- Divas and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera
From the very first pages of his volume Philip Gossett sets the tone for his investigation: he identifies himself as "a fan, a musician, and a scholar," making it clear that these three aspects are, to him, inextricably linked. Being a serious scholar and theater practitioner, he would find it absurd to write on a subject about which one is neither passionate nor an expert. The book is a pure pleasure to read, and makes the reader wonder why so much scholarship does not follow the same simple guidelines that Gossett follows. Divas and Scholars defends the merits of Italian opera against its detractors, and discusses the problems involved in determining which versions are more accurate, and which liberties directors and conductors have taken, and can take, staging operas by Rossini, Verdi, Bellini, and Donizetti in particular. Sound historical research, philological reconstruction, technical observations about music, staging history of specific pieces, second-hand (from documented sources) and first-hand, behind-the-scenes gossip are the elements of this highly enjoyable analysis. But what makes this book unique is not just the author's knowledge, but also its readability: it appeals to scholars who can appreciate the technical aspects of choosing one note over another, to theater and performance studies researchers, and to opera fans alike. Having been involved in countless productions, Gossett knows the importance of the relationship between the history of an opera and the practice of each performance. He also knows that a successful production is born out of teamwork, and divas alone do not make or break a production.
The book is itself structured as an opera: there are two distinct acts, a prologue, an intermezzo, and a coda. The prologue, as any good ouverture should, sets the tone: through the discussion of specific examples of productions at two summer festivals, the "Santa Fe Opera Festival" in New Mexico and the "Rossini Festival" in Pesaro, Gossett identifies the problems that may arise during the staging of opera. He draws from first-hand [End Page 197] experience as consultant, provider of critical editions, and advisor at both locations. Unlike theater, where the relationship of a director with an existing text is a negotiation about which parts to keep and, perhaps, which translation to choose, staging an opera involves a director and a conductor, text and music, and the often hard task of deciding which is the most accredited version of a score. In fact, when talking about nineteenth-century Italian opera, staging depends on a vast array of variables. What the book makes very clear is that it is close to impossible to establish that one single score is exactly what the author wrote and intended. Authors themselves rewrote their scores and re-arranged orchestra parts; they reshaped arias to suit particular singers; they had manuscript versions that would often be pilfered and passed as 'real' by unscrupulous opera-goers in the market for a quick gain; they would reuse some parts of previous operas in newer ones (Rossini is notorious for this), and so forth. In short: in a country not unified until the end of the nineteenth-century, the issue of copyright and publishing of scores approved and signed by the author is a particularly thorny one. Moreover, even when original scores do exist, it happens that a modified version has become part of tradition, and any philological attempt to use what the author intended ends up disappointing twentieth-century audiences used to versions canonized by a tradition that in some cases began as late as the 1950s. Social, music, and textual histories are equally important factors to be considered when dealing with twentieth-century performances of nineteenth-century operas.
Part 1, "Knowing the Score," thoroughly examines the many elements that make up a musical score and libretto. Composers were usually hired by a specific theater to write an opera destined to be performed by singers hired for an entire season. As a result, the relationship of a composer with his librettist in the nineteenth century...