Friday, June 26, 2015

June 26, 2015

Photo: Zach Gibson/The New York Times

Boston Early Music Festival: Monteverdi's Poppea

David Hansen (Nerone) and Amanda Forsythe (Poppea)
L'incoronazione di Poppea
Sunday, June 14, Boston University Theater. Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, musical directors; Gilbert Blin, stage director and set designer.

The culminating performance of the Monteverdi Trilogy at the 2015 Boston Early Music Festival was, fittingly, Monteverdi's last and greatest opera, L'incoronazione di Poppea (The coronation of Poppea, 1642). In his essay "Thoughts on Late Style," (London Review of Books, 5 August 2004), the critic Edward Said wrote that "the accepted notion is that age confers a spirit of reconciliation and serenity on late works....But what of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution, but as intransigence, difficulty and contradiction?" Poppea, composed when Monteverdi was 75 years old and first performed just a few months before his death, is one such dark and challenging late work.

As I wrote in the Opera Guide to Poppea, Giovanni Busenello's libretto contains some of the most cynical, corrupt and ruthless characters in all opera. The Roman emperor Nerone (Nero, sung by David Hansen) sleeps with Poppea (Amanda Forsythe), the wife of his subordinate Ottone (Otho, sung by Nathan Medley), and forces his advisor Seneca (Christian Immler) to commit suicide when his counsel becomes inconvenient. Nerone's wife Ottavia (Octavia, sung by Shannon Mercer), seeing herself supplanted, blackmails the cuckolded Ottone into conspiring to murder Poppea. In this attempt Ottone is aided by Drusilla (Teresa Wakim), his former lover, whom he dumped for Poppea; Drusilla hopes that, once Poppea is dead, Ottone will return to her. When the murder conspiracy fails, Ottavia is repudiated, Ottavia, Ottone and Drusilla are banished into exile, and Poppea is crowned the Empress of Rome.

According to Tacitus and Suetonius, the fates of most of these characters would be grim. In exile, Octavia was murdered on Nero's orders. Poppea was empress for two years, until Nero in a fit of rage kicked her and her unborn child to death. A few years later Nero would be overthrown and killed; his death would inaugurate a civil war. During the Year of the Four Emperors that followed Nero's death, Otho would become the ruler of Rome for all of three months; his brief reign would be ended by suicide.

The BEMF production of Poppea, with stage direction by Gilbert Blin, did full justice to multiple modes of this complex work. Poppea encompasses comedy, tragedy, irony, and pathos—sometimes all in the same scene—and still has the power to unsettle us more than 370 years after its first performance. As with the other operas in the Monteverdi Trilogy, it was superbly cast, with many of the same ensemble of singers who had performed in L'Orfeo and Ulisse.

David Hansen as Nerone was on the incisive, if at times acidulous, end of the countertenor tonal spectrum. In his timbre and free use of vibrato Hansen reminded us more than anyone of David Daniels. Hansen's sound wasn't always appealing, but it was always illustrative of his petulant, imperious and mercurial character.

The most alluring voice in the cast belonged to Amanda Forsythe, the singer portraying the opera's most alluring character, Poppea. Forsythe's sweet-toned soprano offered a striking contrast to Poppea's utter shamelessness, and at the same time beautifully exemplified her seductive power and blithe heedlessness of the destruction she's wreaking on the lives of everyone around her.

Another excellent performance was given by Teresa Wakim as Drusilla, a woman who, perhaps knowingly, deceives herself about her former lover's residual feelings. Drusilla has to inspire the sympathy of anyone who has ever convinced him- or herself that, in the face of abundant evidence to the contrary, the object of their passion returns their feelings; and isn't that an uncomfortable position that's been occupied at one time or another by every one of us?

And Nell Snaidas was delightfully irrepressible as Amore (Cupid), who, in the opera's prologue, correctly predicts his victory over La Fortuna (Fortune, sung by Erica Schuller) and La Virtù (Virtue, sung by Danielle Reutter-Harrah)); Snaidas also excelled as the comically amorous page Valleto.

