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  • The Politics of Opera: A History from Monteverdi to Mozart by Mitchell Cohen
  • Cormac Newark
The Politics of Opera: A History from Monteverdi to Mozart. By Mitchell Cohen ( Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2017) 512 pp. $39.95

For a famously elite pastime, opera of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (never mind the nineteenth) sometimes seems strangely fixated on the progress of social equality—not because back then its appeal extended further across the classes (although here and there it might have) but because of its origins in court culture and, especially, its function as an arena for debate about the most important topical issues. This function is Cohen's object of study, which he pursues through a rich network of texts: philosophical tracts, literature, political pamphlets, and private correspondence, as well as librettos. But he ignores almost completely its literal, physical embodiment, the reception of opera by audiences in the theater.

This absence of "live" reception is understandable; the relevant sources are scarce, uneven, and/or unreliable. But it is certainly something of a drawback. Cohen's discussion of his methodology, which he idiosyncratically places at the end of the volume, considers at some length the importance of immediate historical context for his interpretative enterprise, but that context surely consists in ongoing social practices as much as specific events or more general contemporary mentalités. The nuances of group and performance dynamics in opera reception were thought significant enough to have been frequently represented in the other arts, notably the nineteenth-century novel, and they have long been a concern of historical musicology too. Cohen's refusal to consider them means that he is unable to penetrate deeply into the different levels of meaning that an opera could have beyond those of contrived plot and real political background at the time of the first performance. Many of [End Page 486] the most important conduits of opera's meaning have to do with the music and the singing, about which he has disappointingly little to say. Of all opera's constituencies—from audiences who listen and spectators who watch to courtiers and socialites who mainly talk—he is interested in what might reasonably be considered the least important, its readers.

When Cohen does attend to musical detail, moreover, the argument often feels schematic. Certainly, opera's successive public debates (the querelle des bouffons, the querelle des Gluckistes et des Piccinnistes, and so on) may—perhaps must—be read as more than musical. Just as important, all of those historical disputes over primacy—of melody over harmony, of words over music—and recurring cycles of decadence and reform are suggestively susceptible to metaphorical, or at least inter-discursive, treatment. But in this book, they tend merely to furnish material for long passages of (often brilliant) close comparative reading that are repeatedly brought up short by knowing parentheses. Often the punctuating phrase is "who rules?," as if all genre-specific or other ostensibly parochial questions must necessarily not only reflect but also illuminate the changing political landscape. Metaphors that often seemed ready to open new vistas of socio-aesthetic symbiosis instead are abruptly reduced to mere wordplay.

The few more technical sallies (variously to do with horizontal and vertical reading of scores, key relations, the politics of sonata form, and, of course, the possible meanings of "harmony") are sometimes even more jarring, and occasionally downright misleading. To take just one example, Cohen repeatedly designates the overture of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Don Giovanni as being in D major. It actually begins in D minor, before moving to D major and returning to D minor for the dinner scene music at the end; some would say that this bimodal scheme is just a small part of the work's bracing challenge to its stated genre of opera buffa. At the very least, such moments appear awkward alongside Cohen's fluent handling of the rest of his material. But they are also some of the most interesting. Terms of art need to be available for judicious interrogation outside that art; this re-reading is a predicate of genuinely interdisciplinary work. Cohen's re-readings of those terms may not always be judicious, but...


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