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Reviewed by:
  • Recognition in Mozart’s Operas, and: Mozart and His Operas
  • Bruce Redford (bio)
Jessica Waldoff: Recognition in Mozart’s Operas; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006; 352 Pages, $45.00
David Cairns: Mozart and His Operas; Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006; 301 Pages, $29.95

Prima la musica, dopo le parole: this memorable saying bespeaks a conviction that operatic texts are at best pre-texts, that the librettist is the “serva” (the Susanna) and not the “consorte” (the Countess) of the composer. As Charles Rosen declares [End Page 557] in his review of Philip Gossett’s Divas and Scholars, “in opera music is primary.” Rosen’s incisive essay, tellingly called “Opera: Follow the Music,” takes directors to task in terms that reinstate the proverbial hierarchy: “Music and drama enhance each other at every point, and a dramatic effect unrepresented in the music, or not consonant with the music, has no right of entry.”1 For all their differences of method and purpose, both books under review interrogate, complicate, and even undermine such views. In so doing, they enrich our understanding of opera as a multifaceted medium.

The allusion to Aristotelian anagnorisis in the title of Jessica Waldoff ’s important new study signals an approach that might be summarized as “Opera: Follow the Plot.” Waldoff advances her main argument clearly and forcefully at the outset: “The conclusions of these operas, whether buffa or seria, whether Italian or German, culminate in a moral, philosophical, or other ‘truth’ that recognition brings” (3). Waldoff reworks and extends this thesis at the beginning of her second chapter, “Recognition Scenes in Theory and Practice”: “What these works have in common. . .is that recognition serves as a key to the drama and brings (or attempts to bring) with it a moral, emotional, philosophical, political, or other form of enlightenment” (44). As the book proceeds, Waldoff historicizes this claim by moving from “enlightenment” to “Enlightenment”: “[Mozart’s] works may be taken as representative of a shift in the meaning of recognition in eighteenth-century culture toward the idea that human destiny was no longer controlled by birthright, and that all men could attain equality through education, industry, and individual merit” (75). As part of her contextualizing strategy, Waldoff devotes particular attention to such works as La finta giardiniera and Così; fan tutte, which are rooted in a culture of sensibility and sentimentality.

Though Waldoff ’s foundational text is Aristotle’s Poetics, Terence Cave’s Recognitions: A Study in Poetics (1988) does even more to sharpen her approach toward “opera’s complex dynamic of action, text, and music” (80). It is to Cave that Waldoff owes one of her key concepts, the “double character of recognition,” which refers to the role recognition can play as both theme and plot device. Waldoff links this concept to a second double meaning, recognition in the sense both of “new awareness” and “re-cognition” (6). Far from being archly decorative, this pun introduces several of the book’s most penetrating discussions of reminiscence as the catalyst for epiphany. Tamino’s “O ew’ge Nacht,” for example, recollects and reverses the Queen of the Night’s “O zitt’re nicht”—a sign that light has begun to penetrate the prince’s darkness.

Waldoff herself seeks to illuminate the interpretive darkness created by “the dominant analytical tradition” and its “bias against the libretto, which is to say, against both text and plot” (83). Both explicitly and implicitly, Recognition in Mozart’s Operas espouses a more fluid, less hierarchical understanding of the relations between musica and parole. “Insofar as opera is a species of drama,” [End Page 558] Waldoff insists, “the music necessarily functions with respect to the articulation of theme and plot; it remains one aspect of operatic plotting in general” (87). In what amounts to an extended rebuttal of Rosen’s position, she calls for a more supple sense of opera’s attributes and resources: “At times the primary vehicle of expression, at others subsidiary, the music must always be understood in terms of its relation to text and action, which may be one of correspondence, conflict, or even apparent independence” (103).

Waldoff launches her inquiry through a subtle case study...


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pp. 557-563
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