The strong cast, the dazzling playing of the Boston Early Music Chamber Ensemble under the musical direction of Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, Blin's elegant set and Anna Watkins' handsome costumes combined to make the final production of the Monteverdi Trilogy exceptional.

Poppea itself ends with one of the most gorgeous duets in all opera, "Pur ti miro" ("I gaze at you"), sung by an ecstatic Nerone and Poppea at the moment of their victory. But this duet is as bitter as it is beautiful. As I wrote in the Opera Guide to Poppea, "as they sing so gloriously of their love, Nerone and Poppea are surrounded by the bodies of their victims, and this moment of Poppea's triumph is shadowed by our knowledge of her later violent death...As Nerone and Poppea sing 'Più non peno, più non moro' ('No more pain, no more death') their voices clash on 'pain' and 'death.' The opera may be ending 'happily' but there will be plenty of pain and death to follow."

Sylvia McNair (Poppea) and Dana Hanchard (Nerone) perform "Pur ti miro" with the English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner:

In the final moments of the BEMF production, Blin devised an understated but disquieting gesture. As the lovers sang the affirmations of the final words, "si mio ben, si mio cor, mia vita, si" (Yes, my love, yes, my heart, my life, yes), Nerone turned away from Poppea and stared out at us. It was a chilling look, a reminder of the darkness we'd witnessed and a suggestion of the horror to come. A brilliant end to an unforgettable experience.

Other posts on the 2015 Boston Early Music Festival:
Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610
Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Boston Early Music Festival: Monteverdi's Ulisse

Caitlin Klinger and Melissa House (Naiadi) and Matthew Brook (Nettuno). Photo: Kathy Wittman
Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria
Friday, June 12, Boston University Theater. Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, musical directors; Gilbert Blin, stage director and set designer.

At the end of the 1630s Monteverdi was over 70, and it had been nearly a decade since he had composed an opera. But in 1637 the first public opera theater, the Teatro San Cassiano, had opened in Venice. Before this, opera had been almost exclusively a courtly entertainment presented in private palaces to an audience of aristocratic patrons and their invited guests. But after the success of the initial season at the Teatro San Cassiano, other Venetian theaters as well soon began presenting opera productions to paying audiences of aristocrats, tourists, courtesans, gondoliers and servants.

Monteverdi was drawn to these new venues for his work, and the 1639-40 season featured a revival of his 1608 opera Arianna (from which only the famous "Lamento d'Arianna" now survives). And he soon began working on a new opera.

Monteverdi's return to opera was inspired by the story of another unexpected return, derived by librettist Giacomo Badoaro from the second half of Homer's Odyssey: Penelope, the wife of Ulisse (Ulysses), has been waiting for him to return from the Trojan War for 20 years. In the meantime, she is being besieged in her home by wealthy suitors eager to take Ulisse's place. Penelope refuses to consider remarriage, despite having no hope that she will ever see her husband again.

Here is Marijana Mijanovic as Penelope, accompanied by Les Arts Florissants conducted by William Christie, in the production of Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (The return of Ulysses to his homeland, 1640) from the 2002 Aix-en-Provence Festival:

But Penelope is unaware that Ulisse, under the protection of the goddess Minerva, has secretly made it back to Ithaca and, reunited with his son Telemaco (Telemachus) and the loyal shepherd Eumete, has begun to plan how—despite being unarmed and vulnerable—he will regain his home, his wife and his throne.

Public opera represented an enrichment of certain possibilities for Monteverdi, but a diminishment of others. Elaborate stage machinery and spectacular sets were constructed to attract audiences with new visual effects. In Ulisse these included Minerva and Telemaco flying through the clouds, Giove (Jupiter) and Giunone (Juno) descending from the heavens in a machine, Ulisse vanishing (through a trap door) amid smoke and flames, and Nettuno (Neptune) rising from the sea. But to hold costs down, the theaters hired only small orchestras and did not have separate choruses. The score of L'Orfeo, an opera presented privately for the ruling Gonzagas in Mantua, called for more than 30 instruments; the score of Ulisse has only five string parts in addition to a small continuo group.

