1. bookVolume 18 (2021): Issue 1 (December 2021)
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The Work Concept in Eighteenth-Century Italian Opera: Some Issues, Modest Proposals and Contributions

Published Online: 31 Dec 2021
Volume & Issue: Volume 18 (2021) - Issue 1 (December 2021)
Page range: 4 - 10
Journal Details
License
Format
Journal
eISSN
2353-5733
ISSN
1734-1663
First Published
31 Dec 2013
Publication timeframe
1 time per year
Languages
English

A brief but necessary preamble. The following thoughts derive from historical research practice, not from the philosophical formalisation of some concept,

A good compendium of the problems and philosophical positions concerning the work and authorship concepts can be found in A. Rostagno, ‘Musica e autorialità: quattro secoli di storia tra certezze, ambiguità, nuovi paradigmi’, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SYv0poa9-ts&t=1877 (accessed 3 June 2021).

such as, for instance, that of authorship. They are, therefore, simply the result of a series of observations linked to evident factual data that have been revealed by the study of the evolutionary textual tradition of many serious and comic dramas, of their music and the vicissitudes of the spectacular production system related to them.

Determining in an unequivocal and definitive way what the Italian dramma per musica was in the eighteen century is only apparently an easy task. One way to give a definition would be to start with descriptions provided by contemporary lexicons and theoretical treatises. The problem is that very often, though not always, the authors of these writings were intellectuals who tried to create an ideal or satirical vision of that strange object we call an opera. In short, they tell us what an Italian opera should be or, above all, what it should not be, only indirectly indicating what it was. Furthermore, these authors were seldom involved in the production and performance of operatic works on stage, which most often implies, among other things, an incorrect evaluation of the importance and role of unwritten creative and performance conventions.

To define a dramma per musica it could perhaps be useful to start with a concept such as that of musical practice, which ethnomusicologists usually contrast with that of written repertoire. According to Macchiarella,

I. Macchiarella, ‘Musica’, AM. Antropologia Museale, vol. 8, no. 22, 2009, pp. 87–90.

music, or in short musical practice, is quite simply the ‘risultato di comportamenti coordinati messi in atto da qualcuno per qualcun altro sulla base di regole condivise fra esecutori/ascoltatori, in uno spazio e un tempo all’interno di scenari di vita sociale’.

Translation: ‘The result of coordinated behaviours implemented by someone for someone else on the basis of rules shared by performers/listeners, in a space and time contained within social life scenarios’.

Adapting this definition to the opera, we could perhaps imagine that it is a kind of spectacular practice when staged. In fact, ‘someone who performs coordinated behaviours’, otherwise undefined in the quoted fragment can be defined, albeit in a provisional way, in the dramma per musica, because the question of authorship with regard to this genre is an intriguing and complex but fundamental issue. I am deeply convinced that it is possible and important precisely to define who creates and plans a text and that it is not only the result of a network of relationships divorced from any historical context. On the one hand, we usually have two people (the maestro and the poet), one of whom conceives the verbal and dramaturgical aspect and the other the musical aspect of the text, giving written and oral guidelines on the intentions regarding the visual and acting aspects of the performance. On the other hand, we have those who carry out the thus expressed intentions, reinforcing and integrating them in a more or less significant manner at the moment of their specific realisation on stage. The spectacular text is adjusted and altered right from the start during rehearsals and performances. If it is true that what is seen on stage is the result of complex interactions between ‘creators-planners’ and ‘performers’, we must never forget that these figures have different roles in the realisation of the spectacular text. If the production is the result of creative interactions, it exists only because those who created it decided so; it can then be achieved because musicians etc. take decisions of their own, but this is again only a possibility. When the text of a dramma per musica is altered and rethought by other operators (a new poeta, another maestro or musici who adjust the verses), it will mean that other people have been added who are responsible for the final spectacular text. Their contributions may vary according to the qualitative and quantitative importance of their interventions which to a greater or lesser extent changed the verbal, musical, visual, and even the dramaturgical aspects of what is staged. They may rise almost to the status of co-authors even if they assemble and adapt heterogeneous material according to the logic of stage effectiveness, especially if the final result is a completely new spectacular text.

