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.

Most interesting is his awareness that composers sometimes wrote passages difficult to realize with the instruments available to them. His most striking example is a melody from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, originally given to the horn, that was changed to the cello by the composer after the first staging. The melody continually returns on an F in the middle register, a so-called “stopped” note—that is, a note realizable in the horns of the time, which had no valves, only by closing the bell of the horn with the hand—and Berlioz remarked in his treatise on orchestration that this particular note had a muffled sound. The modern horn with valves can play this note easily to everyone’s complete satisfaction, and Gossett suggests that the composer’s final decision be set aside and the horn restored with the modern instrument. This makes for a genuine fidelity to the composer’s conception.

Gossett’s account of the ornamentation traditionally added to Rossini’s music by singers is equally balanced. This subject is treated at length, both showing where the added ornaments are acceptable and even necessary and giving examples of the practice that are deplorable and even vile. Gossett remarks on the greater interpretive freedom of Italian opera in the nineteenth century compared to other genres and national styles, in its preservation of improvised embellishments and even the latitude allowed to the choice of instrumentation. I think, in his devotion to Rossini, that he underestimates the extent to which this technique of added ornament receded with the work of Bellini, which coincided with the last phase of Rossini’s career. It is certainly true that singers continued to add ornaments to Bellini, but there is evidence that they reduced the embellishments, and even, in one famous case, made a public declaration of performing the melodies exactly as written. Early on, Bellini briefly tried to create a new spare style that Rossini criticized as “too philosophical” for its lack of vocal brilliance, and it is interesting that the only examples of added ornamentation of Bellini’s music given by Gossett are all written by Rossini.

Gossett introduces and emphasizes the concept of “integrity,” in this case for an elaborate discussion of the problem of cutting parts of the operas in order to make them feasible for modern productions when the public wishes to return home before midnight and the management does not wish to be burdened with the expense of overtime:

Most cuts introduced by thoughtful performers in the nineteenth century and in the modern world are not arbitrary manipulations of unstable texts, but rather attempts to eliminate elements considered to be least significant or characteristic for a work’s aesthetic integrity and historical position…. At what points do such cuts distort the work?

It might seem as if integrity has here displaced the not quite totally devalued concept of authenticity. We might say that the addition of ornaments to Bellini and Verdi is authentic in the sense that we know that it was practiced during their lifetimes, but it is also clear that it was less integral to their style than to Rossini’s or Handel’s.

Gossett’s treatment of the history of stage direction is stimulating. My one regret is that he does not apply the question of integrity here. In his discussion of controversial stagings, he makes a small and uncharacteristic lapse into Philistinism when he writes: “Verdi’s reaction to any such controversy would have been to look at the box-office receipts. We could do worse.” I do not think that Verdi would have found good receipts sufficient compensation for the 2001 production of Un Ballo in Maschera in Barcelona that featured the conspirators sitting on toilets and the introduction of an irrelevant homosexual rape.

Gossett has a more generous spirit and a larger tolerance than I do. And this is for the best of reasons: he loves these operas so much, and rightly, that he wants to see them produced not at any cost, but almost, and hopes for successful and popular staging. The difficulty of achieving this with the serious operas of Rossini, however, is recognized in a few profound sentences:

Is it Rossini’s fault? That is hard to tell. Certainly his operas emerge from a theatrical tradition quite different from the more rapid dramaturgy that often characterizes the operas of Verdi. In Rossini, events come more slowly; arias, duets, ensembles expound the drama in a more formal way. In a slow ensemble, each character will sing the same melodic line and from these separate melodic lines, with added counterpoints, an overall emotional state emerges. The music can be stunningly beautiful, but it suspends time, rather than moving it along.

In the context of this discussion of the problems of modern staging of neglected operas Gossett refers to the Handel operas, and his comments are revealing:

Given this more deliberate dramatic and musical pacing, traditional stagings of Rossini’s serious operas often seem like concerts in costume.

