- Opera in Postwar Venice: Cultural Politics and the Avant-Garde by Harriet Boyd-Bennett
What is the point of reception history? It is not a question asked by Harriet Boyd-Bennett in her new book. Forsaking any attempt 'to define late operatic modernity as a discrete succession of sounds or styles', she proposes to consider the 1950s as 'a decade that exhibits a precise ideological space, a certain coherence'. Boyd-Bennett selects six Venetian operatic events of the period and enquires after 'the artistic and critical nexus that produced and received' them (p. 17). It may not be entirely fair to demand a specific justification for this approach. In musicology—and opera studies in particular—it has been generally accepted for some time now that detailed scrutiny of the usually hastily written accounts by the tiny number of bourgeois intellectuals employed to review performances for newspapers and journals offers a royal road to historical understanding. Nor is it hard to understand how the discipline came to find itself in such a curious position. In the wake of New Musicological condemnation of the twin 'positivisms' of traditional music-historical activity (philology, histories of institutions) and formal analysis, reception history doubtless offered a welcome third way. (Mark Everist already hinted at telling the story like this twenty years ago: see his 'Reception Histories, Canonic Discourses, and Musical Value', in Nicholas Cook and Mark Everist (eds.), Rethinking Music (Oxford, 1999), 378–402 at 383.) Yet reception's shortcomings as a historical method are easy to demonstrate. Not the least of the virtues of Boyd-Bennett's scrupulously researched and beautifully presented study is the way it ends up pointing towards a more encompassing perspective.
The fascination of her topic is indisputable. The Venice International Festival of Contemporary Music, founded in 1930 as an offshoot of the more celebrated art festival, the Biennale (founded 1895), was one of the two principal jewels in the crown of fascist music policy, the other being the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino (founded 1933). In addressing the reconstitution of the Festival in the very different social and political atmosphere of the early Cold War (following a hiatus imposed by the Second World War in 1943–5, the Festival reopened in 1946), a number of questions immediately rush to the cultural historian's mind. Who was paying? Was it the Italian state or the local authority, or a bit of both? Who ran the Festival? What was the relation to the Venice festivals of art and film (the latter founded 1932)? How much was the running of the Festival subject to political interference? What were the criteria for the selection of repertory and performers? Who were the audiences? And above all: to what extent were the post-war Festivals simply a continuation of those of the 1930s? True to her focus on 'operatic discourse' (p. 17), Boyd-Bennett considers none of these issues; the reader gains information in relation to them only sporadically and in passing. The methodological contrast to Marla Susan Stone's sober institutional account of the Biennale under fascism is striking: see her The Patron State: Culture and Politics in Fascist Italy (Princeton, 1998). But if Boyd-Bennett's lack of interest in the day-to-day running of the Festival is disappointing (albeit predictable in a reception historian), genuinely surprising is the reluctance to contextualize her six chosen performances with respect to other musical events in Venice itself.
The Venice Festival was not primarily a festival of opera (none was staged in 1946, 1950, [End Page 575] 1956, 1958, or 1960), yet we learn very little about the repertory alongside which Boyd-Bennett's works were heard. More importantly, we learn nothing about the regular seasons at La Fenice during the 1950s, beyond the—not entirely accurate—claim that they emphasized 'revivals of older classics' rather than 'new works' (p. 38). This is a missed opportunity. Boyd-Bennett declares that she wants 'to reframe claims made against...