- Opera in Theory and Practice, Image and Myth
This, the English translation of a book in the multivolume Storia dell'opera italiana, edited by Lorenzo Bianconi and Giorgio Pestelli,1 covers a wide range of operatic subjects. It deals with individual theories and methods of opera; further, it investigates how opera has been variously represented, whether faithfully or fancifully. As only the collective title makes clear, the focus throughout is on Italian opera—"the original opera and still the paradigm" (p. 106), as it is termed by the book's only non-Italian contributor, Carl Dahlhaus.
Half a dozen elaborate chapters, each roughly sixty to ninety pages long, constitute this effort. As befits a history book, the six authors all take a mainly chronological approach, but their handling of specifics in both style and substance creates telling contrasts. Two essays concern aesthetic questions involved in the inner workings of opera, whereas cultural issues and—for want of a better designation—operatic sociology prevail in the remaining four. Inevitably, thousands of words are devoted to understanding and appraising what has, at one time or another, been written about Italian opera.
Chapter 1, "Poetics and Polemics" by Renato di Benedetto, surveys scores of treatises and other documents in search of recurring or enduring arguments as to the proper nature of opera. Ideas expressed by Rinuccini in 1600 and by Busoni in 1907 are alike set forth, with the space given to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century views outweighing the pages assigned [End Page 182] to later years by a proportion of three to one. The strictures of outsiders like Saint-Évremond and Rousseau neatly sharpen the debate.
Prescriptive rather than descriptive modes of writing predominate, and comparisons of dramma per musica to spoken drama make repeated appearances. Divergent opinions may arise on many topics: e.g., opera as "legitimate heir to ancient tragedy" (p. 3); the relative merits of recitative versus song; the primacy of the composer or, alternatively, the librettist; the marvelous rather than verisimilitude as a suitable operatic ingredient; and an aim for "continuity which can represent the emotional dynamic" (p. 54). Again and again judgments are founded on a conception of musical drama that takes its essence to be the merging—or the yoking together—of words and music.
Since Benedetto has an eye for inconsistency and ambiguity, he is able to highlight the double response that the inescapable presence of opera's singers and song arouses: something that is a central element in actualizing a musical drama has seemed sometimes to exercise a debilitating power. In chapter 2, "The Dramaturgy of Italian Opera," Dahlhaus turns to a different task, wherein he has no duty to sift closely through the thoughts of others; for instance, having accepted singers and song as matters intrinsic to opera, he proceeds to explain their varied functions. More generally, unlike the sources cited by Benedetto, Dahlhaus finds that arguments about the "word-tone relationship" are "relatively unimportant" and rest on "a questionable premise" (p. 94).
Dahlhaus writes up his intricate reasoning in straightforward prose. (The English here is based on the German original rather than the Italian of the 1988 edition.) His discourse moves easily between sections refining a few fundamentals and detailed discussions of particular works or scenes that embody opera's underlying principles. At the heart of his thinking is this axiom: "As musical drama, and without necessarily banning theatricality, opera is founded on the idea that conflicts and confrontations between human beings can be represented on the stage in terms that are musical in substance" (p. 85).
Significantly, in this definition theatricality—evidenced in tableaux, rituals, dances, and all things spectacular and scenic—has a place, whereas neither plots nor stories nor intrigues are mentioned. Dahlhaus's emphasis falls both on the presence of the visual, onstage picture and on the attention to the moment that music enforces. The recounting of situations that precede the action and the hatching of subsequent plans are alike auxiliary features. For...