• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Opera: Follow the Music

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 orchestra with the vocal lines) and extracts for performance at home. If an opera company wished to produce one of these works, whoever owned the original manuscript or a copy of it—either the publisher or the opera company that had commissioned it—would give permission to have the score and the orchestral parts copied by hand, and there were several copying bureaus at work—a natural and inevitable source of error. The operas were often revised after the premières, not always by the composer, and new arias would be composed for different singers. It was a matter of chance whether or not the revisions—improvements or corruptions—were incorporated in the manuscript sources.

The kind of paper used for music made a difference. Rossini used oblong gatherings of one or two folios of four pages for each aria or ensemble of the opera; the choruses were generally written first so they could be learned and rehearsed immediately (Rossini sometimes had only a month to write an opera before the already scheduled first performance). The overture was traditionally written last as it needed only a rehearsal the day before the première. Oblong paper, whose breadth was greater than its length, had less space available for a large number of instruments: when Rossini used a band of extra musicians on the stage, as he did in a number of works, there was no room for their parts on the manuscript, and they had to be written on detached pages. When the autograph manuscript has survived, these pages have often been separated from it, and have to be reconstituted, when they can be found at all, from the archives of the theaters in which the work was staged. Rossini’s manuscripts are made up of separate gatherings of the individual arias and ensembles. Not all of his revisions are preserved by a surviving autograph, and it is necessary to refer to the many copies of each work made for mounting the opera throughout the century, or even to what hand-copied orchestral material can be found buried in theater basements.

Verdi, on the other hand, sketched out the opera first in a skeleton score so that he knew in advance how many pages he would need for each act, and he employed vertical music paper with room for more instruments. Many of his operas, however, exist in more than one version, and the evidence for the changes can be widely scattered and often hidden in the various scores copied over the years for different municipal opera houses. When, toward the end of the century, some of his operas were printed in full score, the publisher was lax in following the details of the manuscript, and even disregarded the composer’s explicit instructions (Verdi’s desire to have the third act of Aida printed as a single continuity with no indication of the individual arias and duets, for example, was not carried out).

The bibliographical complications are rendered by Gossett with high good humor. The most brilliant example, which displays ingenious detective reasoning, is an aria written for the tenor role of Argirio in a Milanese staging of Tancredi, Rossini’s Venetian opera of 1813. The new aria, “Se ostinata ancor non cedi” (“If stubbornly you do not yield”), to persuade Argirio’s daughter to accept a political marriage, replaces the original “Pensa che sei mia figlia” (“Remember that you are my daughter”):

Contemporary sources are divided: some have one piece, some the other. The most amusing source, though, is a Florentine manuscript, probably associated with a local performance. It has “Se ostinata ancor non cedi,” but the orchestration differs entirely from that known in all other sources; the vocal line is basically the same, but there are many small variants.

How can we explain this peculiar Florentine source for “Se ostinata ancor non cedi”? Here is a possible scenario. Florence, having decided to perform Tancredi,obtains a score, whether legitimately or not, and assembles a cast. Rehearsals begin. When it comes time for his first-act aria, Argirio steps forward, but as the pianist begins to play “Pensa che sei mia figlia,” the singer’s mouth drops open in astonishment. “Excuse me, maestro, what is that?” “Argirio’s aria,” comes the reply. “But no,” says our Argirio, who has just sung the role for the first time in Genoa, “that’s not the aria. The aria goes like this.” At which point he sings some snatches from “Se ostinata ancor non cedi,” explaining that the score used in Genoa came from Milan, where Rossini had directed performances last year. “In any event,” he concludes, “that’s the aria I know, and that’s the aria I intend to sing.” And out he storms.

Panic in the Florentine theater. After a quick discussion (remember that the production is scheduled to open in a week), Argirio is called back. “Sing the melody,” he is told by the maestro al cembalo[the rehearsal pianist], who does his best to copy it down. “And what do you remember about the orchestration?” After receiving indications about instrumental solos, the maestro goes off. In a few hours he returns with an orchestration of “Se ostinata ancor non cedi.” “Is that more or less how it goes?” he asks our tenor. “That’s it,” responds the contented Argirio, and so a new orchestration of “Se ostinata ancor non cedi” appears, which may very well circulate to other theaters (although in this case the version seems never to have left Florence).

The advantage of this entertainingly constructed anecdote is that it not only has the solution to a bibliographical anomaly, but also gives the reader a glimpse of many aspects of the operatic life of the time.

The most striking aspect of Gossett’s account of Italian opera from 1800 to 1850 is the balance of alternate and even opposing ideals, and he shows a tolerance and a largeness of spirit rare in those scholars who have so much passion. He has campaigned for more correct editions of the operas, but he understands that for works so often revised and rewritten this does not produce a definitive version—his ideal edition, in fact, offers the possibility of different versions and choices to conductors and singers. He glances ironically at the “conductors, ranking among the staunchest supporters of the new editions, who employ them with a rigor in some respects ahistorical.” He pleads for the restoration of original texts and forgotten traditions of performance, and yet writes about “the chimera of authentic performance,” observing that “authenticity” seems to have lost whatever meaning it once had, except a commercial one for selling records.

In the dispute between those who would revive the original text in all its purity and those who would continue the traditional liberties and interpolations, he opts for no side, fully aware that both points of view taken to extremes end in absurdity. In a chapter entitled “Instruments Old and New,” he recognizes both the loss of the old sonorities with modern instruments and the frequent impracticality of the old instruments in modern halls and present performing conditions. He writes:

Much of the rhetoric surrounding the use of older instruments in the performance of music from the first half of the nineteenth century is inflated. Many musicians, trained on modern instruments and dependent on them for their livelihood, see only the limitations of older instruments and fail to acknowledge their advantages in color and balance. Others, committed to historical instruments and riding a wave of public fascination with period orchestras, praise their tone quality and characteristic sounds while failing to acknowledge their practical inadequacies…. We must avoid presuming that a composer’s art is inextricably tied to specific instrumental characteristics. During the first sixty-five years of the nineteenth century, a great variety of instruments could be found in France, Italy, or Vienna. When we speak of “period” instruments, then, we need always to ask which period and in what geographical center.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print