Yet much the same thing could have been said until recently about the operas of George Frideric Handel, which are even further from familiar theatrical traditions…. The “da capo” aria tradition, with its almost obligatory ABA structure,* the castratos that roamed the eighteenth-century stage, the formal poetic language, all seemed to place a barrier between a modern audience and the successful revival of Handel.

Yet the situation has turned itself completely around in the past decade. Instead of trying to prod Handel’s operas into mid-nineteenth-century conventions, musicians have accepted the structure of the works and discovered their beauties. Stage directors have invented new ways of bringing them to life…. They have discovered that it is possible to stage througha “da capo” aria, to make an aria tell a story that begins at the beginning of the first “A” and concludes only at the end of the repeated “A.”

But you cannot make a “da capo” aria tell a story. Because of its formal structure, you can only impose a story on it by actions or gestures which are completely extraneous to the music: the return of the A section can be more intense, but that is not a narrative device but an emotional and lyrical one, and it requires no action or gesture but only great singing.

A staging should arise from the music. The policy that now governs most operatic productions of imposing a staging absolutely extraneous to the music and only tenuously relevant to the libretto assumes that the opera as it has come down to us is uninteresting and needs a total makeover to be worth mounting. The fundamental assumption is that the public is incapable of taking any pleasure in the drama and the music of Handel’s and Rossini’s operas, and needs to be distracted to ward off boredom. Gossett does not take a position very different from mine as he writes that “we need directors who attempt to think through the Italian repertory anew, not directors who impose extreme settings in order to stir life into works in which they do not believe.” Nevertheless, I think we need a fundamental reform of the assumptions underlying stage direction today.

In the early nineteenth century, the stage director (who was often the librettist) was chiefly concerned that the singers would get on and off the stage at the right time without bumping into each other or upsetting the scenery, and that the indications of the libretto were followed. The actions and gestures of the chorus were regulated, but (except for making sure that the necessary events of the plot were carried out) dramatic interpretation was largely left to the individual singer. In the first half of the nineteenth century, power resided in the singer. When the director of the Paris Opera in 1830 needed to save money, he lowered the salary of the orchestral musicians, explaining that he couldn’t touch the fees paid to the principal singers or economize on the scenic effects. But it was the singer who was at the center of the production.

Dissatisfaction with traditional staging was first manifested in regard to Wagner’s operas already before the end of the composer’s life. The stimulus came from French and English experiments in stagecraft, above all from Adolphe Appia and Gordon Craig, who felt that the naturalistic staging of Wagner at Bayreuth was unworthy of the symbolist character of the drama and the music, and that the scenery should be replaced by new effects of lighting. In the French and German theater of the first half of the twentieth century, the stage director as a creative force was finally invented with figures like Aurélien Lugné-Poë, who directed theater productions in Paris, and Max Reinhardt, who did so in Berlin and Vienna; but it was some time before this was to have a great influence on opera outside Germany.

In the first half of the twentieth century, the power in opera was little by little displaced from the singer to the conductor. It was the temperamental and masterful orchestra director who became the star as much or even more than the divas. One spoke more and more of Beecham’s La Bohème, Toscanini’s Meistersinger, and after the death of Callas the conductor reigned unchallenged. Now he has been pushed to the side by the stage director: today we speak of Zeffirelli’s Bohème and Peter Stein’s Pelléas. Sometimes, in such productions as Jonathan Miller’s Rigolettoand Patrice Chéreau’s Ring of the Niebelungs, there has been a gain, and singers have learned how to act convincingly instead of restricting themselves to a few stock gestures and grimaces.

Gossett makes a distinction between “displaced” and “radical” stagings. In the first, a story is moved either temporally or geographically, but the subject, characters, situations, and actions are basically unchanged. In the radical staging, “the operatic text is treated as ‘a sheer, unprescriptive stimulus to the free play of theatrical imagination'” (so Gossett, quoting Roger Savage). The displaced staging has a long and traditional history, and it was already forced upon many composers by the censors even before the work was produced: Un Ballo in Maschera was shifted from Stockholm to Boston, and Rigoletto was moved from Paris to Mantua. Staging in modern dress, starting with Shakespeare and transferred to opera, has become traditional.