But in exchange for the rich musical palette of court opera, public opera offered the freedom to depict a wider array of character types. Court opera had an elevated tone and focussed on mythological stories. Public opera also drew on stories from classical literature, but in addition to noble and divine figures the librettist Badoaro included in Ulisse characters who were scurrilous (the drunken, gluttonous Iro), underhanded (the suitors), comic (the aging nurse Ericlea), and amorous (Penelope's handmaiden Melanto).

Mary-Ellen Nesi (Penelope) with Laura Pudwell (Ericlea). Photo: Kathy Wittman
The Boston Early Music Festival production of Ulisse was strongly cast, well-directed and -designed. Mary-Ellen Nesi brought a queenly bearing and powerful emotions to the sorrowing Penelope, while Colin Balzer offered in presence and voice a convincingly heroic Ulisse. Other standouts in an excellent cast included Zachary Wilder's Telemaco, Mireille Asselin's Minerva and Danielle Reutter-Harrah's ardent Melanto.

Gilbert Blin's elegant and versatile set and Anna Watkins' costumes were appropriate to the periods of the opera's composition (the set) and setting (the costumes). But there were some elements that didn't work quite as well: the singers' wigs, intended to evoke the elaborately braided hairstyles of ancient Greece, were a bit too obviously fake, and some of the props were cheap-looking.

Colin Balzer (Ulisse). Photo: Kathy Wittman
And while most of Blin's directorial choices were effective, one was not. The final duet between Penelope and Ulisse, the key moment when she finally opens her heart again to love, was accompanied by a distracting set-change. As Nesi's and Balzer's voices intertwined, clouds descended, the rear wall of the stage disappeared, and the sea was once again revealed. Perhaps this was intended to remind us of the great distances Ulysses has travelled to reach this moment. Or perhaps it was meant to suggest that even as he returns to his longed-for wife and home, Ulysses yearns to voyage again (as in Tennyson's great poem "Ulysses"). However, in my view the set-change would have been more effective had it occurred in the final moments after, rather than pulling focus during, this gorgeous and moving duet.

From the 2002 Aix production, Kresimir Spicer (Ulisse) and Marijana Mijanovic in the final duet, in which Penelope, after 20 years of self-sacrifice and self-denial, finally allows herself to say "yes":

Despite minor misjudgments, the BEMF Ulisse was a wonderful production of an opera that is far too rarely staged. And it would have been our peak experience of the 2015 Festival—except that Sunday's performance of L'incoronazione di Poppea was even better.  

Next time: L'incoronazione di Poppea  
Last time: L'Orfeo

Friday, June 19, 2015

Boston Early Music Festival: Monteverdi's L'Orfeo

Mireille Asselin (Euridice), Aaron Sheehan (Orfeo), and Nathan Medley (1st Shepherd),
with members of the BEMF Chamber Ensemble and the Dark Horse Consort. Photo: Kathy Wittman
Saturday, June 13, Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory of Music. BEMF Vocal, Chamber, and Dance Ensembles with the Dark Horse Consort. Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, musical directors; Gilbert Blin, stage director and set designer.

The story was performed to the great satisfaction of all who heard it. The Lord Duke, not content to have been present at this performance, or to have heard it many times in rehearsal, has ordered it to be given again; and so it will be, today, in the presence of all the ladies of this city.
—Francesco Gonzaga to his brother Ferdinando Gonzaga, 1 March 1607 [1]
Several letters describing aspects of the first performance of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo on 24 February 1607 have survived. One of the striking things about these descriptions is that no one calls the work an opera. While we think of L'Orfeo as opera's first masterpiece, the form was so new that the contemporary audience did not have a word for it. L'Orfeo was called variously "la favola in musica" (the musical fable), "la favola cantata" (the sung fable), and "la comedia" (the play).

