Notes 59.2 (2002) 348-350
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Verdi in Performance. Edited by Alison Latham and Roger Parker. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. [xii, 196 p. ISBN 0-19-816735-0. $49.95.] Music examples, illustrations, index.
So much has changed both inside and beyond the opera house since Verdi's time that directors, conductors, and performers justifiably approach his works with little confidence as to the nature or appropriateness of attempting "the authentic." For many of the operas, our knowledge of the first performances is incomplete and confusing, while for some, we have production manuals describing the premieres in detail. But is it practical to attempt a faithful restoration? What worked in the Venice of 1850 may seem impractical or absurd in the Houston, Stuttgart, or London of 2002. What does the score suggest? What does it leave out? When should we bend to "tradition," even if new resources indicate that it is "wrong"?
Verdi in Performance summarizes the current state of research in the fertile, yet surprisingly underdeveloped field of Verdi performance. Latham's and Parker's volume presents essays first delivered at the 1995 conference "Performing Verdi," at Covent Garden, organized by Verdi scholars Martin Chusid, director of the American Institute for Verdi Studies in New York, and Pierluigi Petrobelli, director of the Istituto nazionale di studi verdiani in Parma. The book is organized around four articles about key performance practice areas, with responses to each by a variety of academicians, directors, conductors, and critics. In addition to the ubiquitous matter of ornamentation, the topics include the Ricordi performance manuals, the inclusion of ballets, and controversies surrounding the Verdi critical editions. An informal set of suggestions for further reading replaces a formal bibliography at the end of each article, which is surprising considering the book's overall thoroughness.
The editors provide two extremely helpful appendices. The first offers a complete chronological list of Verdi's operas, with libretti, sources, and locations and dates of first performances. The other gives a chronology of Verdi's life and times, including corresponding events in music, literature, art, philosophy, and architecture. The overall result of the collection is a fascinating, stimulating collection of reference materials, research, opinions, and arguments about four critical areas of Verdi scholarship. It serves as an excellent discussion of "where we are," with many suggestions for future exploration.
After a comprehensive introduction by Parker and Latham, James Hepokoski inaugurates the debate with his discussion of the eight Ricordi production books (first chronicled by David Rosen and H. Robert Cohen in the late 1970s and 1980s) which detail the initial performances of each Verdi opera, from Les vêpres siciliennes to Otello. Hepokoski notes that even when premiered, some of these stagings were already seen as old-fashioned and "unnatural" (p. 15); the extent to which Verdi gave each his blessing is unknown. While it might be tempting to call the productions described therein "authentic," and "definitive," they incur a host of contextual, cultural, and practical problems. Better seen as historical documents than timeless instructions on staging, Hepokoski notes that these manuals do provide invaluable information worthy of attention. They provide "snapshots of important productions and premières, glimpses into initially established, authorially sanctioned traditions, and insights into the psychology and aesthetics of stage productions in the late nineteenth century" (p. 14). In response, Andrew Porter notes that as a director, he has used these manuals to clarify plot [End Page 348] movements, address production problems, and even prevent stage mishaps. David Rosen calls our attention to discrepancies between directions in the score and libretto, and these production books. He notes, "At least in the case of Otello the staging manual is a more complete, more definitive source of Verdi's 'intentions' than the libretto or score" (p. 30). Referring to Un ballo in maschera, movements described in the staging book amplify the plot direction and extend far beyond the decorative into the realm of essential. Harold Powers addresses the issue of "whether stage directions should be considered part of the text" (p. 34), and then delves into the issue of lighting. John Rosselli warns...