The radical staging is a more contemporary phenomenon, and it is prompted by changes in the critical atmosphere in which the recapitulation of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has been characterized as the work of a frustrated rapist; a politically correct Rite of Spring sacrifices a male virgin as well as a female; Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park is radically reinterpreted by means of a glancing allusion to the slave trade; and it has been seriously suggested that the singer of Schumann’s cycle A Woman’s Love and Life ought to indicate by her performance her disgust with the male chauvinism of the work.

Radical stagings are, I believe, largely a fad; most of them are ideological frivolities hoping to be taken seriously, and they are likely to disappear as they tend to interfere with the pleasure one has at public entertainment. In any case, the problem of modern staging of opera is a much more general one, and touches the nature of operatic form: it is the modern belief that the director must innovate and may invent stage business that has nothing to do with the music.

It is true that the radical stagings contain the most egregious examples: a Tamino and a Priest in The Magic Flute (at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris) who bounce up and down on a trampoline while the priest tells Tamino to Mozart’s most solemn music that he might never see Pamina again; a Brünnhilde in Siegfried (at the Stuttgart Opera) who brushes her teeth at a washbasin in a motel room while Siegfried pleads his love; a Lulu(at the Paris Opera) who kills her husband not in a closely confined salon but in a crowded entrance hall with hordes of servants carrying drinks up an immense staircase for a fashionable party (when the police arrive to arrest Lulu, they hurtle down the staircase as if they had all been invited to the party)—examples of this sort of absurdity are easy enough to find.

But nonradical stagings may also make musical nonsense even when they have some dramatic sense: a Wotan in Die Walküre (at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris) who pauses on the way to punish Brünnhilde for her disobedience in order to kiss the brow of his dead son while the music clearly represents his savage desire for vengeance. The gesture is dramatically but not musically appropriate, since it makes Wagner inept, as if he did not know how to write the proper music to illustrate kissing the brow of a dead son.

One of the first stage directors to become famous for the invention of stage business irrelevant to the music and even the text of the libretto was Jean-Pierre Ponnelle: I saw his work first at Arles, where he did Rossini’s Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra. During most of the arias there was always some kind of activity on the side, which I found comprehensible since the diva was Montserrat Caballé, who, as is well known, had it in her contract that no director could make her do anything on the stage that she did not want to do. Since she preferred to do nothing but walk out majestically, sing, and then leave the scene, some distracting movement to catch the eye might seem to be welcome. One stage director of Caballé in a San Francisco production of Verdi’s Ernani took a different tack, and slightly darkened the stage for all of Caballé’s scenes.

The relation among music, words, and action is the basis of opera: staging should enhance the music, not downgrade its interest or importance. Even the finest stage directors today, like Jonathan Miller, can be misled by our present system, which demands innovative staging. Miller felt that Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande had to be “rescued from the reproduction tapestry world of Maeterlinck’s Middle Ages” and placed it at the time of its composition, in the early twentieth century. I, too, find the false Gothic of Maeterlinck’s play somewhat distasteful; but Debussy’s music clearly calls up a temporally undefined and very distant past, not a recent or contemporary world, and the alienating distance was lost in the New York production. Miller is one of the few directors to be conscious of what Gossett calls the work’s integrity; but in opera music is primary, not illustrative as in a film. Music and drama enhance each other at every point, and a dramatic effect unrepresented in the music, or not consonant with the music, has no right of entry. The best model for an operatic production would be the example of Georges Balanchine: even in non-abstract works like The Prodigal Son, almost every dance movement and every gesture was never a purely choreographic effect but the direct expression of, and response to, a detail in the score.

This Issue

October 5, 2006