In fact, it was the very newness of the idea of singing theatrical dialogue that probably suggested Orpheus as a subject to Monteverdi and his librettist Alessandro Striggio. Opera had first been developed in Florence less than a decade previously in an attempt to recreate the performance practices of ancient Greek theater, in which it was believed that the text was sung throughout. To counteract the strangeness of this new form, early opera composers sought stories in which it would seem natural for characters to sing. There had been two previous operas by other composers entitled Euridice (one by Jacopo Peri and another by Giulio Caccini, both written in 1600); after all, the power of song is central to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

Monteverdi was able to use the newly developed stile recitativo, or sung declamation of text, in extraordinarily expressive ways. Here is La Messaggiera (The Messenger), after bringing the news of Euridice's death to Orfeo, condemning herself to exile and self-torment; the singer is Sara Mingardo, accompanied by Le Concert des Nations conducted by Jordi Savall:

All of the roles in the first performance of L'Orfeo were likely taken by men (again, perhaps in imitation of ancient Greek theater), with the female roles being sung by castrati. We also know that L'Orfeo was created under the auspices of the Accademia degli Invaghiti (Academy of the Besotted, a group of aristocratic aficionados of the arts to which Francesco Gonzaga, Ferdinando Gonzaga and Alessandro Striggio belonged) and was commissioned for the festivities of the Carnival season, which also featured spoken plays.

Gilbert Blin's production of L'Orfeo for the BEMF made no attempt to recreate the first performance. Instead, Blin made the connection to Carnival and the commedia tradition explicit by making the singers the members of a troupe of travelling players; the piece opens with the singers hauling a cart of costumes and props onstage. It was a clever mashup that worked surprisngly well (Anna Watkins designed the simple and effective costumes). And placing the instrumentalists onstage, with the singers performing around and among them, enhanced the production's feeling of intimacy.

Some of Blin's other inspirations, though, were not so happy. He added a silent dancer (Carlos Fittante) who enacted various unnecessary and frankly distracting roles in each of the five acts and prologue (a jester, Hymen, Pan, Thanatos, Amor, and Harpocrates, the God of Silence). Blin also had the singers periodically unroll paper scrolls which stated the (generally obvious) moral of the scene we'd just witnessed.

Fortunately, the performances of the BEMF vocal and instrumental ensembles was of such a high standard that these superfluous additions did not detract significantly. Aaron Sheehan sang superbly in the taxing role of Orfeo, while the lovely Mireille Asselin was a sweet-toned Euridice. Teresa Wakim as the abducted Proserpina and Shannon Mercer as the sorrowing Silvia/La Messaggiera sang movingly, and Matthew Brook was an appropriately impassive Caronte (Charon). The Dark Horse Consort of trombones and cornetti added appropriately somber sonorities for the scenes in the underworld.

If no other operas by Monteverdi besides L'Orfeo were known he would still be a hugely important figure in music history. Fortunately for us, scores for two of the three operas he wrote for Venetian public theaters towards the end of his long life have survived, and they are the two greatest operas of the seventeenth century. Il ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria (The return of Ulysses, 1640) and L'incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea, 1642) will be the subjects of my next two posts.

Next time: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria
Last time: Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610


1. Quoted in John Whenham, ed., Claudio Monteverdi: Orfeo. Cambridge Opera Handbooks, 1986, p. 171. Translation by Iain Fenlon slightly modified.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Boston Early Music Festival: Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610

Claudio Monteverdi

The Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF) this year focussed on Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643). Monteverdi is a key figure in the history of music; his work spans the stylistic transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque, from madrigals to the then-new forms of accompanied singing and opera. The BEMF's astonishingly ambitious programming included, on successive days, performances of Monteverdi's Vespro della beata Vergine (Vespers of the Blessed Virgin, 1610) and his three surviving operas: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria (The return of Ulysses, 1640), L'Orfeo (Orpheus, 1607), and L'incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea, 1642).

