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Mimomania: Music and Gesture in Nineteenth-Century Opera

Mary Ann Smart
Copyright Date: 2004
Edition: 1
Pages: 245
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    Book Description:

    When Nietzsche dubbed Richard Wagner "the most enthusiastic mimomaniac" ever to exist, he was objecting to a hollowness he felt in the music, a crowding out of any true dramatic impulse by extravagant poses and constant nervous movements. Mary Ann Smart suspects that Nietzsche may have seen and heard more than he realized. InMimomaniashe takes his accusation as an invitation to listen to Wagner's music-and that of several of his near-contemporaries-for the way it serves to intensify the visible and the enacted. As Smart demonstrates, this productive fusion of music and movement often arises when music forsakes the autonomy so prized by the Romantics to function mimetically, underlining the sighs of a Bellini heroine, for instance, or the authoritarian footsteps of a Verdi baritone.Mimomaniatracks such effects through readings of operas by Auber, Bellini, Meyerbeer, Verdi, and Wagner. Listening for gestural music, we find resemblance in unexpected places: between the overwrought scenes of supplication in French melodrama of the 1820s and a cluster of late Verdi arias that end with the soprano falling to her knees, or between the mute heroine of Auber's La Muette de Portici and the solemn, almost theological pantomimic tableaux Wagner builds around characters such as Sieglinde or Kundry.Mimomaniashows how attention to gesture suggests a new approach to the representation of gender in this repertoire, replacing aural analogies for voyeurism and objectification with a more specifically musical sense of how music can surround, propel, and animate the body on stage.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93987-5
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. CHAPTER ONE In Praise of Overstatement
    (pp. 1-31)

    This speech in praise of music’s ability to enliven and control the pace of dramatic performance emerges from a surprising context—not the world of early nineteenth-century melodrama, in which stage action was liberally, almost compulsively, accompanied by music, nor the infatuation with fusions and hybrids among the arts of a few decades later. The words are Goethe’s, from his 1796 novel of the theaterWilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, and they are uttered by a minor character named Laertes, a member of the itinerant theater company to which the title character attaches himself as he searches for a profession and a...

  5. CHAPTER TWO Wagner’s Cancan, Fenella’s Leap La Muette de Portici and Auber’s Reality Effect
    (pp. 32-68)

    I begin with an encounter between two of the principal characters in this study, one fictional, the other real. Human, all too human is Richard Wagner, whose diatribes against French grand opéra are as well known as the professional ambition and envy that contributed so much to their tone. His fictional interlocutor is Fenella, the title character of Auber’s 1828 opera,La Muette de Portici, almost certainly the only operatic heroine who neither speaks nor sings, a distinction that has made her the object of extravagant fantasies about the meaning, precision, and sincerity of her silent discourse.

    In part 1...

  6. CHAPTER THREE Bellini’s Unseen Voices
    (pp. 69-100)

    Fenella’s pantomimes, for all their idiosyncratic fragmented discourse and repetition, remind us that nineteenth-century opera possesses a sizable repertory of musical devices for representing the performing and emoting body. Precisely where Woolf finds inadequacy in language, opera can be most eloquent, drawing on a wealth of techniques for expressing pain, both physical and emotional. The Italian opera of the early nineteenth century boasts a particularly developed musical language of pain, based mainly in conventional melodic and rhythmic patterns that mimic actual sounds emitted by the suffering body: sighs, sobs, groans, shudders … As with so much else about this repertory,...

  7. CHAPTER FOUR “Every Word Made Flesh” Les Huguenots and the Incarnation of the Invisible
    (pp. 101-131)

    If the erupting volcano in the final scene ofLa Muette de Porticicopied nature (or at least existing Italian stage designs) with a kind of detail that recalled Roland Barthes’s “reality effect,” the tendency for spectacular visual effects to drown out all other elements of the drama only strengthened as the genre of grand opéra matured. In 1837 Heine complained with characteristic bite about the Opéra’s increasing indulgence in luxury, which he felt overwhelmed any higher artistic purpose:

    The name [of the Opéra’s director, Louis] Véron will live forever in the annals of music: he beautified the temple of...

  8. CHAPTER FIVE Uneasy Bodies Verdi and Sublimation
    (pp. 132-162)

    We should not leave Meyerbeer without noting that the self-conscious innovation and critical stance toward melodramatic conventions seen inLes Huguenotsis hardly representative of the composer’s grand-opéra style as a whole. His previous Parisian success,Robert le diable(1831), betrays no suspicion of the melodramatic aesthetic and even embraces the style wholeheartedly. The plot ofRobertreads almost as a textbook summary of melodrama’s Manichean logic: the devil-figure Bertram is a pure villain, and he is countered by not one but two saintly sopranos, Alice and Isabelle.¹ Much of the action concerns the struggle of the title character, offspring...

  9. CHAPTER SIX Mimomania Allegory and Embodiment in Wagner’s Music Dramas
    (pp. 163-204)

    In David Lodge’s “academic romance”Small World, the young Irish lecturer Persse McGarrigle clinches his standing in the academic world by claiming to have written a master’s thesis about T. S. Eliot’s influence on Shakespeare, reversing the causality of the topic he actually researched in a desperate attempt to attract attention at a conference. The joke comes to mind here because of a growing apprehension that the previous four chapters have at times verged on a similarly cavalier treatment of history, occasionally seeming to approach Auber, Bellini, or Meyerbeer as products of an anachronistic Wagnerian aesthetic.

    My dance of homage...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 205-240)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 241-247)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 248-248)