Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Keeping Score: Divas and Scholars, Part 1

Philip Gossett. Divas and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera. University of Chicago Press, 2006

Whenever I have been cast in an opera, there are many questions about the production to discuss. The fee, the dates, schedule conflicts, etc. But some of the most important questions involve what exactly I will be singing. What edition of the score are we using? Are there cuts and if so, what are they? (I can only remember being in one opera with no cuts at all and that was The Rape of Lucretia). Will we be performing the “traditional” cadenzas and ornaments, or will we be creating new ones or will be doing none at all? These are not easy questions under the best of circumstances but when performing Italian opera there are many more problems that must do both with the circumstances under which the operas were written and the 100-200 years of “tradition” that are attached to most of the scores. 

If you have ever wondered why the published scores for so many operas are in the shape they are in (obviously wrong notes, discrepancies between editions and between those editions and the orchestral score, etc.), Philip Gossett offers the answers to these and many more questions about opera scores and opera in performance. Divas and Scholars explains what we find in the various editions and what we hear when we go to the opera. Philip Gossett spent his life not only studying Italian opera but advising on productions of those operas. His experience then is practical as well as academic. Gossett was strongly discouraged by his professors from choosing Italian opera as his research area. At first, he had no intention of attempting to create scholarly editions of Italian operas, but he eventually did find himself working on critical editions of the work of the bel canto composers. 

There are a great many factors to consider when studying opera. Gossett starts with the libretto. He makes a strong case for understanding the original text of the librettist before studying the many repetitions and changes made by the composer. (A practice also advocated at BCBC. Most of the material in the chapter on libretti will be familiar to Boot Campers, but it is worth reading in full.) Next comes the music. (Sometimes composers started composing from a complete libretto. At other times they were composing as the various scenes were sent to them piecemeal. In a few situations, the composer asked for arias or ensembles in a specific poetic meter as they had already composed a melody for that scene. As deadlines for composing, rehearsing, and performing an opera were often quite short (three weeks of rehearsals seems to be the norm and that includes composing arias custom-fitted to the singers and orchestrating the entire work. Ensembles and choral numbers were composed first. All of this was done in a rush which sometimes necessitated composers like Rossini to leave the composition or at least the completion of the work from a skeleton of the score and usually the secco recitatives to an assistant. Fortunately, composers in the first half of the 19th century used high quality paper that has held up well. The same cannot be said for the paper available in the second half of the century. 

Rehearsals were chaotic and everything happened at breakneck speed. Of particular concern to us is that copyists were paid by the page not by the hour, incentivizing them to work as quickly as possible. It is therefore not surprising that mistakes crept into the scores, part books (a score with all the music for a particular role, usually with figured bass rather than a piano reduction), and orchestra parts. It is a great mystery is how any opening night ever came off well and is a testament to the abilities of everyone involved that things sometimes ran smoothly enough for the premiere of a new work to be a success. “Indeed, nineteenth-century performance materials actually used in the theater are so filled with mistakes that one wonders how the performers ever got through an evening.” (p. 73)

Due to the plethora of versions created for different productions in the years following the premiere, we are left with many alternate arias and scenes or simply variations on the same pieces. Even in the premiere production, composers made numerous changes during rehearsals for the premiere and then again for each subsequent performance with new casts and in new theaters. Some changes were to accommodate the singers and others to cater to local taste. (For example, changing a tragic ending to a happy one or vice versa.) In some cases, orchestrations were altered, usually adding instruments to earlier works composed for smaller orchestras.

Many changes were made by the composer hoping to make a more successful performance of his opera. Other changes, however, were imposed by the state. Censorship was common in the 19th century. Subject matter deemed appropriate in Naples might be taboo in Rome or Paris necessitating, cuts, or alterations of the text. In the case of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera the setting had to be moved from Sweden to Boston! Other changes were made by the singers themselves (substituting arias or even whole scenes as in the case of Maria Malibran using Vaccai’s ending rather than Bellini’s for I Capuletti ed I Montecchi.) Still others were made by producers in other theaters (such as the so-called Malibran version of Bellini’s La Sonnambula that was created by Sir Henry Bishop for performances in England and in an English translation. Bellini did not object to the changes, but he had no part in creating them.)

Given the number of errors, alterations, additions, edits, and other variations made to these scores, it is surprising that over the decades that followed something of a “performing tradition” emerged of the most performed Italian operas. In addition, some ornaments, variations and even cuts because “standard.” None of this was based on any scholarly authority and only rarely were the composers’ manuscripts consulted. This is the musical culture into which Philip Gossett entered and attempted to prepare authoritative scores for the operas of Rossini and Verdi. 

There are a great many examples offered. Too many to discuss in this synopsis. And this is only the first of three posts I plan to make on this book. This really is a must read for anyone who sings, conducts, directs, produces, or just enjoys 19th century Italian opera. (In other words, anyone who would be reading this blog!)