Notes 59.2 (2002) 367-369
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In Search of Opera. By Carolyn Abbate. (Princeton Studies in Opera.) Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001. [xvi, 290 p. ISBN 0-691-09003-3-5. $29.95.] Music examples, illustrations, bibliography, index.
Carolyn Abbate confronts the impossible in her latest book: music that human ears cannot hear, which "literally is not present," but that resonates nevertheless through operatic works from the baroque era to the present. Abbate's gruesome "master symbol" for this type of music (Orpheus's dismembered head) colorfully illustrates one of the driving impulses behind In Search of Opera. At the conclusion of the legend, this severed head sings as it floats down a river. Composers from Claudio Monteverdi on have avoided setting this moment, aware perhaps of the hopelessness of getting the music exactly right. Even so, Abbate suggests that this singing head poses compelling questions for all operatic production: What or who animates this uncanny, lifeless performer? And what would this music sound like if we could actually hear it?
In asking these questions, Abbate does not limit her discussion to the ephemeral. Rather, her concern lies with exploring the connections between this intangible music and the embodied elements of operatic performance—the sweating, spitting singers, the staging, the score, and so forth. Each of the book's five essays examines the coexistence of these seemingly irreconcilable realms, drawing sequentially from operatic repertory that spans four centuries (chapter 1 discusses Monteverdi's Orfeo, chapter 2 looks primarily at Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, chapter 3 concerns itself with Richard Wagner's operas, chapter 4 with Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande and other compositions, and chapter 5 focuses on Maurice Ravel). There is much in these essays to praise (only some of which I will be able to cover below), but the claim that sets off the most sparks and that resonates through all of the chapters is this: our traditional notion of the performance network might be reversed —maybe musicians are not the animating forces after all; maybe it is the music that gives life to otherwise dead performers. In Abbate's words, "perhaps musical pieces seek to manifest themselves repeatedly in the world and propel us into motion at their whim, whenever we are required for their purposes" (p. xiv).
As she explains in her introduction, she arrived at this idea in part through witnessing a handful of exceptional performances which "conveyed the impression that a work was being created at that moment, 'before one's eyes'" (p. xv). The singers and players were so extraordinary, in other words, that they seemed to be composing on the spot rather than reiterating a repertory work that had already received countless performances. (In this reaction one hears a distinct echo of Edward Cone's theoretical essays on opera performance [in particular "The World of Opera and Its Inhabitants," in Music: A View from Delft (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 125-38], as well as clear reminiscences of Abbate's own earlier writings [Unsung Voices (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991)].) From there, it is only a slight (and yet crucial) leap to the compellingly bizarre idea that a living musical work might be responsible, that its vibrations are powerful enough to find performers and to resonate through them, shaking them into life. It is during the moments when the extremes of production (the impossible and the embodied) come together that this phenomenon makes itself most explicitly known, and traces of music's force are reflected most powerfully in opera.
Within individual chapters, Abbate explores various sites where this collision occurs. "Magic Flute, Nocturnal Sun," for example, studies moments when the human voice blends into the mechanical, drawing examples from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte (Papageno's Glockenspiel aria, the Queen of the Night's "O zittre nicht," and the [End Page 367] Trial scene of the act 2 finale). In chapter 3, "Metempsychotic Wagner," she looks at unaccompanied song—utterances that reflect primal music in Wagner's operas. These moments are Janus-faced, she argues, pure in outward appearance, but also harboring...