The three operas were fully staged and, amazingly, all featured many of the same vocalists and instrumentalists, and the same musical and stage directors and designers—a feat that, as far as I'm aware, is unprecedented. (The Brooklyn Academy of Music's Monteverdi Trilogy in 2002 included productions from three different companies.) It was a magnificent accomplishment by the BEMF's superb (and apparently indefatigable) artists. Seeing these masterworks over four days was an unforgettable experience.

Stephen Stubbs, from

Vespers of 1610
Thursday, June 11, Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory of Music. BEMF Vocal & Chamber Ensembles with the Dark Horse Consort; Stephen Stubbs, conductor.

In his booklet essay about the Vespers, conductor Stephen Stubbs writes that performing Baroque choral music with one voice per part has become the "norm." Following this logic, Stubbs presented the Vespers without a separate choir; the 10 vocal soloists also served as the chorus.

Surely Stubb's assertion is overstating the case (already overstated, in my view) that Joshua Rifkin famously made in his research on J. S. Bach's chorus. Although the Vespers were composed while Monteverdi was serving as the maestro della musica at the court of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga in Mantua, they were evidently printed as a sort of audition piece for positions elsewhere—including Rome and Venice—where large-scale musical forces were available. And, indeed, when Monteverdi applied for the position of maestro di capella at the Basilica di San Marco in Venice in 1613, he led a performance of what was probably the Vespers. It should be no surprise to anyone who has ever heard the Vespers that he got hired on the spot.

We know that at San Marco, Monteverdi regularly supervised about 40 singers and 12 instrumentalists, with additional vocal and instrumental forces added for feast days and celebrations. [1] Since Monteverdi himself may have led performances of the Vespers involving a sizeable choir, the idea that this music should only be performed with one voice per part seems to be more of an aesthetic choice than an evidence-driven one. Which is fine by me; however, all such choices involve tradeoffs.

One voice per part highlighted the madrigal-like qualities of much of the music of the Vespers, as in "Pulcra es, amica mea" (Thou art beautiful, my love); here it is performed by sopranos Jolle Greenleaf and Molly Quinn of New York City's Green Mountain Project:

In Boston "Pulcra es" was beautifully sung by Shannon Mercer (later Silvia in L'Orfeo and Ottavia in Poppea) and Teresa Wakim (later Proserpina in L'Orfeo and Drusilla in Poppea).

A one-voice-per-part approach meant that the textures and harmonies were very clearly apparent throughout. It also meant that both vocal and instrumental performers were extraordinarily exposed, and the BEMF's virtuosic ensembles excitingly rose to the occasion. Other vocal standouts included tenors Zachary Wilder (later Telemaco in Ulisse and Lucano in Poppea) and Colin Balzer (later L'Humana Fragilità and Ulisse in Ulisse). Special mention should also be made of the excellent playing of concertmaster Robert Mealy and Julie Andrijeski (violins), Phoebe Carrai (violoncello), Erin Headley (viola da gamba), and the Dark Horse Consort's Kiri Tollaksen and Alexandra Opsahl (cornetti).

The main drawback of using one voice per part, however, was that the tutti sections lacked the kind of thrilling sonic impact that larger forces can provide. In particular, the moment at the beginning of the piece when all of the singers and instrumentalists come in together on the phrase "Domine, ad adiuvandum me festina" (Lord, make haste to help me)—a moment that can be electrifying—was underwhelming. Here is an example of the grandeur that larger choir can bring to this music; Jordi Savall conducts vocal soloists, the Padua Centre for Ancient Music Chorus and La Capella Reial de Catalunya:

But if the BEMF performance of the Vespers never quite made the hair on the back of my neck stand up, it still offered many exquisite moments, and was a wonderful introduction to Monteverdi's sound-world—a world that would be further explored in the days to come in the performances of his three surviving operas.

Next time: L'Orfeo


1. Paolo Fabbri, Monteverdi. Cambridge University Press, 1994, p. 137.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Clarissa on a smartphone

Lovelace abducting Clarissa Harlowe (detail), by Édouard Louis Dubufe (1867)

Ahead of the technology curve as ever, I recently bought a smartphone. (Or should that be "smart phone"? I'm not sure.) So far, I've kept my smartphone as ignorant as possible: I haven't loaded it up with apps, and I've turned off many of its privacy-invading features. I'm sure a few years from now I'll be defending Townsville, obsessively monitoring my resting heart rate, and hooking up with random strangers; not yet, though.

