’...pietra per il vostro scarpello’: Metastasio and 18th-century pantomime ballet

In December 1766 the imperial poet Pietro Metastasio wrote his former colleague Gasparo Angiolini, then engaged at the Russian court, congratulating him on the success of his ballet Didon abandonnée, based on Metastasio's libretto of four decades earlier;  he even recommended his Achille in Sciro as a subject for treatment in dance, a ‘pietra per il vostro scarpello’ (stone for your chisel). In fact, Angiolini had already choreographed an Achille ballet, and would go on to make Metastasian-themed ballets something of a specialty.  This paper takes Angiolini as the focus of a wider investigation of ‘Metastasian’ ballets - an essentially unrecognised sub-genre of pantomime ballet through which choreographers of various aesthetic orientations honed their dramaturgical skills, and which notably prolonged Metastasio's influence on European stages.  Drawing principally on ballet scenarios in the Albert Schatz Collection, this study will show Metastasian texts functioning as a sort of alternative mythology, with which spec­tators were comparably familiar, and featuring copious didascalie that considerably lightened the ballet-master's task.  Metastasio's librettos were subject to widely differing treatments when reworked as ballets, particularly as regards their scenarios' degrees of reliance on the printed word (for the sake of audience comprehension), and their uses of spectacle. Angiolini was particularly insightful on the differing expressive languages of opera and ballet, and on the changes required by the change of medium. Here his writings are analysed in light of the orchestral part­books for his Dido ballet, published in 1773 along with a detailed description of the action.

Bruce Alan Brown
Author affiliation
Department of Music History, Flora L. Thornton School of Music, University of Southern California, USA