As is well-known, opera scores, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries, were generally passed on in manuscript form available only to collectors or traders and therefore risked being damaged or destroyed. On the other hand verbal texts were delivered to audiences in printed form before a performance or after it, to record and celebrate it. These printed programs, containing more or less extensive information on the productions, make it possible to reconstruct the actual development of the drama for or with music, and preserve the variations in performance, including handwritten changes and sheets added or pasted in at the last minute. The goal of our enterprise, certainly too ambitious and in any case always in progress, is to make available to scholars growing parts of this material in the form of digital filecards.
At first, the project, fruit of the visionary work of Vittore Branca and Gianfranco Folena, and supported in the late 1970s by the Cini foundation along with the Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, sought to catalogue on paper the whole collection preserved in Venice on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. This famous collection, possibly the largest in the world, compiled over fifty years by Ulderico Rolandi (1874-1951), a doctor who was extraordinarily interested in opera, boasts about 35,000 items. Among these a small part, which dates back to the end of the 16th or 17th centuries, documents the beginning of the operatic form with rare and precious texts. One third consists of tragic and comic dramas of the 18th century, oratories, intermezzos and farces, with a massive share of contemporary French genres such as: tragédie en musique, opéra comique, ballet and comédie mêlée d’ariettes. A good half date from the 19th century, while the remaining 10% cover the early 20th century, including, in addition to operas, numerous vocal and instrumental concert programs (Anna Laura Bellina, La collezione Rolandi dei libretti d’opera, in La Fondazione Giorgio Cini. 50 anni di attività per la cultura, il dialogo e per Venezia, edited by Ulrico Agnati, Milan, Electa 2001, pp. 135-140).
The physical location of the librettos determined by the aforementioned Rolandi and maintained intact, places composers in alphabetical order, with a separate large section for choreographies. As a consequence it became necessary to proceed by musician rather than by title, cataloguing first the dramas and then the ballets, and also to include systematically a note indicating who had been the first to set to music the editions originally designed merely as literary pieces. Following these criteria, a sample of approximately 350 pieces was published in the late 1980s (I libretti della collezione Rolandi. Catalogo e indici, edited by Anna Laura Bellina, Bruno Brizi and Maria Grazia Pensa, Roma, Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana.1986).
Back in the early 1990s, the dire financial events affecting the Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana resulted in the delay and finally the failure of the entire publication. In the meantime, in the context of the projects called for by article 15 of the 1986 finance law and known as “giacimenti culturali” (cultural layers), a three year organization was established known as A.CO.M. (Archivio Computerizzato Musicale Veneto), which was to catalogue the Rolandi files together with other smaller city collections. Some of the curators of this website were members of the committee which originally conceived of the A.CO.M research and established its scientific criteria, but were never in a position to control the quality of the final product. They therefore distanced themselves as much as possible from the A.CO.M staff, because they did not want (then and so much less now) to associate their names with a product which turned out to be full of errors, riddled with omissions and even very cumbersome in computer terms, both for up- and down-loading data which was converted in SBN, who knows why, ten years after the end of the initiative.
In the year 2001, the Cini foundation, perhaps aware of the thoroughly unsatisfactory (to say the least) A.CO.M. product, commissioned a new electronic inventory of the collection and charged new project curators with the creation of a website. As in a stochastic sample of only 1500 files one can count some 6000 different operators (musicians, librettists, singers, associations, etc.) and follow their activities or careers, ideally the new curators wanted to create a kind of telephone book of opera and its diffusion, with its own address book, trade names and yellow pages. In 2005, after a brief period of work, quickly and abruptly interrupted, the Dipartimento per lo Spettacolo and the Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali in cooperation with Arcus s.p.a., whose sole shareholder appears to be this said Ministry, financed with one million euros the so-called Echo project, which was to scan the 35,000 documents under the sponsorship of the Veneto Region and the City of Venice. This site’s curators are completely unaware of the composition of this costly initiative’s scientific committee. The results of the triennial enterprise, which was supposed to conclude in 2008, are not yet available except in the sketchiest form.
