Notes 60.1 (2003) 185-187
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Musikalisches Drama und Boulevard: Französische Einflüsse auf die italienische Oper im 19. Jahrhundert. By Sebastian Werr. (Schriftenreihe für Wissenschaft und Forschung.) Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler, 2002. [vii, 242 p. ISBN 3-476-45291-3. DM 29.90.] Music examples, bibliography, index.
Dealing with Italian opera of the nineteenth century, one is tempted to focus on [End Page 185] the mainstream, from Gioacchino Rossini to Giacomo Puccini and with major spotlights on Vincenzo Bellini, Gaetano Donizetti, and Giuseppe Verdi. Recent research, however, has turned to a more context-oriented perspective. Consideration of social, institutional, and aesthetic issues cause questions such as the following to arise: What functions did opera have in social life of the specific culture of Italian cities? How were these functions influenced by the decisive changes in the political and economic life of nineteenth-century Italy? How do different genres of opera relate to different types of audiences? All of these issues have a considerable impact on the formal, dramatic, and musical structure of the works themselves. Over the years the Forschungsinstitut für Musiktheater of the Universität Bayreuth has undertaken significant context-related research; this is reflected by numerous publications about the interrelationship of genre, social and political status, and the history of drama as important catalysts for development of opera style (see, for example, Sieghart Döhring and Sabine Henze-Döhring, Oper und Musikdrama im 19. Jahrhundert [Laaber: Laaber, 1997]). The book considered here, by Sebastian Werr (a former student of Döhring), investigates the French influence on Italian opera and is based on his dissertation on the subject, Studien zum französischen Einfluss auf die italienische Oper in der Mitte des 19. Jahrhunderts (Ph.D. diss., Universität Bayreuth, 2001).
Werr's book offers a diverse view of the topic. He is never bound by mere musicological methods, but includes interdisciplinary discussions such as the theory of drama, the aesthetics of opera and literature, censorship politics, libretto studies, and general history. He provides the reader with an impressive number of original quotations in Italian, French, and even the Neapolitan dialect. If one adds to this mix the English-language literature quoted, the reader must continuously deal with four languages (the quotes in Neapolitan dialect are accompanied by a German translation) —quite a challenge, since the fluency of the written text is repeatedly interrupted by these often ample quotations. Nevertheless, this would be a most worthwhile publication even if one were to consider only the more difficult-to-access material it presents (although it sometimes relates to rather obscure works and composers).
The topics of Werr's book are as diverse as the sources. With his introductory remarks about the change of the function of opera in Italian society—from a more exclusive aristocratic art to a more popular form of entertainment—he describes the conditions that allowed the more "modern" French aesthetics of opera to modify the traditionally conservative Italian opera style. The adaptation of genres such as mélodrame, vaudeville, and opéra bouffe, as well as the use of French librettos, subjects, and compositional models, is discussed as the result of an immense need for librettos and operatic works. Werr states that in 1870 there were 957 theaters in 711 Italian towns that played opera and all its related genres at least occasionally (p. 9). The teatri minori functioned in the nineteenth century like movie theaters in the twentieth (p. 11), and the subjects of the libretti came from popular French novels that no longer required a classical education. This opened the doors of the theaters to a diverse audience (p. 11). Even English plays were adopted in arrangements from Paris that introduced features of French dramaturgy into the original. Aesthetic issues of French romantic literature, as they were formulated and applied by Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas (father and son), Théophile Gautier, and others were adopted to revise the traditional dramaturgy of the Italian stage. According to these principal tendencies, features of French music theater—more elaborated staging...