Abduction of Helen by Virgilio Puccitelli (1636): the First Opera Performed in Lithuania

The age of Baroque (17th century) is almost universally recognized as the age of theatrical epoch. “All the world’s a stage,” was the famous motto of the Shakespeare’s theatre and is still one of the most frequently quoted Shakespeare’s passages. Theatre was believed to have best expressed the human understanding of the world of the time. In the first quarter of the 17th century, early opera (Ital. dramma per musica) was born in the Apennine peninsular. It was an invention of the Baroque epoch, reflecting a synthesis of music, drama and fine arts. The pieces of artwork composed for nobility celebrations were released in small format publications, illustrated with engravings which reflected scenography. The publications contained information on the type of a piece of artwork and the way it was performed. It is no coincidence, therefore, that a professional opera emerged namely during the epoch of Baroque.

Sigismund Vasa’s passion for opera

On 4 September 1636, an opera Abduction was Helen was performed in the Grand Dukes’ Palace. It complied with all the requirements set for an early opera.

The opera performance made Vilnius an European city, in which the early opera was staged outside the boundaries of Italy as early as the first half of the 17th century.

In 1618, an early opera performance was staged in Salzburg, in 1627 an early opera performance was held in Torgau and Prague, and in 1628 it was performed in Vienna and Warsaw.

The performance of the first opera on the Lithuanian stage is to a large extent related to the name of Władysław Vasa, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania (1595–1648), known as an ardent theatre lover and its patron. The would-be ruler experienced indelible theatrical impressions in 1624–1625, during his Western Europe trip (from Germany to Italy). Having been raised in the musical environment, Władysław Vasa was well versed in the art of music. Celebrities in the world of music (such as Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina) were known to have been working at his father’s – Sigismund Vasa’s – court. Władysław played the harpsichord and was educated in both secular and ecclesiastical music. The most unforgettable impressions were experienced by him in Florence, the birthplace of the opera. The young Vasa spent almost a month here, visiting the most mature opera performances staged at that time in Italy. The impression during the opera performances was further enhanced by musical effects, decorations, scenography as well as ballet pieces introduced. It is highly plausible that the would-be ruler was struck with a thought to transfer the art of opera to his residences in Warsaw and Vilnius while watching the opera La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina (Liberation of Ruggiero from the island of Alcina) by Francesca Caccini. Shortly after returning to Warsaw, the ruler focused on organizing the staging the performances of the following three operas: Galatea (1628), Judith (1635), and Daphne (1635).

Those contributing to the complex opera art: from the composer to engineers

The fourth opera performance, initiated by Władysław Vasa, and the first ever to be performed in front of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania elite, was Abduction of Helen. Altogether, 11 stage performances were held in the Dukes’ Palace until the year 1648, among them two operas – Andromeda (1644) and The Disappointed Circe (1648).  The librettist and composer of all of them was the Italian Virgilio Puccitelli. In all likelihood, the ruler met him while travelling in Italy and invited the artist to his court. There is historical evidence proving that Virgilio Puccitelli was working as secretary to the King already in 1634. It should be noted, however, that he did not have to “toil” in the King’s office. Instead, he was entrusted with the task of composing operas. The theatre halls of the Dukes’ Palace and the stage machinery were to be designed by the Ruler’s architects and engineers, in charge of stage equipment. The most prominent among them is Bartolomeo Bolzoni, a designer of stage machinery from Rome. He was assisted by the architect Giovanni Battista Gisleni. The music was composed by the Italian Marco Scacchi. The stage decorations for the opera Abduction of Helen were brought from Warsaw and transported to Vilnius together with the special machinery to change them. All preparatory work related to stage performances was delegated to the craftsmen of Vilnius.

The audience overwhelmed by the effects of scenography

According to contemporary evidence, a five-hour long performance turned out to be a huge success, with a standing ovation and “stormy” admiration by the audience.

The scenography was particularly impressive. To start with, the audience is shown a bleak uninhabited place, surrounded by mountains, into which descends a carriage harnessed by two peacocks. This is the descent of the goddess Juno, taking vengeance on Paris for his decision. She calls forth the furies from hell. The rocks open up, and the spirit of Atreus and the furies appear from the flames. The decorations change, and the action takes place in the Sparta royal palace. The audience is offered two views of the garden. In one of them, the royal palace is shown, the other view overlooks the garden. Six rooms connected with marble columns are portrayed on the stage. In the background of the stage, the garden could be visible. The set designers succeeded in presenting a structurally complex “Menelaus palace” on the stage. Menelaus is soon due to leave. Shortly before his departure, Menelaus receives Paris as a guest in his palace. Paris comes under the guise of a supposed diplomatic mission, though. The ruler entrusts the guest to Helen’s care. After the tears and sadness of Menelaus departure, merry-making and dances are announced in the palace. Still later, the stage is transformed into a garden with a long row of bubbling fountains. It’s in this garden that we find Helen. She seeks solace in the trees, flowers and the wind. Her confidante Etra is trying to instil Helen’s trust in the newcomer. Shortly afterwards, Helen is visited by a dream, in which she confesses her love for Paris. The words she uses, though, are rather strange. It is Paris’ turn to lose his peace of mind. He tries to find consolation and comfort in the water, the wind and the flowers. Helen returns and expresses her genuine affection for Paris. The plane to flee Sparta is being devised by them. The scenery of the palace is replaced with the decorations of the wavy sea. The Neptune ship crosses the stage, and the Cupid is portrayed surrounded by dolphins. The lovers are on their way to Troy, lost in consummate passion. Juno begs God Neptune to rule over the surging sea and sink the ship. The fatal wedding of the couple takes place in the garden shown on the stage. The performance ends with a flash of lightning, symbolizing the wrath of the Olympian Gods.

The audience was totally overwhelmed by the Opera. The staging of the first ever opera in Vilnius was a significant cultural event in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The opera, regarded as the most expensive and impressive form of the royal artistic and creative activities, lasted for twelve years. The new pieces of artwork, created in Europe, used to become part of the local culture. Unfortunately, after Władysław Vasa unexpectedly died in 1648 in Merkine, his opera theatre ceased to exist. The art of the opera continued to survive in the courts of the nobility within the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

Literature: Opera Lietuvos didžiųjų kunigaikščių rūmuose. Sudarė Jūratė Trilupaitienė, Vilnius, 2010.

Raimonda Ragauskienė