- Three Faces of Opera Study: Reception, Money, Performing Practice
A review article raises expectations of a harvest of recent books on a circumscribed topic—in most humanistic journals, for instance, books on a canonical figure or a historical period. This essay brings together books that might seem to have nothing in common: a reception study of one of the most revered works in the repertory, a piece of archival research surrounding the institutional framework of a brief period of early opera, and a history of the often controversial decisions involved in creating performing texts of early nineteenth-century Italian opera. What holds these books together is the fact that they are all exemplary texts within that burgeoning field we have come to call opera studies. For the last two decades or more, a significant number of volumes (not to speak of individual essays) have theorized on the nature of opera in relation to other genres or have applied insights from a variety of disciplines to illuminate particular periods, composers, or generic aspects of opera. The three books under consideration—two by musicologists and one a group of essays largely by scholars outside music—all illustrate the variety of approaches available to those who seek to unlock the operatic past in unaccustomed ways.
Goehr and Herwitz’s collection of essays on Don Giovanni is no ordinary reception study of the sort one tends to find in the final chapter of handbooks on [End Page 546] particular operas. This opera occupies a unique place in the repertory, for it has left a mark on subsequent intellectual and cultural history like no other operatic work, with the possible exception of Tristan und Isolde. (A volume on Tristan based on the same principles as this volume would be most welcome.) What this book is centrally concerned with is how Don Giovanni has interacted actively—indeed, obtrusively—with the work of some major thinkers and composers for nearly two centuries after its composition.
Richard Eldridge and Hans Rudolf Vaget, for instance, look carefully at two major pieces of German prose fiction centered on the opera: respectively, E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Don Juan and Eduard Mörike’s Mozart auf der Reise nach Prag. Eldridge presents Hoffmann’s piece as an enactment of “a wish to . . . surrender to the music, to feel with it” (44, italics in original). The romanticization that Hoffmann enacts is concretized through the story’s assertion that Donna Anna had actually surrendered physically to Giovanni, and that the soprano playing the part in a fictitious performance in the novella herself dies the night after her performance. Vaget’s discussion of Mörike’s novella shows not so much a romanticization of the opera as “a retrospective glorification of Vienna and Weimar classicism that was typical of nineteenth-century Germany” (72).
Don Giovanni’s relation to later drama occupies a major part of The “Don Giovanni” Moment. Ernst Osterkamp, for example, examines the interactions between Mozart’s opera and the Faust story beginning with Goethe, who was aware of the analogies between those parts of his Faust written before he knew the opera and those later parts that showed the impact of the opera. Like a number of the volume’s contributors, Osterkamp discusses the romanticizing of the two myths within one and the same work, in his case Christian Dietrich Grabbe’s Don Juan und Faust. A number of essays look at later dramatic works that rethink aspects of Don Giovanni. Boris Gasparov presents Pushkin’s dramatic poem The Stone Guest as refusing to choose between the romanticizing of the character in, say, Byron and Hoffmann and the unselfconsciousness of Mozart’s hero. By contrast, the various plays and operas (as well...