In order appropriately to adapt the above-quoted definition, we can thus define a dramma per musica as the result of coordinated cooperation and sometimes conflicting actions, implemented by a well-defined series of subjects (operators) who contribute to a different extent, in various ways, and with a different level of professionalism to the design and implementation of what comes to life on stage for someone else (the audience) on the basis of conventions and linguistic and theatrical rules shared by performers and the audience, in a space and time contained within social life scenarios.

This pragmatic statement is useful for defining the framework within which an Italian dramma per musica makes sense and for suggesting in general terms the responsibilities and expectations related to it, but it does not really go into the merits of what the artistic and aesthetic object is.

In my opinion, decades of musicological studies, as is well known, have led us to think of dramma per musica as a variable spectacular text,

I prefer this definition, derived and adapted from M. De Marinis, Semiotica del teatro, Milano, Bompiani, 1992, to that of ‘performance text’ by K. Elam, The semiotics of theatre and drama, New York, Methuen, 1980.

open and modifiable at the time of creation, and whenever the space and time of the performances change, on the basis of conventions and linguistic and dramaturgical rules shared by performers and the audience, which can obviously change in different times and places, conceived within social life scenarios that often influence the production directly (since commissioners, or patrons if a spectacular text is created for the free market, can have decisive impact) or indirectly (because a spectacular text is meant to meet audience expectations).

It seems appropriate to reflect first of all on the notion of ‘a variable spectacular text’, in an attempt to clarify its meaning. By a spectacular text (a term obviously derivative of theatrical semiotics),

A good compendium of definitions of text in theatre semiotics can be found in F. Di Tonno, ‘La narrazione spettacolare. Nuove forme dello storytelling: dai testi narrativi al teatro’, PhD Thesis, University of Bologna, 2013, pp. 10–25.

I mean a text that is the overall reflection of all the various linguistic elements combined to produce what is seen on stage: not only words and music but also actors’ gestures, visual elements such as costumes and sets, and so on. The word ‘spectacle’ derives from the Latin spectare, which means to look, and reflects the importance of the visual dimension of the opera, which obviously concerns the stage elements but also, and I would say above all, the proxemic aspects of the text, which are less studied today because they are more difficult to investigate. The word text derives from the Latin textum, past participle of texere (to weave, put together) and thus particularly aptly represents the interweaving of various threads that form a fabric. In the case of an opera, it is obvious that the different people responsible for the work (the poeta, maestro, pittore, musici, etc.) contribute different threads to this fabric, also because one of the characteristics of musical works, as is well known, is the simultaneous plurality of languages used. This text is a variable text. What does it mean? Years of studies have taught us that changes in operatic texts, in all their components (the poetry, music, visual and proxemic aspects) can occur at various levels of their evolutionary textual tradition, in different functions, manners, and for different reasons. Without any claim to completeness, we can give a few examples, trying to create an overall picture.

We can start by discussing the spectacular text conceived right from the beginning as all the components that can take written or material form: the poetry, music, scenes, costumes, etc.

In the eighteenth-century Italian drammi per musica, on the first level of tradition or, if we prefer, in a first possible situation, the various operators cooperate by interacting with each other on the creation of the text and may modify it, so to speak, in the written works themselves, during the rehearsals before the premiere, or during the performances of the first season. On this first level are present in toto all those who first conceived the dramma per musica.

Now let me make an obvious remark: The text’s verbal and musical components can be changed or exchanged because the text is created in a modular way, at a macro-structural level but also at a micro-structural one, and because cuts, transformations, insertions, even if heterogenic, are made using the same linguistic and musical koiné. The possibility of manipulating the codicological structure of manuscript scores clearly reflects this.

At the second level, those who conceived the first spectacular text are absent, partly or entirely. The text has migrated, if not in space, then certainly in time. The change of operators and of environmental context may lead to varying degrees of adaptive reworking in one or more of the linguistic elements constituting the work: the poetry, music, scenes, and so on.

At the third level, those who conceived the first text are absent, partly or entirely. The text has migrated not only in time, but almost certainly in space. The operators have changed again, in whole or in part, compared to the performances given at an earlier time. The change of operators and/or of other environmental conditions again leads to varying degrees of adaptive changes. On this third level the text reworked at the second level becomes the new basic text, and so on.

