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Reading Opera

Reading Opera

Copyright Date: 1988
Pages: 362
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    Reading Opera
    Book Description:

    "Libretto-bashing has a distinguished tradition in the blood sport of opera," writes Arthur Groos in the introduction to this broad survey of critical approaches to that much-maligned genre. To examine, and to challenge, the long-standing prejudice against libretti and the scholarly tradition that has, until recently, reiterated it, Groos and Roger Parker have commissioned thirteen stimulating essays by musicologists, literary critics, and historians. Taken as a whole, the volume demonstrates that libretti are now very much within the purview of contemporary humanistic scholarship. Libretti pose questions of intertextuality, transposition of genre, and reception history. They invite a broad spectrum of contemporary reading strategies ranging from the formalistic to the feminist. And as texts for music they raise issues in the relation between the two mediums and their respective traditions. Reading Opera will be of value to anyone with a serious interest in opera and contemporary opera criticism. The essays cover the period from the early nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries, with a particular focus on works of the later nineteenth century. The contributors are Carolyn Abbate, William Ashbrook, Katherine Bergeron, Caryl Emerson, Nelly Furman, Sander L. Gilman, Arthur Groos, James A. Hepokoski, Jurgen Maehder, Roger Parker, Paul Robinson, Christopher Wintle, and Susan Youens.

    Originally published in 1988.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-5959-7
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-x)
    A.G. and R.P.
    (pp. 1-11)
    Arthur Groos

    The fact that this collection of essays is devoted to opera libretti of the later nineteenth century may necessitate a few introductory remarks. Most people familiar with opera have read a libretto, and many of these share the widespread opinion mentioned byThe New Grove:

    The study of librettos was for a long time neglected by historians of opera and oratorio, and it has generally been taken for granted that the vast majority of them are as literature beneath contempt.¹

    Although the article proceeds to qualify this opinion, the uses of libretti cited—recovery of information not in scores, or...

  5. Appropriation in Wagner’s Tristan Libretto
    (pp. 12-33)

    Opera libretti traditionally have a more uncertain status than conventional literary texts, in part because their genesis as well as their reception involve them in a different complex of considerations. Literary critics and musicologists frequently isolate two different relationships in discussing nineteenth-century libretti: that between the literary source and the libretto, and that between the libretto and its music. The relative emphasis within and between these relationships has of course changed during the history of opera, but for our purposes it might be formulated in the following terms: the increasing importance of “literary” sources in libretto production lends the source-libretto...

  6. Boito and F.-V. Hugo’s “Magnificent Translation”: A Study in the Genesis of the Otello Libretto
    (pp. 34-59)

    Arrigo Boito’s libretto forOtellois a complex, multilayered document, the antithesis of a “spontaneous” work of art. It is the product of a slowly and carefully created first draft dating from the Summer and Autumn of 1879, which was followed by seven years of sporadic plot and text revisions, most of them undertaken at Verdi’s request.¹ Surely no other completed opera of Verdi’s underwent such painstakingly intense “textual thinking.” Every word, every rhyme, every metrical choice was meticulously plotted. Even the intricacies ofFalstaffcame to Boito far more easily.

    I am concerned here with the earliest stages of...

  7. An Unseen Player: Destiny in Peléas et Mélisande
    (pp. 60-91)

    The most important member of the dramatis personae in Maurice Maeterlinck’sPelléas et Mélisande,as in all eight of his Symbolist dramas, is “La Destinee.” She, or It, never utters a word or appears, but her insistent presence is conveyed by every means at Maeterlinck’s command. The hallmarks of the text—theMärchen-like milieu, sparse actions, and tragic denouement—are conceived in accord with an unknowable and all-powerful Fate. The visible and audible world of the text is, in its stylized unreality, a symbol for another plane of existence, more “real” than the human and material spheres but barred forever...

  8. The Origins of Italian Literaturoper: Guglielmo Ratcliff, La figlia di Iorio, Parisina, and Francesca da Rimini
    (pp. 92-128)

    It is generally acknowledged that a profound crisis afflicted the venerable occupation of libretto-writing at the beginning of the twentieth century. Signs of this crisis become obvious before 1900, and involve mostly Russian, French, and German opera. Its origins have been carefully studied in relation to the musical language in various European cultures—but with the seemingly natural exception of Italy, where the art of librettowriting and the tradition of texts conceived exclusively for musical setting were more firmly rooted than anywhere else. Studies concerned with the phenomenon generally calledLiteraturoperunderstandably concentrate on musical theater in Russia, France, and...

  9. Erik’s Dream and Tannhäuser’s Journey
    (pp. 129-167)

    In the second scene of Wagner’sDer fliegende Holländer,the hunter Erik tells Daland’s daughter Senta of an “ill-fated dream”: how Erik dreamt of a sea-captain, how the sea-captain and Senta departed together “over the ocean.” In Act III ofTannhäuser,Wolfram von Eschenbach demands from Tannhäuser the full story of his pilgrimage to Rome; Tannhäuser obliges.

