- Opera and Modern Spectatorship in Late Nineteenth-Century Italy by Alessandra Campana
What does the late nineteenth-century musical scene look like when we consider opera primarily as a medium? And what happens when we consider the fundamental move made in fine secolo musical culture to have been renewed insistence on opera's medial dimensions? In one of the most important books to be written about late nineteenth-century Italian music, Alessandra Campana demonstrates that, while opera's communicative powers have always been crucial to our experience of it, this historical moment marked the start of an extended process in which opera was institutionalized, and its powers of communication regulated. Forms of control over the operatic product shifted and, more than ever before, publishers positioned themselves as intermediaries between the composer and the public. Beginning in the 1850s, the publisher Casa Ricordi issued a series of disposizioni sceniche (staging manuals) whose detailed instructions, in combination with scores and libretti, could travel across the world as an 'all-inclusive product' (p. 4) that carried the imprimatur of the composer, even when he had no personal involvement in the performance. At the same time, publishers such as Ricordi and Sonzogno owned and directed periodicals with considerable circulation, granting them unprecedented levels of influence on musical taste.
These circumstances form the rationale for the focus of the book: Boito's Mefistofele, Verdi's Simon Boccanegra and Otello, Puccini's Manon Lescaut, and Mascagni's score for the silent film Rapsodia satanica are each discussed in dedicated chapters that aim to account for these works 'up to the moment when opera and spectators meet' (p. 14). The result is a set of close readings in which individual works begin to emerge as the result of calculated attempts to control their mode of address. At a time when the close reading of music has come to seem almost narcissistic, the force of Campana's [End Page 300] detailed claims about these works reminds us that such attitudes come at considerable cost. Campana's are some of the 'richest' readings we will ever have of Mefistofele or Manon Lescaut, and we would not want to dilute them in the name of self-consciousness about solipsism. Nor does her book constitute a return to old-school readings that hold sacred individual authorial intention. She builds her case with attention to multiple production texts that bolster one another and lend credence to the conclusions she reaches, taking the disposizioni sceniche in counterpoint with libretti and scores to understand the overall architecture of an opera, its internal divisions, its fractures, its moments of intensity. Individual authors are almost never invoked: instead Campana sees the four operas and the film each as the collective work of their collaborators and the manifestation of a nation keen to control iterations of its main cultural assets.
In several respects, this book marks an audacious departure from recent opera scholarship. For one, it is an unabashed consideration of what a work communicates rather than what an audience necessarily understands; a reflection on the message sent much more than the message received. The works under consideration meet with little resistance in the auditorium; periodical reviews are rarely harnessed to reveal tensions between the production- and reception-side of the operatic or filmic encounter. Campana never states this outright, but in a moment when media studies are on the rise within musicology, there is perhaps a deeper point being made here: that 'mass media' such as newspapers are not much more clear-cut vehicles for communication than other forms available to us. One of the book's undeclared premisses is that scores and the various paratexts that collected around an opera in the late nineteenth century can be mined for evidence of what works meant for listeners, and that they can furnish at least as much precision as can reviews. This stance becomes subtly suggestive when we approach operas fundamentally as media, not least because it puts both musical scores and reviews on...