Understanding Italian Opera

PDF Understanding Italian Opera 1st Edition

Book author
  1. Tim Carter
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Opera is often regarded as the pinnacle of high art. A "Western" genre with global reach, it is where music and drama come together in unique ways, supported by stellar singers and spectacular scenic effects. Yet it is also patently absurd -- why should anyone break into song on the dramatic
stage? -- and shrouded in mystique. In this engaging and entertaining guide, renowned music scholar Tim Carter unravels its many layers to offer a thorough introduction to Italian opera from the seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries.

Eschewing the technical musical detail that all too often dominates writing on opera, Carter begins instead where the composers themselves did: with the text. Walking readers through the relationship between music and poetry that lies at the heart of any opera, Carter then offers explorations of
five of the most enduring and emblematic Italian operas: Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea; Handel's Julius Caesar in Egypt; Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro; Verdi's Rigoletto; and Puccini's La Bohème. Shedding light on the creative collusions and collisions involved in bringing opera to the
stage, the various, and varying, demands of the text and music, and the nature of its musical drama, Carter also shows how Italian opera has developed over the course of music history. Complete with synopses, cast lists, and suggested further reading for each work discussed, Understanding Italian
Opera is a must-read for anyone with an interest in and love for this glorious art.


“I am Music” (Io la Musica son), sings the character delivering the prologue in Claudio Monteverdi’s opera, Orfeo (1607). “Who am I? I am a poet” (Chi son? Sono un poeta) is how Rodolfo introduces himself to Mimì in Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème (1896). We can rehearse the arguments made so often during opera’s long history in terms of which matters most: music or words. But despite the almost three hundred years separating Orfeo and La Bohème, what remains constant is that Monteverdi’s La Musica and Puccini’s Rodolfo are each singing the same thing: Italian poetry. Their music is, of course, quite different: early Baroque declamation on the one hand, and late Romantic lyricism on the other. But their texts share similar poetic structures that have strong musical implications.

It is a fact of operatic life that words written for music will almost always be cast as poetry, not prose. The very first librettist, the Florentine poet Ottavio Rinuccini (1562–1621), established particular poetic procedures that endured in texts for Italian operas through to the early twentieth century and beyond. The musical styles that composers applied to such librettos changed, as did notions of adhering, or not, to the poetry’s formal principles. These principles, however, allow for various approaches to understanding Italian opera both as a genre and in the case of individual works by providing a constant against which one can measure the musical setting. They also allow the asking of a very simple question: what happens when the music and the libretto somehow fail to coincide?

This gives easy access to a whole host of issues lying at the heart of any opera: the creative collusions and collisions involved in bringing it to the stage; the various, and varying, demands of its text and music; and the nature of its musical drama, to name just a few. In other words, it is as good a way as any—and perhaps better than most—to dig deeper into the workings of opera. In this book, I seek to show how these workings might be uncovered by way of a close reading of five Italian operas by Monteverdi, Handel, Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini. Two come from the Baroque era, one from the Classical, and two from the Romantic, at least in terms of the way in which music-historical periods are often identified. I chose them not just because they all sit squarely in the operatic canon, but also given that our familiarity with them may have blinded us to some of the remarkable, and remarkably surprising, things they do.

“Italian opera” is defined in terms of language rather than by the nationality of its creators: for example, Handel was German then British, and Mozart was born and lived in what we now call Austria. It is true, however, that native Italian librettists, composers, and performers for a long time dominated a repertoire with widespread international currency. Some of the more general remarks made in this book about poetic structures on the one hand, and musical forms on the other, would apply equally to opera in other languages (Czech, English, French, German, Russian). Likewise, my discussions of broader thematic issues (what kinds of subjects often appear in operas), of practical matters (how operas are brought to the stage), and of perennial questions concerning opera as drama apply across the entire genre. But sticking with one verbal and even musical language serves a historical purpose, and also an aesthetic one. Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea and Puccini’s La Bohème might seem very different works, as indeed they are. But they also have common threads to do with shared linguistic and other values.

I imagine that readers of this book will already be fascinated by opera and its performance, whether live or by way of recording, but will want to know more about how it works: its tools and materials. In terms of navigating my text, it would make sense to start with chapter 1, but the subsequent chapters on single operas are able to stand on their own: each begins with a cast list (also noting the original singers, where known), details of the first performances, a comprehensive synopsis, and useful background information, before digging deeper. The quotations from opera librettos are taken from standard sources—usually those close to the music—save for minor editing to normalize spellings and punctuation. I do not expect fluency in Italian: everything is translated or paraphrased. There is no musical notation in this book, and technical terms are kept to a minimum. Four can be defined easily enough. The music I discuss is for the most part tonal, that is, based on one of twenty-four possible keys defined by way of a primary pitch and of two types of scales (major or minor) built upon it (so, F major, D minor, etc.): such keys exist in a network of relations that can be close or distant. Modulation is the process by which music moves from one key to another. If one thinks of a baseball diamond, the batter’s box could be the tonic; first, second, and third bases represent related keys (in most cases, the dominant, four steps above the tonic, is the closest one); and the aim is to return to the home plate, or tonic. Cadences are a means of musical punctuation at the ends of phrases: they can be strong (like a period or full stop), weak (a comma), or somewhere in between (a colon or semicolon). Musical meter creates measures (bars) by way of grouping strong and weak beats: they usually fall into groups of twos (duple-time; 2/4), fours (common-time; 4/4 or 𝄴), or threes (triple-time; 3/4). These beats can be subdivided into twos or threes: for the latter, 6/8 (duple-time with a beat subdivided into threes), 9/8, and 12/8 (triple- and common-time subdivided in the same way) are common.

This book draws on several decades of my talking about opera to audiences of all kinds, whether in the university classroom, the pre-performance lecture, or the opera club. My gratitude to them for having listened is equal to their deep, abiding passion for an art form that in any logical world would be relegated to the realms of the absurd. It is a passion which, of course, I share.
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