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Melodramatic Voices: Understanding Music Drama ed. by Sarah Hibberd (review)
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This is an important and useful book, not least in demonstrating that here the answer to the question ‘What’s in a name?’ is: ‘Quite a lot of uncertainly compatible things, some of which are liable to bite.’ Sarah Hibberd, our intrepid editor and also the contributor of a good chapter on Chelard’s Macbeth, gets the ball rolling in business-like fashion. Her Introduction reminds us that the Paris boulevard-theatre genre of ‘mélodrame à grand spectacle’ arose in the wake of the Revolution and became associated particularly with the dramas of Pixérécourt, whose racy plots turned upon a clear moral struggle between good and evil, and generated suspense, heightened emotion, and sensational climaxes that involved ‘excess’ in varying manifestations. One of these was the strategic accompaniment of orchestral music, long considered a hidden source for the later techniques of silent-film accompaniment. Her main cited guides and sources are, almost inevitably, Peter Brooks’s classic 1976 study The Melodramatic Imagination (reissued in 1995) and Ben Singer’s more recent Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and its Contexts (New York, 2001).

Here, then, are the features that define what Hibberd and most of her authors are fundamentally interested in: a dramatic genre with a specific history but wide ramifications. Melodrama has spawned a vital and ever-extending field of study that has come to include a range of musical-dramatic forms, like opera and popular film, and a corresponding repertory of interpretative strategies, from gender criticism to theories of ‘voice’. More than one of Hibberd’s contributors accordingly nuances or extends her introductory definition. Jens Hesselager reminds us (p. 28) of Peter Brooks’s comments about the ‘quasi-operatic’qualities of melodrama as depending upon a type of ‘unrepressed speech’ that ‘breaks through’ the reality principle. Philip Carli stresses the element of ‘grand spectacle’, while Jessica Payette, in a surprising essay on Schoenberg’s Erwartung, takes us back to Brooks’s nuancing of his own definition of the genre as avoiding ‘internal psychology’ of the kind that might betray conflicting motivations and prompting in one or other of the leading characters.

More important for the understanding of the field-generating richness of musical melodrama that is shared by most of Hibberd’s contributors is what Nanette Nielsen homes in on, in her contribution, as the crucial factor of melodrama’s roots in popular culture. This is further nuanced by Fiona Ford’s insistence, in an entertaining chapter on The Wizard of Oz, that melodramas have come to be specifically defined by film scholars in terms of the popular legibility of their ‘excess of sensation and sentiment’—something that of course removes melodrama from the progressive narrative of modernism. Not so, however, for all of the contributors, some of whom seem to take as their starting point that other, older, and more specifically music-historical definition of melodrama as accompanied recitation. In fact, Marian Wilson Kimber’s essay on women’s recitation of popular poems to musical accompaniment in America between 1880 and 1935 is important in its own right, but other contributors more narrowly follow the ‘speech-plus-music’mode of definition, like John Tyrrell, in his rather conventional, but in its way useful, cataloguing of all of the relatively few instances of ‘melodrama’, in this restricted sense, in the works of Leoš Janáček. And then there is Jacqueline Waeber. Her essay ‘The Voice-Over as “Melodramatic Voice”’ is a rather wilful piece of French theorizing (the agenda is stated and embraced as she is drawn inexorably on p. 255 by the ‘peculiar French attraction to voice in film’ to the nouvelle vague). Waeber boldly asserts that speech and music not only ‘have nothing in common’, but that melodramatic recitation with music is a mode leading not to musicalized speech so much as one that depends upon a rejection of ‘singing’ in what she sees as a kind of performance that also rejects all ‘theatrical paraphernalia’. Waeber will have nothing of low-brow or popular entertainment but rather works towards melodrama’s appropriation as a mode of esoteric modernist ‘anxiety’. Paradoxically, Jessica Payette’s ostensibly related essay on Erwartung actually insists that its designation as...

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