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Reviews389 David R. B. Kimbell. Italian Opera. National Tradition ofOpera Series. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Pp. xvii + 684. $24.95. Kimbell's 1981 study Verdi in the Age of Italian Romanticism brought fresh insight into our understanding of Verdi's creative genius. In his most recent volume he has turned his attention back to the origins of the Italian operatic tradition. A book making such a commitment faces the immense difficulty of presenting four centuries of opera in approximately seven hundred pages. Most authors founder either by presenting detail without generalization or conceptualization wimout empirical validation. Initially Kimbell appears to avoid both intellectual traps. But Italian Opera is a schizophrenic work. If it avoids the extreme problems of a book covering so vast a subject, it falls prey to variants ofboth. Kimbell's introductory remarks outline a procedure that should make it possible to avoid the two dangers outlined above. First, Kimbell has an overriding thesis: to counter Reinhard Strohm's argument (Essays on Handel and Italian Opera, 1985) that there is no such thing as Italian opera, but only international opera. Kimbell states clearly that he believes not only that a discernible Italian opera exists through four centuries but that it is the preeminent example of that art, all other national operas taking sustenance from Italian examples. The defining features of Italian opera according to Kimbell are (1) humanism , (2) the primacy of song, and (3) conviviality. One notes that two of Kimbell's three categories are extramusical. That bodes well for a new vision in music history. Of all of the disciplines concerned with the arts, musicology remains most committed to a rigid aesthetic formalism. Contrarily, his categories indicate an awareness that music is composed not only in a particular intellectual environment but also in a specific social setting. It is this latter aspect that he handles most refreshingly. His description reminds us ofour knowledge of the social structure of the Elizabethan theater. That theater and its Italian counterpart, the opera house, brought together elite and popular cultures. But unlike the later class—bound evolution of English theater, the Italian opera becomes the focus of national life. The "box system" of the opera house fostered a habitual public/private forum useful for entertainment and for intellectual and political life. Wealthy Italians used the "boxes" as extensions of meir homes. They dined, made assignations , discussed business, played cards, and paradoxically allegedly listened to the music. The popular audience in the pit did much the same. The singers were often amateurs accompanied by a "pick up" orchestra drawn from the local community. The relationship between audience , performers, and composers was direct, familiar, and informal. From the perspective of the conventions of the modern opera, me description of the Italian audience of yesteryear seems incongruous and ludicrous. For us, even the most hidebound adherent of "beautiful singing " acknowledges that the stage action requires our respectful attention. 390Comparative Drama The rationale for the modern sensibility is that unified stage action or authentic drama is central to operatic aesthetic excellence. We have learned this lesson from Mozart, Verdi, and Wagner. Kimbell shows us how anachronistic our perceptions are when we apply them to the history of Italian opera. He argues that Toscanini destroyed, for better or worse, the conviviality of the Italian opera house by insisting mat the opera orchestra be professional, banning die encore, and abolishing die box system. It took three centuries for Italian opera to take on its modern appearance. That story is the heart of Kimbell's book. Kimbell's analysis ofthe intellectual context of Italian opera is less successful than his contextualization ofoperatic social life. While he devotes almost one hundred pages to a discussion of the origins of opera, his description narrates an overwhelmingly uncritical repetition of received historical tradition, though admitting in the process several inconsistencies . He departs consciously from most standard accounts by his refusal to give pride of place to the Camerata, the Renaissance group of intellectuals in Galileo's father's circle of friends. The Camerata had an agenda directed against the polyphonic musical theology of the time; in its place the circle recommended a monody that would allow the singer clearly...


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pp. 389-393
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