Divas and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera
by Philip Gossett
University of Chicago Press, 675 pp., $35.00
Divas and Scholars is somewhat more about scholars than about divas (although there is enough about divas to satisfy those whose fancy lies in that direction). It deals with Italian opera of the early nineteenth century—that is, the work of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and the early operas of Verdi, but it allows considerations of earlier and later periods, other national styles, and general matters of musical style. The author writes that it “is about performing nineteenth-century Italian opera,” but we are given much more.
We can find out from Gossett’s book how the operas were commissioned, how they were written (and on what kind of music paper), which parts of an opera were composed first, how different opera houses obtained copies of the music, how censorship affected the composers and librettists, the influence of the singers on the composition, how the opera and the individual numbers were structured, how texts were handed down and corrupted. We can also learn how the tradition of performance was both preserved and altered, what and how many instruments were employed at the time and which instruments changed over the centuries, the difficulties of making a critical edition of the operas useful for performers, what part of the tradition must be relearned today by singers and conductors, the problems of rehearsing and mounting the operas in our time, new fashions of staging, and much else. To my knowledge, there is no other book like it. No one else has treated an important genre of half a century in its social and political setting, its stylistic development, together with a detailed history of its dissemination and performance over a century and a half. Along with the occasional indulgence in what the author calls “the backstage gossip indigenous to the opera house,” all this is accomplished by a prose style sensible, often original, provocative, learned, technical but lucid, and always entertaining—and, most remarkably, in only 603 succinct pages.
The achievement was possible not only because Gossett is our leading authority on nineteenth-century Italian opera and the principal figure in establishing the new editions of Rossini and Verdi, but also because he has been actively engaged for some years as a consultant to productions of operas in Italy and America, advising on the problems created by the multiple versions that exist for most of these operas as they were rewritten for different singers in different cities, and also on the lost art of adding ornamentation to the vocal parts. At the center of Gossett’s preoccupations is the creation of a new and corrected edition of the works of Rossini and Verdi and the use—and misuse—of the new critical texts in opera houses around the world.
His account of how these operas were commissioned, written, and first staged explains why the new edition was so necessary. Almost no full orchestral scores of Italian operas between 1800 and 1850 were ever printed at the time, only vocal scores (that is, piano reductions of the …