Didone project traces human emotions in the music of Pietro Metastasio
May 9, 2022

“Metastasio’s words: opera and emotions in 18th century Europe” is the title of the international conference being held from May 4 to 7 at the UCM Historical Library. Organized by the Didone project, which studies how human emotions are expressed through music, mainly in the Italian opera of that century, the conference will culminate with the staging, in concert version, of Niccolò Conforto’s La Nitteti, with libretto by Pietro Metastasio.

The project Didone – The Sources of Absolute Music: Mapping Emotions in Eighteenth-Century Italian Opera, is directed by Professor of Musicology Álvaro Torrente and is funded by the European Research Council with 2.5 million euros for 5 years. At the congress, Torrente himself explained that this project is based at the Complutense University and the Complutense Institute of Musical Sciences (ICCMU), although it has agreements with many other international institutions and universities.

In fact, twenty-two speakers from some of these centers, such as Oxford, Orpheus Institut (Belgium), Fribourg (Switzerland), Sydney, Warsaw, Kyoto, Greifswald (Germany) and several Italian universities and conservatories (Bologna, Naples, Genoa, Benevento, Bari, Reggio Calabria, Modena, Udine, Palermo) are taking part in the conference. Speakers and moderators include some of the leading experts on 18th century Italian opera, such as Reinhard Strohm, Lorenzo Bianconi, Suzanne Aspden and Andrea Sommer-Mathis of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, with “the aim of presenting current research on the expression of emotions in operas based on Metastasio’s librettos”.

In one of the sessions, Torrente and some of the members of Didone have presented, in an exhaustive way, the project to the conference attendees. The principal investigator explained that the first challenge of the research was to define and classify emotions, as well as to identify which emotions are expressed through music. In the end, a scheme has been chosen that includes “six passions of the soul”, such as joy, sadness, desire, love, hate and surprise, which are related to each other and are in turn related to fifty other emotions or subcategories.

The work focuses on the search for these emotions in the librettos of the poet and composer of the eighteenth century, Pietro Metastasio, who wrote 27 librettos, of which five have been selected that include about 3,000 arias. Valentina Anzani, musicologist and member of the group, explained the first phase of the work, which consisted in the elaboration of catalogs, as rigorous as possible, which was a hard work, taking into account that from the 27 librettos of Metastasio 900 operas were made with music by 300 different composers.

The pianist and musicologist Tatiana Aráez, in online communication from Paris, says that from these catalogs are made huge databases that include characters, actors, geopolitical aspects, dates, places, composers, the type of vocalization … All these data tables can be crossed to make multiple queries that are narrowing the work, something that, as explained by the violinist and musicologist Teresa Casanova, has required a multidisciplinary team involving both experts in music and in computer science and psychology. And at the same time it has led to the development of new software capable of collating all this data, in a long and complex process in which the different experts correct and revise what has been done previously until the harmonic analysis is reached.

Ana Llorens, scientific director of Didone, recalled that for the moment there is no software capable of doing this harmonic analysis efficiently, so a first step is to do it manually and then enter the data in different programs, and even in an app, designed specifically for this purpose. Including a library designed in Python, which helps to understand all the extracted data. Martín Serrano, musician and Python programmer, explains that the scores are coded, processed and from there the data is extracted and analyzed in search of emotions.

So far, 12,438 aspects of nearly a thousand arias have already been extracted, although the statistician at the Carlos III University of Madrid, Eduardo García Portugués, acknowledges that the analysis needs to be further improved to refine the results and make them more meaningful. For the moment, what does seem to be clear is that the voice is more relevant when it comes to expressing emotions than other aspects such as harmony, key or meter.

Opera in concert

The congress culminates with the concert version of La Nitteti, which, according to María Álvarez-Villamil, from ICCMU, is a libretto written by Metastasio to be premiered in Madrid under the stage direction of Farinelli and with music by Niccolò Conforto. The recovery is based on a critical edition made by the ICCMU and will be conducted by Javier Ulises Illán, with soloists such as Zachary Wilder, María Espada, Nuria Rial, Ana Quintans, Lucía Caihuela and Paloma Friedhoff.

The concert is part of the cycle Universo Barroco of the CNDM – INAEM and will be held on Saturday, May 7, at 7:30 pm at the Auditorio Nacional de Música. This opera was premiered at the Coliseo del Buen Retiro in Madrid in 1756, commissioned by Farinelli, as a birthday gift from Maria Barbara to her husband, King Ferdinand VI, while the critical edition that will be heard is by Professor José María Domínguez from Complutense University, and the conductor and collaborator of the Didone project, Javier Ulises Illán, who along with his orchestra Nereydas, will be in charge of the interpretation. 

The historical recovery is part of the activities of both the Didone project and MadMusic-CM, “Espacios, géneros y públicos de la música en Madrid, ss. XVII-XX” funded by the Community of Madrid and the European Social Fund, both led by ICCMU.