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  • Grand Opéra in Preunified Italy:Metamorphoses of a Political Genre
  • Gloria Staffieri (bio)

The crucial problem concerning the assimilation of grand opéra in preunified Italy has not been sufficiently examined in scholarly studies. The small amount of research carried out in this field has mainly dealt with the translations of French operas by Rossini, Donizetti, and Meyerbeer.1 These studies have given a general impression of an imported grand opéra that—especially in the period 1830–50—had little significance and limited diffusion, hobbled, in those few cases that actually crossed the Alps, by bad translations, illogical cuts, and difficulties in both the production and the performance. This unique genre would have met with insurmountable structural problems related to the subdivision in more productive centers of Italian context. Seasonal, with relatively small forces and precarious financial resources, such a system was not able to handle the vast and expensive Parisian productions that relied on a stable repertory and a strongly centralized system. Two further crucial factors contributed to this marginality: given the intrinsic political nature of grand opéra, related to the revolution of the French middle class in 1830, its content would not have been easily assimilated in an Italy dominated by reactionary governments and foreign rule. Furthermore, the basic elements of grand opéra dramaturgy—the tableau and its grandiose and spectacular character—would not have found much common ground with an Italian opera that was based on fare svelto ("hasty doing"—as Verdi later observed) and on an economy of expressive means. It is therefore not surprising that the phenomenon of grand opéra in preunified Italy has not solicited further research.

All things considered, however, this view appears less than convincing. The Italian operatic stage of the 1830s and 1840s appears to have been far less "staid" than one might expect from abstract interpretive models. Three factors in particular made the situation more dynamic: (a) the Parisian experiences of several Italian composers invited by Rossini to the Théâtre Italien (in particular Donizetti, Bellini, and Saverio Mercadante), which induced the rethinking of standard procedures and forms of Italian opera;2 (b) the work of cultural mediation by intellectuals such as Giuseppe Mazzini, who approved of the new [End Page 203] historical French subject matter (as it was open to political interpretation);3 and (c) the "commercial" interests of certain impresarios, above all Alessandro Lanari, who understood the spectacular potential of grand opéra and its ability to satisfy the demands of the new Italian middle class.4

It is necessary therefore to consider this distinctive mix of creative stimuli, expectations, and interests when embarking on the study of grand opéra in Italy. The image of this phenomenon may in fact change if it is filtered through the dialectic between the tendency toward renewal and the resistance from the operatic and political establishments, or if it is interpreted as a simple differential analysis between two contrasting and internally little-variegated models (French opera versus Italian opera). The purpose of this article is to observe this phenomenon from a new perspective. A general survey of imported grand opéra is presented first, followed by the examination of two cases in which the strategies of transformation employed by Italian authors illustrate the complexity of the problem.

Let us begin by observing that research to date on this subject has overlooked a fundamental factor: once across the Alps, it was indeed possible to treat a grand opéra in a variety of ways. Listed below are the principal types:

  • Translation: Text and music of the translated opera remained "essentially" faithful to text and music of the original opera.5

  • Revision: The derived text modified (more or less in its entirety) the original text but conserved the original music (or made minimal changes).

  • Adaptation: Both the text and the music were created ex novo; the original source, although recognized, was the inspirational model for the derived opera.

  • Transposition: Both the text and the music of the grand opéra could "migrate" to another genre, that is, used as material for another type of spectacle, in particular, ballet.6

Table 1 shows the phase of the initial impact...


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