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METASTASIO'S libretto Achille in Sciro provides the great warrior Achilles with a unique opportunity to redefine the nature of operatic heroism, albeit from a peculiar vantage point. In one of the librettist's rare excursions into the world of male cross-dressing, Achilles (Achille) spends much of the opera in female clothing: his mother Thetis (Teti) upon learning of her son's destiny to perish in the Trojan war, dresses him as a young woman, Pyrrha (Pirra), and hides him away in the court of King Lycomedes (Licomede) at Skyros (Sciro). Fortunately for Lycomedes' daughter, Deidamia, Achilles' transvestism does not prevent him from demonstrating his skill at love-making. The two young `women' enjoy a sincere, reciprocal--if seemingly unconventional--affection. Their idyllic love is threatened only by the arrival of Ulysses (Ulisse), who awakens Achilles' dormant masculinity to fight for the Trojans.(1) The opera provides the usual happy conclusion that takes little account of the dire fate awaiting Achilles at Troy: the hero reestablishes his masculinity and embraces his destiny to fight the Trojans, all the while honouring his commitment to love and marry Deidamia. Love and glory are proved compatible, and Metastasio again succeeds in creating an entertainment that not only celebrates those virtues appropriate to the occasion for which it was conceived--the wedding of Maria Theresa and Francis Stephen, the Duke of Lorraine, 13 February 1736--but also expresses a moral stance that is sufficiently homogenous so as to satisfy the requirements of a variety of political, social and artistic situations, despite this atypical use of male transvestism.(2)
The climax of the opera--and the pivotal moment in Achilles' demonstration of masculinity and operatic heroism--occurs at the centre of Act 2: Ulysses places weapons among the jewels and other feminine baubles intended for the young ladies and stages an attack on the kingdom, thus tricking the young warrior into revealing his true identity and gender. This scene would have been familiar to Metastasio and his audiences. Achilles discovered among the daughters of Lycomedes was a most popular subject for European artists from the 16th century to the early 19th, and was painted more often than any other episode in the hero's life.(3) The focus of the paintings is almost invariably a highly feminized Achilles who is differentiated from Deidamia and the other court women only by his interest in the weapons hidden among Ulysses' gifts. This is shown, for example, in Nicholas Poussin's Achilles and the daughters of Lycomedes (C. 1650), in which a surprised Deidamia and Ulysses gaze at Achilles as he plays with the sword (illus.1). A similar approach is taken in Pompeo Girolamo Batoni's Achilles at the court of Lycomedes (illus.2), where once again it is only Achilles' interest in the gleaming sword that hints at his dubious masculinity.
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This scene was also represented in 17th-century Italian opera. La finta pazza (Venice, 1641), with a libretto by Giulio Strozzi and music by Francesco Sacrati, was one of the most widely disseminated of all Venetian operas. The subject was revisited in another opera with the same title as Metastasio's libretto: Achille in Sciro (Ferrara, 1663; Venice, 1664), with music by Giovanni Legrenzi and a libretto attributed to Ippolito Bentivoglio.(4) The frontispiece to the libretto depicts Ulysses dangling jewels in front of Achilles (illus.3).
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The transformation of this mythic moment for operatic purposes could not have been more appropriate. Like both Apollo and Orpheus before him, Achilles possessed the necessary musical skills that made his appearance on the operatic stage plausible. For example, in Achilles and Chiron (illus.4), another painting based on Achilles' life, Batoni vividly depicts the centaur Chiron instructing Achilles on the lyre; here Achilles' masculinity could not be more ambiguous: Batoni cleverly superimposes the arm and tail of the centaur against the hero's softened body so as to conceal the defining features of his biological sex.(5) The ancients also linked Achilles' relationship with Deidamia to his skill in music, as is shown in the Roman sarcophagus in illus.5.
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Many ancient and modern treatments associate the moment of Achilles' discovery in Skyros with music and dance, which usually function as indicators of masculinity or femininity. For example, both Pseudo-Apollodorus and Hyginus report that Ulysses used the sound of a trumpet to trick Achilles into revealing himself.(6)
Bred at this court, Achilles had an intrigue with Deidamia, daughter of Lycomedes, and a son Pyrrhus was born to him, who was afterwards called Neoptolemus. But the secret of Achilles was betrayed, and Ulysses, seeking him at the court of Lycomedes, discovered him by the blast of a trumpet. (Pseudo-Apollodorus, 3.13.8)(7)
The Roman poet Statius, who provides a more detailed exposition of the myth, also speaks of the trumpet, yet places it in opposition with the more feminine pastime of dancing. Lycomedes allows Ulysses and his men to spy upon the women as they dance, and they observe Achilles' apparent awkwardness and inability to keep step with the other women.
Already they begin to move, and the Ismenian pipe gives the signal to the dancers; four times they beat the cymbals of Rhea, four times the maddening drums, four times they trace their manifold windings. Then together they raise and lower their wands, and complicate their steps, now in such fashion as the Curetes and devout Samothracians use, now turning to face each other in the Amazonian comb, now in the ring wherein the Delian sets the Laconian girls a-dancing, and whirls them shouting her praises into her own Amyclae. Then indeed, then above all is Achilles manifest; then more than ever does he scorn the delicate steps, the womanly attire, and brooks the dance and mightily disturbs the scene. (Statius, Achilleid, I, 826-38)(8)
The critical moment arrives as the women contemplate the gifts laid out by Ulysses:
Alas! how simple and untaught, who knew not the cunning of the gifts nor Grecian fraud nor Ulysses' many wiles! Thereupon the others, prompted by nature and their ease-loving sex, try the shapely wands or the timbrels that answer to the blow, and fasten jewelled bands around their temples; the weapons they behold, but think them as a gift to their mighty sire. But the bold son of Aeceas no sooner saw before him the gleaming shield encased with battle-scenes--by chance too it shone red with the fierce stains of war--and leaning against the spear, then he shouted loud and rolled his eyes, and his hair rose up from his brow; forgotten were his mother's words, forgotten his secret love, and Troy fills all breasts ... Already was he stripping his body of the robes, when Agyrtes, so commanded, blew a great blast upon the trumpet: the fits are scattered, and they flee and fall with prayers before their sire and believe that battle is joined. But from his breast the raiment fell without his touching, already the shield and puny spear are lost within the grasp of his hand--marvellous to believe! and he seemed to surpass by head and shoulders the Ithacan and the Aetolian chief: with a sheen so awful does the sudden blaze of arms and martial fire dazzle the palace-hall. (Statius, Achilleid, I, 845, 857, 875-82)
Metastasio's libretto, most appropriately, replaces dance with singing, while also eliminating the voyeurism suggested in Statius' description. Ulysses and his men are entertained by Achilles through the use of an operatic convention that was already standard--the song within the opera. Achilles, disguised as Pyrrha, sits at Deidamia's feet, drinking out of her glass and listening with increasingly rapt attention to Ulysses' tales of war. Unlike Achilles the dancer, however, the operatic hero seems to suffer no awkwardness in his attempts at artistic expression: Lycomedes apparently recognizes Pyrrha's musical ability; he does not call upon his daughter Deidamia to sing, but …