- Musical Theater in Eighteenth-Century Parma: Entertainment, Sovereignty, Reform by Margaret R. Butler
Margaret Butler has long championed the subject of opera reform in Italy, and her full-scale study of Turin (Operatic Reform at Turin's Teatro Reggio: Aspects of Production and Stylistic Change in the 1760s (Lucca, 2001)) makes an appearance towards the end of her new book. At Turin, it was Vittorio Cigna-Santi and Ferdinando Bertoni's Ifigenia in Aulide (1762) that was a 'tour de force of French-inspired experimentation' during the 1760s (Operatic Reform, p. xxxi). Moreover, the work had great success at the time and starred Caterina Gabrielli, who had made a similarly large impact in Parma.
Bertoni had been commissioned after refusals from Jommelli, Giuseppe Scarlatti, Gluck, and Traetta, the composer most associated with Parmesan reform initiatives during the years 1759 to 1761. So how far have we travelled since 2001 in our understanding of 'reform'? Butler answers this in general terms and by reference to recent dissertations, particularly that by George W. Loomis ('Tommaso Traetta's Operas for Parma', Yale University, 1999). Turin and Parma had the same need to reconcile expenditure with box-office receipts, yet the same sense of wishing 'to participate actively in stylistic experimentation' (Operatic Reform, p. 205). For Parma, the influence of Algarotti's personal correspondence as well as his Saggio sopra l'opera in musica (1755) was a key factor.
Musical Theater in Eighteenth-Century Parma [MTECP] is not a long book and presents itself as one more step in the process of finding 'a broader and deeper context' within which we shall, one day, re-conceive the notion of reform in a 'more flexible' sense (pp. 2–3). As opera studies expand, so the foundation studies themselves will attain more nuanced interpretations of material evidence. There was 'no ''reform movement''' (p. 1). Like Italian political unity in the following century or European ideals today, such goals are 'complicated to achieve and even more difficult to sustain' (p. 1). Political conditions in Parma can be shown to have had decisive effects on opera reform, and MTECP succeeds in closely linking the Bourbon—Habsburg alliances with its progress. Those alliances had in turn been prepared by growing Bourbon influence over the Duchy. The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle confirmed Philippe de Bourbon (Don Felipe) as duke; no less significant was the influence of Louise-Elisabeth, his wife, especially because she was the King of France's eldest daughter and frequently made representations on behalf of Parma at Versailles. In this situation, 'reform opera' meant exporting French subject matter, dance, choruses, etc., and selling the results to a public whose support remained strongly desirable. Butler is not so concerned with that aggressive conditioning of the Parma audience to which Martha Feldman has drawn attention: that 'series of official advisories' cajoling it into relative silence and respect for the policies of the 'Sovereign Will', the ducal theatre itself being 'not disjoined from the royal residence' (Feldman, Opera and Sovereignty: Transforming Myths in Eighteenth-Century Italy (Chicago, 2007), pp. 105, 110).
In MTECP we have an opera-centred account of the evolving policy of Guillaume Du Tillot, minister of State and hands-on chief of cultural developments. It includes the years before a change of policy led to the appointment of Traetta, as well as carefully covering the many distinctions between the five works that Traetta composed for Parma. Ippolito ed Aricia was the second of these, and Enea e Lavinia the last. Only the two final chapters out of five deal with the Traetta period. Chapter 1 presents the archival findings that will anchor that later story: over several years, a French company made Parma familiar with a full range of theatre genres straight from Paris—plays, courtly entrés with music by Rameau or Mondonville for example, opéras-comiques, Le Devin du village. Crucial to this analysis is the way that Castor et Pollux became a...