Ostentatious festivities with fireworks, theatre, ballet and opera performances, flashy decorations, banquets and the ceremonial entrance of honoured guests–particularly on occasion of important events–were commonly used during the baroque era to display wealth and enhance the prestige of an emperor.
Louis XIV’s (1638-1715) extensive patronage of the arts and pompous courtly festivities served as a model for the whole of European royalty, but seemed impossible to surpass. Only the festivities on the occasion of the wedding of the Habsburg emperor Leopold I (1640-1705) to Margaret Theresa of Spain (1651-1673) in 1666 dwarfed even the French spectacles. Leopold did everything in his power to highlight the immense political importance of the wedding. Cannon shots and fireworks marked the beginning of the festivities which were spread out over two years. Another item on the agenda was an equestrian ballet with the emperor himself in the saddle. The highlight of the festivities, however, was the performance of the opera Il pomo d’oro, which is considered to be the culmination of baroque splendour and extravagance and is seen as one of the most spectacular events of 17th century musical life.
The opera is seen as exceptional due to its musical and dramatic variety, lavish staging and length. Lasting more than eight hours, it is comprised of 23 scenes in five acts; the standard at the time was three acts with lengths of up to four hours for one opera production. Il pomo d’oro has complex instrumentation and structure, contains comic and serious elements and a number of different arias, ensembles and ballets ends each act. The spectacular stage machinery included shipwrecks, collapsing towers, elephants and other scenic effects. Costs were extensive as well, totalling around 300.000 florins as opposed to about 20.000 florins for “normal” opera productions.
Leopold commissioned the libretto which is based on the Greek myth of the Judgement of Paris from court poet Francesco Sbarra (1611-1668). The music was comissioned from court composer Antonio Cesti (1623-1669) and the court musician and composer Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (ca. 1620 – 1680). In addition to being an important patron of the arts–during his reign cultural life at the Viennese court experienced a massive boom–Leopold himself was a composer and contributed to the opera as well. The image below shows one of these compositions, the aria Ecco Paride il giusto, from the only surviving score, which is housed at the Austrian National Library. This score, which was transcribed by Alessandrio Riotti, also contains handwritten remarks by Leopold I. It is, however, incomplete. Unfortunately, only fragments of acts three and five have survived and are kept in the Estense Library in Modena.
Due to various circumstances the performance of the opera occurred only in the summer of 1668 on the occasion of the birthday of the empress and was split into two days. It took place in the newly built theatre Leopold I had commissioned for the wedding festivities. It was one of the biggest of its time with capacity for up to several thousand people; it was, however, barely used after the performance of the opera.
Il pomo d’oro inspired numerous reports throughout the whole of Europe. Unprecedented and inimitable in expense and luxury, it was not only an influential force in its time but can also be considered the epitome of baroque court operas.
by Ute Sondergeld (ONB)