For now, willing users must be content with this site, which inevitably mirrors the complicated prior events briefly summarized above, reflecting four distinct phases of work.
The first involves a general but thorough survey of the Rolandi data, postponing a detailed examination of the ballets. This phase includes the filecards relevant to dramas by composers with names beginning with the A, B, C, and D, from Abadie to Donizetti. After the requisite analysis, the data in the A.CO.M. project, given the state of the art (we say tongue in cheek), have not been taken into account at all. As to the work undertaken in 2001 and immediately interrupted, numerous corrections and improvements have been introduced, creating ex novo the input program and radically modifying the one for presentation.
The second phase is based on a different premise. In terms of the history of mise en scène, among the paper directories of 17th and 18th century librettos one undertaking stands out as deservingly famous: the monumental survey sponsored by Claudio Sartori, which has remained for a long time an unsurpassable reference point for scholars, even though its cataloguing system was not exhaustive and based on selective indexes. Nothing like it exists for the 19th century, the years which saw the work of the most famous Italian musicians all over the world. With the exception of the numerous and more or less dependable printed catalogues relating to collections or productions, one feels the absence of a reference tool that promises any degree of completeness. Certainly, it takes a good dose of courage merely to imagine it. But the centrepiece of the Rolandi collection is constituted precisely by the 19th century librettos, with very extensive sections dedicated to operas by Italian composers performed in Europe and in the whole world. And as Giuseppe Apolloni, Bellini and Donizetti were already present on the website with about 1,500 pieces, a direct focus on the legacy of the 19th century was preferred, taking into account the material in the Rolandi collection set to music by Rossini, Verdi and the so-called minor composers: Generali, Mayr, Mercadante, Meyerbeer, Pacini, Pavesi, the Ricci brothers, Vaccai, etc.
The third phase accomplished the cataloguing of approximately 3,200 librettos, not counting those found in numerous identical copies, in the Torrefranca collection, located in the Benedetto Marcello conservatory in Venice, arranged alphabetically by title, (Emanuela Negri, Sabina Carboni, Francesca Gatta and Livio Aragona, Catalogo dei libretti del conservatorio Benedetto Marcello, Florence, Leo S. Olschki, 1994-1995).
The fourth phase consists of the inventory of approximately 4,900 Rolandi and Torrefranca ballets, which for now includes the location, title, original choreographer as well as any subsequent new choreographer, musician if there is one, theatre, city, season, year, a direct reference to the opera that includes a description of the ballet, if already present in the website, or otherwise the indication «sta in» (“found in”). At the present time, complete filecards that include characters and actors are still exceedingly difficult to create.
By now, the four phases’ entries, with unavoidable gaps albeit numerically relevant, have been completed, including the entire Torrefranca collection. The work has been carried out with funding granted by the University of Padua and the MIUR, but not by the Cini foundation, which remains uninvolved in the undertaking, although it sponsored it and supported it in different ways in the past.
The digital filecards, developed on the basis of the paper formats, are made up of three sections, which recreate the structure of the libretto and of the performance it documents: transcription of the title-page and description of the piece; survey of the names (places, authors, characters and actors, scenographers, costume designers, machine operators, choreographers, conductors, etc.); and observations by Rolandi himself, at times brought up to date with the findings of more recent historiography. The database can be accessed for specific items, for a combination of items, or in a guided search, using simple terms (titles, places, the first words of arias, characters, actors and other professionals), or also very complex ones (history of the forms, career of the artists, and various events in the publishing or theatrical business). The indexes list titles, librettists, choreographers, musicians, and cities where performed or published, in the contemporary or dominant form, but do not include the theatres or the editors’ addresses.
We thank any user in advance for informing the webmaster of any errors, omissions or inconsistencies. We do not at all exclude the possibility of allowing external input into the database in the future.