The phone came pre-loaded with an e-book app, which at first seemed useless. The idea of reading a full-length book on a palm-sized phone screen seemed awkward at best. But I decided to try it when I found that I could download, for free, a complete text of Samuel Richardson's 1747 novel Clarissa, Or the History of a Young Lady. [1]

I had been meaning to read Clarissa for over a year. It's a monument of 18th-century literature—almost literally: the unabridged Penguin paperback runs to 1500 pages of small print, and weighs almost three pounds. (Penguin reprinted the first—and shortest!—edition; Richardson added even more material for the second and third editions.) A three-pound paperback was not something I wanted to lug back and forth on my commute. Since I would be carrying my phone anyway, though, I thought I would give reading the e-book version a try.

And the experience wasn't bad. You turn pages by swiping, and they curl back in a reasonable simulacrum of a printed page—cute, and it avoids the problem of endless scrolling. There are page numbers, although they don't correspond to the pages of any print edition. Instead they are the screen numbers of the phone version; each page in the phone version of Clarissa was about a third the length of a printed page in the Penguin edition. You can change the font size, although the default seemed fine, and the screen contrast automatically adjusts to ambient light. You can search within the text, bookmark pages and, with the touch of a finger, underline passages (something that I can't bring myself to do with a physical book).

The main annoyance is that the optical character recognition program used to digitize the text makes pretty frequent transcription errors. In the screenshot of the first page of the novel, for example, the word "disturbance" in the first sentence should be "disturbances" (and is so rendered in the Penguin edition). But most of the errors were readily decipherable, and they didn't seriously interfere with my enjoyment of the book.

Finally, my engagement with the text did not seem less than it would have been with a printed book. That was reassuring, because there are conflicting accounts of how print and onscreen reading compare. In the late 1990s Jakob Nielsen found that reading from screens was 25% slower than reading print, and that when reading from screens people tended to scan and skim. In a New Yorker article last year, "Being a Better Online Reader" (July 16, 2014), Maria Konnikova summarized more recent research which found that the medium still matters: people who read onscreen still tend to skim, and retain and comprehend less of what they've read. Some research suggests that may be partly a result of the distractions that are always present when we're online: the temptation to click links, watch videos, text, e-mail, and surf the web. Don't our devices hold the promise that there's always something else out there that's more fun than what we're doing?

But during my commute, I could read on my phone with few distractions: I get calls or texts only occasionally, and I don't use my phone to play games, watch videos, answer e-mail or surf the web. (The question that naturally arises is, if I do none of those things, why do I need a smartphone? Peer pressure triumphs again.)  So reading a book on my phone while commuting was generally no more difficult than reading a print book: the major sources of distraction were the need to block out the screeching, rumbling noise of the subway and to keep a watchful eye on the surrounding urban realities.

I still prefer reading print, and not because of nostalgia. I do find physical books appealing, especially older ones in which you can actually see the impression of the type on the paper, and which are well-bound and fit nicely in the hand. There is something deeply satisfying about a well-produced book; the codex is a beautiful and useful format that has lasted for centuries. So when I'm sitting in a chair at home, with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine at my elbow, I still read printed books. But when I'm being jostled on a crowded train on my way home from work, I'm glad that I now have an alternative. Nonetheless, because of the privacy, licensing and technical issues I outlined in the post "The future of books," I can't imagine actually purchasing an e-book for my phone. And since almost the entire corpus of pre-1923 literature is in the public domain, I don't think I'll ever have to. Thank you, Project Gutenberg and Open Library.

