changes, the dances to be featured and sometimes notes about the scenic effects on stage. In Italy, where the Church was always on the lookout for pagan references in the texts of Baroque operas, the librettist also had to affirm his own devout Roman Catholic faith.
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