    Erik’s Dream, which foreshadows the denouement of the opera, invokes a familiar Romantic topos: a representative of the supernatural intrudes upon humanity. Freud regarded this myth as a representation of repressed fears and their disorienting surges into ordinary thought.¹ Nineteenth-century librettists and dramatists...

  10. The Languages of Love in Carmen
    (pp. 168-183)

    In August 1983, the French weekly magazineLe Nouvel Observateurdevoted its lead article to the figure of Carmen, thus acknowledging the return of the nineteenth-century gypsy as a genuine news item in our time.Le Nouvel Observateurwas taking note of the fact that in 1983 there had been four major revivals of the story of Carmen: Italian director Francesco Rosi’s screen version of Georges Bizet’s opera; a Spanish film based on a reworking of Prosper Mériméé’s story and Bizet’s opera by Carlos Saura in collaboration with choreographer Antonio Gades;First Name: Carmen,an interpretation of the Mérimée story...

  11. How to Avoid Believing (While Reading Iago’s “Credo”)
    (pp. 184-199)

    The “text of pleasure,” imagines Roland Barthes at the start of hisLe Plaisir du texte,“is a sanctioned Babel,” a place where the reader “gains access to bliss by the cohabitation of languagesworking side by side.”¹If such confusion of tongues be the stuff of pleasure, one could hardly find a greater source of gratification than the text of an opera. More than just the libretto, the complete text of an opera represents an animated encounter of words, music, and spectacle: a coming together capable of arousing the reader through its very excess.² With different languages competing for...

  12. The Numinous in Götterdämmerung
    (pp. 200-234)

    In hisReflections of a Non-political Man,that loyal but unfaithful Wagnerian Thomas Mann gave an account of an embattled open-air concert held in Rome in the late 1890s. The music was Wagner’s “lament for the fallen Siegfried,” and the players the municipal orchestra under “the champion of German music in Rome,” Maestro Vessella:

    The piazza is crammed with people, every balcony is packed. The piece is heard out in silence. Then all around the square the battles begin between defiant applause and national protest. One faction cries “Bis” and claps furiously. The other shouts “Basta” and whistles. It looks...

  13. Musorgsky’s Libretti on Historical Themes: From the Two Borises to Khovanshchina
    (pp. 235-267)

    Over one hundred years ago—in February 1886—an amateur music group in Petersburg staged the premiere performance of Musorgsky’sKhovanshchina.¹Both the music and the libretto in this production differed profoundly from the piano-vocal score that Musorgsky had left incomplete at the time of his death five years earlier. This fact in itself should occasion no surprise; re-doing Musorgsky’s compositions is a minor industry. What is surprising, in retrospect, is thatKhovanshchinasurvived at all.

    After Musorgsky’s death, Rimsky-Korsakov spent two years on the manuscript, cutting some 800 bars of music and orchestrating, reharmonizing, and shaping the score into...

  14. Boito and the 1868 Mefistofele Libretto as a Reform Text
    (pp. 268-287)

    Even with the hindsight of 120 years, it is difficult to conceive that the publication and circulation of an opera libretto could be the focus of a notable controversy that would have a whole city talking and taking sides. To understand the impact of Boito’s original libretto forMefistofele,with all its implications for reform, we need to have some picture of the circumstances that halted its composition for five years, to see how Boito’s position as a critic indicated his innovative intentions while antagonizing part of his public, and to have some idea of the unusual circumstances that saw...

  15. On Reading Nineteenth-Century Opera: Verdi through the Looking-Glass
    (pp. 288-305)

    Early in the nineteenth century, Jérôme-Joseph de Momigny, a Belgian musical theorist and composer little known today except to historians of musical analysis, published aCours complet d’hartnonie et de composition.¹Toward the end of his first volume, Momigny offers a lengthy discussion of Mozart’s String Quartet in D minor, K.421. His remarks have been noted more than once in recent years, and particular attention has been given to the manner in which Momigny’s musical taxonomy seems to anticipate modern methods of musical analysis.² However, in the final section, “Du style musical de ce Morceau,” Momigny offers a method of...

  16. Strauss and the Pervert
    (pp. 306-327)

    The following essay poses a series of questions about the social context of an opera libretto, a composer’s intention in selecting a theme, and the cultural significance of setting a text to music. Its object will be one of the most popular operas of thefin de siècle,Richard Strauss’sSalome,first performed at the Dresden Opera on 9 December 1905. My contention is that composers take into consideration much more than aesthetic appropriateness when selecting an operatic subject. They are aware of the cultural implications of that choice, and of the force that cultural presuppositions have in shaping the...

  17. A Deconstructive Postscript: Reading Libretti and Misreading Opera
    (pp. 328-346)

    My observations here are intended as a polemical dissent from certain assumptions informing the essays in this collection and, indeed, informing most operatic criticism that I have read. I take it as axiomatic that polemics should overstate the case, seeking to disturb or provoke, where a more balanced expression of opinion might pass relatively unnoticed. As the reader will ultimately learn, my own convictions are less unorthodox than I like to let on. But throughout the essay I have self-consciously adopted a contrary—not to say contentious—point of view, since the assumptions I examine are, I believe, misguided and...

  18. INDEX
    (pp. 347-352)