Back to Clarissa, a novel outsized not only in its length but in its impact. It is written as a series of letters exchanged among its characters; while it was far from the first novel to adopt this format, after its success (and that of its predecessor, Pamela (1740)) the epistolary form became a model for other writers for the next half-century. What also became a model was the story of a virtuous but inexperienced heroine beset by the importunate attentions of more worldly men. Both the form and the plot clearly influenced Fanny Burney's Evelina (1778), in which the naïve heroine is subject to the aggressive pursuit of Sir Clement Willoughby, and Jane Austen's Elinor and Marianne (ca. 1795, later to be reworked in narrative form as Sense and Sensibility) in which the youthful Marianne is courted by the duplicitous Willoughby.

Because of its immensity, though, Clarissa is daunting for readers. As it turns out, while its length is prodigious, its story can be described in just a few sentences. Be forewarned: the next two paragraphs contain spoilers:

The action of the novel takes place over the course of eleven months, from mid-January to mid-December. [2] Clarissa, a young, beautiful, virtuous woman, well-read and well-spoken, wise beyond her years, is emotionally blackmailed by her parents and siblings to marry a rich suitor she strongly dislikes. She's attracted instead to a handsome, witty gentleman from a wealthy and well-situated family, Robert Lovelace. Lovelace is dogged by scandalous rumors of wild living, but Clarissa believes that she can change him—a belief she comes to realize, too late, is delusory.

Lovelace contrives to separate Clarissa from her family and takes her to London, where he holds her against her will in what Clarissa at first believes is a respectable boarding house, but which turns out to be a brothel. She resists, to the point of threatening suicide, all of Lovelace's attempts to seduce her, until he finally has her drugged into unconsciousness and rapes her. She eventually escapes him, and, impoverished and still alienated from her family, overwhelmed by sorrow, slowly declines until she dies. Although as she nears death she forgives the (semi-)repentant Lovelace, she refuses his offers of marriage. After her death, her cousin Colonel Morden challenges her abductor to a duel in which Lovelace is killed.

—End of spoilers—

Clarissa presents several problems, which were apparent even to its earliest readers. The first is that the epistolary form involves a certain amount of repetition, and enforces a slow narrative pace. It is only at Letter 92 at the end of the novel's second volume that the first crisis in the plot is reached, and we are barely a quarter of the way through the book. Patience is definitely required. Richardson himself asked the friends to whom he showed the draft manuscript for suggestions about what he should cut—but then became offended at anyone who actually offered editing advice. Boswell recorded Samuel Johnson's comment that "if you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself. But you must read him for the sentiment, and consider the story as only giving occasion to the sentiment." [3]

The second problem is that, while Lovelace is indeed a black villain—a schemer and a bully, he has clearly deceived, abducted and raped a series of young women, some of whom have died as a result—he is also the book's liveliest and most dangerously charismatic character. He all but takes over as the narrator for the middle third of the book; in later editions Richardson felt he had to add significant details to remind us of how nasty he is, lest we find him too charming.

And the third problem is Clarissa herself. With all of her virtues and wisdom, she is almost too perfect. Towards the end of the novel, Clarissa's piety and equanimity come to seem excessive (if there can be such a thing as excessive equanimity). Her fate inspires our dismay, perhaps, more readily than it excites our sympathy. It is the idealization of Richardson's heroines that drove Henry Fielding to satirize him so mercilessly in Shamela (1741), and to implicitly decry a morality—accepted unquestioningly by Richardson's heroines—that held an unmarried woman's virginity to be more important than her life.

I'm going on to read Pamela, which has many parallels to Clarissa. However, I can't help but feel that Burney, Austen, and the other women writers who followed Richardson's model improved on it. Clarissa and Pamela are paragons of perfection; Evelina and Marianne are allowed to be flawed, complex, recognizably human in their failings, and as a result, for this reader, at least, more fully sympathetic.


1. The available version seems to be the one prepared for Project Gutenberg by Julie C. Sparks, although the Project Gutenberg credit has been removed.

2. The nearest year to which the days and dates of the letters correspond is 1747; the first two volumes of Clarissa were published in December of that year.

3. James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, Oxford University Press, 1965, p. 480.