It should be noted that several different witnesses can coexist at the same level, because from the materially handed down components of the same spectacular text a varying number of secondary texts can derive, and from them obviously a series of others secondary texts no longer strictly linked to the reality of performance (fair copies, complete or partial, of scores; literary editions of libretti; printed collections of stage sketches, etc.). The creation of new levels of tradition can be repeated many times and successive levels emerge, which can also include partial restoration of the text to some previous level. It should be noted that the documentation of one or more levels may, naturally, be partly or completely lost.

Let us now discuss another rather common case, namely that of a spectacular text in which only the poetry but not the music of a preexisting dramma per musica are used. For instance, the very common case in which the libretto of a drama by some of the most fortunate poets of the time becomes the basis for a new spectacular text with new music, new sets and costumes. A new poet may have interfered in the original verbal text (as in Zeno’s Vologeso in Reggio Emilia)

G. Polin, ‘Apostolo Zeno e la definizione funzionale dello spazio teatrale. Considerazioni su un caso esemplare: Vologeso, Reggio Emilia, 1741’, in I. Yordanova, G. Raggi and M.I. Biggi (eds), Theatre Spaces for Music in 18th Century Europe, Wien, Hollitzer, 2020, pp. 299–320.

and/or, in individual cases, a maestro

For instance Jommelli, as described in G. Polin, ‘Jommelli revisore di Galuppi: note sul ms. D-Sl HB XVII 179 a-c del Filosofo di campagna’, in G. Pitarresi (ed.), Atti del convegno internazionale di studi ‘Niccolò Jommelli, l’esperienza europea di un musicista filosofo’ (Reggio Calabria, Conservatorio Statale di Musica F. Cilea 7–8 ottobre 2011), Reggio Calabria, Edizioni del Conservatorio di Musica F. Cilea, 2014, pp. 325–346.

or even other operators such as singers (as in Alessandro nelle Indie by Cherubini,

See M. Armellini, ‘L’Olimpiade del Metastasio ristretta in due atti: Luigi Gatti, Domenico Cimarosa ed il dramma per musica a fine Settecento’, in P. Maione and M. Columbro (eds), Domenico Cimarosa: un napoletano in Europa, vol. 1, Lucca, 2004, pp. 29–158: 125–126; G. Polin, ‘Alessandro nell’Indie (Mantova, 1784): note sull’ultima esperienza metastasiana di Cherubini’, in M.T. Arfini, F. Menchelli Buttini and E. Pantini (eds), Luigi Cherubini. Il teatro musicale, Würzburg, Studio Verlag, 2020, pp. 79–100.

with interventions introduced in the Metastasian libretto by Gregorio Babini and Luigi Marchesi). Once a new basic verbal text has been established, sometimes with major changes in the dramaturgy, the succession of levels described above can be repeated.

Another less frequent case is that of a text conceived ex novo based, to a greater or lesser extent, on pre-existing textual elements of different spectacular languages (poetry and notes, often also costumes and scenes) from several previous texts, reassembled to form a completely new, autonomous spectacular text. This type of text was frequently produced at the end of the theatre season in northern Italy in the mid-eighteen century, fusing the most successful pieces heard in the various dramas that had been staged in the same season, or when there was a need quickly to create a successful text.

For some examples of such texts see librettos quoted in G. Polin, ‘Le “opere che al dosso degli attor non son tagliate riescon per ordinario impasticciate”. Riflessioni sullo status del testo spettacolare melodrammatico nel ‘700’, in G. Pitarresi (ed.), Atti del convegno internazionale di studi Responsabilità d’autore e collaborazione nell’opera dell’Età barocca: il ‘Pasticcio’ (Reggio Calabria, 2–3 ottobre 2009), Reggio Calabria, Laruffa Editore, 2011, pp. 335–373.

It should naturally be noted that the sources of one or more of these levels may be partly or completely lost.

Every time a variable spectacular text passes from the state of intention, of power, of dynamis, to the state of act, of energheia, of concrete realisation on stage, material texts, direct or indirect sources are produced at each level. In the musicological studies of the recent decades, in order to understand the traditions of drammi per musica, we have all, more or less consciously, started from these sources that the great historian Marc Bloch called temoignages involontaire. They are like indirect documentation, which, unlike the temoignages volontaire (those that want to inform), lends itself to examination, thus providing ‘documents in spite of themselves’.

