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Reviewed by:
  • Ritual in Early Modern Europe
  • Gabriela Cruz
Opera and Politics: From Monteverdi to Henze. By John Bokina (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1997) 368 pp. $59.95

Bokina’s Opera and Politics combines his academic expertise in political theory and his lifelong interest in the “visual and aural spectacle of opera” in a series of elegantly written political exegeses of operatic texts (ix). He discusses the ideological elements of opera and traces the “trajectory of western politics; the ascendancy and demise of the aristocratic rule, the troubled reign of the commercial middle classes, the failed search for a radical alternative” in various works from Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607) to Hans Werner Henze’s Bassarids (1966) (12).

Bokina views opera as an ideologically reactive genre, absorbing and mirroring contemporary achievements in the realm of the ideas. Accordingly, he discusses Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Ulisse, and Poppea in light of the Niccolò Machievelli-inspired political values of absolutism; describes Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni as a celebratory text on the demise of absolutist ideology in the late eighteenth century; reads Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fidelio as an operatic embodiment of the political morality of the French Revolution; explains Richard Wagner’s Parsifal as a political utopia, the product of the spirit of political disillusionment of the postrevolutionary era; and sees in Richard Strauss’ Elektra and Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung an expression of the fascination with hysteria of the new century, after the writings of Sigmund Freud. Bokina’s analysis of the twentieth century shifts in focus, as he recognizes that in Germany, the institution of opera became aware of its center-stage role in politics by the 1920s. He describes Hans Pfitzner’s reactionary defense of the artist as the trustee of a sacred national tradition in Palestrina, Paul Hindemith’s disquisitions on the apolitical nature of true artistry in Mathis der Maler, as well as Schoenberg’s modernist reflections on the strained relation between art and politics in Moses und Aron.

Bokina concentrates mostly on libretti, avoiding the political dimensions of artistic creation, reception, and performance. Consequently, his interpretations are sometimes at odds with the historical evidence that surrounds the creation and early reception of the pieces. For example, he views the character of Don Giovanni as an accomplished example of a “premodern life of pleasure and privilege” (61), dying as a martyr for “the tradition of his premodern aesthetic existence” (63). [End Page 300] This reading entirely ignores that Giovanni became the hero and operatic obsession of the Romantics and was famously described by Hoffmann as an embodiment of romantic subjectivity, a soul continuously yearning for metaphysical liberation. 1 Similarly, while he rightly recognizes that Parsifal is not truly a work of historical, and therefore political, representation, but rather a utopian view of a never-never-land of human relations, he does not mention that the context of its performance was politically charged from the beginning. By the end of the century, Parsifal had became a fundamental aesthetic icon to the emerging Christian nationalisms sweeping through the European political landscape.

In his analyses, Bokina portrays music as a mimetic force, underlying more or less subserviently the dramatic content of the libretti. He writes about Strauss’ Elektra:

If Hofmannsthal’s drama and text internalize the politics of Sophocles Electra and give the story instead a highly charged psychological atmosphere, Strauss’s score intensifies the transformation. His leitmotifs, chromatic tonality and waltz rhythms heighten and clarify the psychology of the opera. . . . The most intriguing and revealing element of Strauss’s score is his use of waltz tunes and rhythms. . . . To the frenzied rhythms of an ever-quickening waltz, Elektra, the central figure in this aesthetic representation of Viennese psychological sensitivity, dances herself to death.


To Bokina, the orchestra delivers a coherent understanding of the drama, standing in for Strauss’ historically informed viewpoint on Elektra’s madness. However, he ignores that mad Elektra also serves as a narrator in the opera. The heroine claims to be the source of the music pouring from beyond the stage, and as Abbate has noted, the waltz tunes and rhythms, which to Bokima contain Strauss’ ironic portrayal of Elektra’s madness, actually...

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pp. 300-301
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