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Reviewed by:
  • Modernism and Opera ed. by Richard Begam and Matthew Wilson Smith
  • Catherine Nolan
Begam, Richard, and Matthew Wilson Smith, eds. Modernism and Opera. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2016. Pp. 378. $45.00.

Opera, the quintessential multimedia art form, is splendidly well suited to exploration of its association with twentieth-century modernism, itself a notoriously multivalent concept. Each of the twelve essays in Modernism and Opera, edited by Richard Begam and Matthew Wilson Smith, by authors representing multiple disciplines including comparative literature, musicology, and theatre studies, adopts an exclusive musical, geographical, and critical context. Yet, taken collectively, under the thoughtful curation of the editors, Modernism and Opera offers an insightful reflection of the expression of and response to modernism in operatic works originating in multiple locations in Europe, England, and North America and in multiple languages across the twentieth century.

The book is divided into three sections: "World War I and Before: Crises of Gender and Theatricality"; "Interwar Modernism: Movement and Countermovement"; and "Opera after World War II: Tensions of Institutional Modernism." Articulating the [End Page 500] scope of the twentieth century and beyond through the markers of the two World Wars anchors the collection in a recognizable narrative in which operatic modernism is intimated prior to World War I, consolidated between World War I and World War II, and increasingly normalized after World War II. Two recurring themes across the volume are the incompatibility of modernism and theatricality, particularly in twentieth-century opera (Ackerman, Lindenberger) and the renewal of interest in twentieth-century modernism in the evolving area of New Modernist Studies (4-5), which calls for expansion of the historical scope, geographical scope, and disciplinary scope of modernist studies (Mao and Walkowitz).

The three essays in Part I address issues of gender and anti-theatricality in modernist opera in three pre-World War I works: Wagner's Parsifal, Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, and Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle. Matthew Wilson Smith begins the discussion with Wagner in "Laughing at the Redeemer: Kundry and the Paradox of Parsifal." Drawing on Wagner's revelatory shift after gaining familiarity with Schopenhauer's philosophy, Wilson Smith focuses on the character of Kundry, specifically her gender, her Jewish identity, her hysteria, and her agitated gestures, all of which stand in contrast to the overall anti-theatricality and direct symbolic expression of Parsifal. In "Maeterlinck, Debussy, and Modernism," Daniel Albright, drawing again on the importance of Wagner and the French symbolist poets in early modernist opera, traces the expression of modernism, the abstraction of character, and the spatialization of time in Maeterlinck's plays before focusing on Debussy's opera Pelléas et Mélisande. The two main characters are "vanishing creatures on the brink of dissolution, half-formed beings that toy with the notion of being characters in an opera" (82), and Albright insightfully reveals how the harmonically ambiguous soundscape created by the manipulation of two principal musical motives representing the main characters creates a lush musical space for narrative treatment of subsidiary motives.

In "Echoes of the Self: Cosmic Loneliness in Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle," Klára Móricz points out the curiosity of Bartók's decision to write his only opera and his motivation primarily because of the subject matter of Béla Baláz's 1910 play, a "portrayal of the modernist condition of loneliness, isolation, and alienation" (101) that reflected the young composer's personal life at the time. Móricz discusses a musical precursor for Bluebeard in Bartók's piano work, Third Dirge, Op. 9a, itself a fantasy on Schubert's gloomy song "Der Doppelgänger." The opera includes only two singing roles, Bluebeard and his wife Judith, and Móricz focuses on the role of Judith as the catalyst for action in the opera as the bearer of light. Light (positive force) and darkness (negative force), represented by diametrically opposing tonal regions (C and F-sharp, respectively), exchange places through the agency of Judith, but ultimately darkness prevails. Móricz concludes her essay with a reflection on Bluebeard as a model of gender conflict exemplified by binary oppositions including male-female...


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pp. 500-504
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