M. Bloch, Apologie pour l’histoire ou Métier d’Historien, Paris, Armand Colin, 1993, pp. 139–155. I owe this suggestion to T. Korneeva, ‘Il baule dell’impresario. Un caso di circolazione dei repertori operistici tra Venezia e Mosca’, MLN, vol. 135, 2020, pp. 125–151: 127.

Impasticciati librettos and scores all constitute temoignages involontaire and, for this reason, are very valuable for understanding the complexity of spectacular texts.

These temoignages are always partial because they may attest in written or material form only to some of the various languages overlapping to create what the audience sees and hears in the theatre. If we are lucky, we may have the poetry in printed and or (rarely) manuscript librettos, a score in which the musical part of the performance is recorded with a whole series of important limitations concerning performance on stage, as well as drawings or sketches of sets design and costumes (practically never the actual sets and costumes), and also some glimpses in the paratexts of the libretto and/or the score of what the proxemic acting took place or how one would have wanted it to take place (e.g. Sarti’s rewritten scores of coeval comic operas are highly informative). I said they may because, in a conspicuous number of cases in which we are lucky enough to have a score, it cannot be referred to a libretto and or to a specific performance with any precision. In many cases, the score is only a repository, almost an archive of musical materials used in several performances at different moments. It happens extremely often, for example, in many well-known operatic scores by Vivaldi or in sources that come from historical-theatrical archives such as those from the Landestheather Braunschweig collection (now kept at the Niedersächisches Staatsarchiv Wolfenbüttel).

See K. Kindler, Findbuch zum Bestand Musikalien des herzoglichen Theaters in Braunschweig, 18.-19. Jh. (46 Alt), Wolfenbüttel, Selbstverlag des Niedersächsischen Staatsarchivs, 1990.

Furthermore, it should be added that, to mention only the sources of the musical text, apart from rare cases in which we have composers’ autographs (which often contain overlapping modifications relating to several levels of tradition and require an in-depth codicological-stratigraphic reading in order to be properly understood), we are very often faced during the investigations with collector’s copies. These are often partial, incorrect, and detached from the real world of the performance, produced to provide profit for some of the operators involved in the production process (copyists, impresarios, singers), who sometimes manipulate texts at their own discretion. There are cases, much more numerous than one might think, in which the creation of a text can even take place in a copyist’s atelier, with no relation to the actual staging. It should be noted that such scores can, if handed down, become basic texts on which the various levels of tradition can be based, as is the case, for example, with Galuppi’s Mondo della luna scores.

Let me quote here an old paper of mine, G. Polin, ‘Il mondo della luna di Goldoni-Galuppi: uno studio sulla tradizione settecentesca’, Fonti Musicali Italiane, vol. 13, 2008, pp. 39–92.

Studying the sources-witnesses of drammi per musica at these various levels obviously aims (once we have assessed what they are, and where to situate them within the lines of tradition) to establish, sometimes in vain, who did what, when and why, and define in detail the responsibilities that change every time a spectacular text is staged anew. Such material is useful for editorial purposes or as an exercise in musical, dramaturgical, and cultural historical hermeneutics, in order to arrive at a convincing exegesis of a particular moment in the life of a variable text, miraculously stopped in time. But it can also be useful for other purposes and unintentionally provide us with other information, as I will try to summarise below.

The study of the adaptations introduced at level 1 allows us to investigate the creative and formative process of certain components of the spectacular text put in place in the various sources by composers and poets (if we are lucky enough to possess the autographs).

Maestri such as Gluck and Sarti (when working for the Mingotti entrepreneurs), Fiorillo, Tozzi, and again Sarti and Haydn at the court theatres of Brauschweig, Copenhagen, and Eszterháza frequently made a living by adapting other authors’ spectacular texts with or without a poet to help them in this task (this task was also commonly carried out under contract by the court poet, if one was present). Incidentally, this kind of exercise was very common with poets who worked in courts, and even re-offered their own texts,

Consider e.g. the famous and well-known examples of Zeno or Metastasio.

but also in more commercial theatres such as those in Venice.

Think e.g. of Goldoni’s well known experiences as operatic poeta at Grimani’s theatre.

Adaptations created by the composers reveal facts that deserve to be studied more systematically. Here are a few examples:

First of all, they may have an almost involuntary cognitive and formative function; composers may learn by transcribing and adapting other people’s works. In the early 1760s Sarti had not yet written any opera buffa. At that time, by adapting for Copenhagen the comic works of Latilla, Scolari, Ciampi and Lampugnani, he may undoubtedly have learned how certain compositional and dramaturgical musical mechanisms worked, such as, for example, the construction of finali d’atto a catena.

G. Polin, ‘From Venice to Copenhagen: Sarti’s rewrite of L’amore artigiano by Goldoni and Latilla in 1762’, in C. Heitmann, D. Schmidt and C. Siegert (eds), Giuseppe Sarti – Individual Style, Aesthetical Position, Dissemination and Reception of His Works, Schliengen, Edition Argus, 2020, pp. 84–103.

Still, it was not only adapting other people’s music that could, in my opinion, have direct or indirect consequences for the compositional techniques adopted.

Adapting a text may force one to reflect on its dramaturgy, to formulate solutions and find ideas that make it retain its theatrical effect and even, if necessary, transforms the maestro into a proto-director who instructs the musician-actors. The example of Sarti is appropriate, but this phenomenon would deserve to be investigated diachronically for a significant number of maestri.

Adapting, and sometimes even creating, an Italian dramma per musica for a predominantly non-Italian-speaking audience can generate disparate sets of solutions. In my opinion, a diachronic study of these adaptations should also help to understand if and to what extent we can find peculiarities in what was produced and adapted for foreign audiences.

Reinhard Strohm pointed out many years ago that in some of Handel’s Italian operas written for London

R. Strohm, ‘Metastasios Alessandro nell’Indie und seine frühesten Vertonungen’, in W. Siegmund-Schultze (ed.), Probleme der Händelschen Oper (insbesondere am Beispiel Poro), Bericht über die wissenschaftliche Konferenz zu den 30. Händelfest-spielen der DDR am 15. und 16. Juni in Halle (Saale), 1982 (Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg Wissenschaftliche Beiträge 1982/21 G8), pp. 40–61, It. transl. ‘L’Alessandro nell’Indie del Metastasio e le sue prime versioni musicali’, in L. Bianconi (ed.), La drammaturgia musicale, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1986, pp. 157–176.

the music played a key role in the communication of the spectacular and dramaturgical sense, which was different from the functioning of music in the contemporary Italian operas with the same librettos. In my opinion, it would be appropriate to investigate this point and verify, for example, if and how the adaptations introduced in the various situations by the different maestri-adapters in some central European theatres could lead to a richer language of musical gestures correlated with an actor’s personal gestural expression which, perhaps, was more explicit or more disguised in those countries, having to support a linguistic medium that was not well understood.

It will not be the question of defining in a scientifically solid, absolute and unequivocal way the concept of musical gesture, starting with the hypothesis that there exists a convention or code which ensures the connection between the musical structures and the meanings to which they refer (which is problematic, as Baroni

M. Baroni, ‘Semiologia musicale’, in Enciclopedia Italiana – VI Appendice, 2000, https://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/musicologia_%28Enciclopedia-Italiana%29/ (accessed 5 June 2021).

has aptly pointed out), but rather of trying to discover to which meanings and gestures of the actors certain musemes or aggregations of musemes were conventionally correlated at the time. This research still waits to be carried out, and it will not have as its theme the expression of topics as understood by Ratner

L. Ratner, Classic Music – Expression, Form, and Style, New York, Shirmer Books, 1980, pp. 3–30.

and others,

Many examples of effective implementations of the topic theory can be found in M. Danuta (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Topic Theory, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2014.

but rather – an attempt to link specific musemes to acting gestures that were intended to enhance the audience’s faculty of comprehension.

In my opinion, studying how and why the meanings of a dramma per musica changed by investigating the evolution of its textual tradition opens up a series of interesting research perspectives which can lead in the future to a better understanding and knowledge of the most concealed operating mechanisms inherent in many of these variable spectacular texts.

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