Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Divas and Scholars Part IV

This is the last of my posts about Philip Gosset’s Divas and Scholars. I would apologize for having written so much about this book, but there’s just so much worthy of discussion (and so much more I left out!). Anyone who loves opera, performs opera, or produces opera (so, anyone who would be on a site like Bel Canto Boot Camp!) must read this book, probably more than once. In this last installment I will try to summarize Gossett’s chapters concerning issues that arise when producing opera.

Opera has often been and sometimes still is performed in the language of the audience rather than the language in which it was originally composed. Translations of the libretto pose their own particular questions. For example, a number of operas by Italian composers were composed in French for a Parisian premiere but became better known in the Italian translation (even outside of Italy). Which version should be performed (assuming neither is the native language of most of the audience)? And then there is the issue of translating the opera into the language of the audience. The idea that audiences would attend performances in a language other than the one they spoke, is mostly a very recent one. The case of Italian opera in London was a brief one and led to a backlash (and the rise of the ballad opera form). One aspect of this practice not often acknowledged is how the widespread adaptions of Italian opera into French or German or English (or other) versions (sometimes with musical as well as text changes) influenced the music composed across Europe. Performances of the operas of Mozart and Rossini in French at the Odéon in Paris altered the course of French opera. 

Even further problems arise when we look at the changes imposed on libretti by local censors. Some were made for performances past the premiere, but in many cases, the composer had to alter the text (and also the music) during rehearsals so that the work could be performed. Gossett uses Guillaume Tell as a prime example. When performing the work today which version of the text do we use? Other operas discussed in these terms include Donizetti’s La favorite, and Verdi’s Vespri Siciliani and Don Carlos. (Further discussion of the attempts to restore the original versions of operas will come up later.)

The discussion of translations opens up an even larger question: how important are the words when singing? And from there even more questions. Should we sing in a language that the audience does not understand? If so, should we use supertitles in the theater? Should we insist on clear diction even when it interferes with the singing? Should we use microphones to overcome problems of balance with the orchestra or problems with the acoustics of the theater? Those are all questions still being debated in our own time.

On the subject of staging operas, Gossett discusses the production books from 19th century productions, many of which are still available for study. It would thus be possible to recreate the original staging (or at least from the era of the premiere) of a great many Italian (and French) operas. Not only were the livrets de mise en scene preserved, but many were even published. We can even track changes in how an opera was staged over time. Composers from Rossini to Verdi paid close attention to all aspects of production, including set and costume design. We have ample evidence of this from their letters. 

On the topic of temporal displacement in opera productions, moving the setting to a different place in time, usually to the present or near-present…

In modern productions of Italian opera, then, displaced staging seem entirely appropriate, although it must be acknowledged that modern displacements tend to bring the events of an opera into the present, a different kind of displacement from the ones Verdi undertook. Nonetheless, the practice is historically defensible as long as the works preserve, in Verdi’s words, “the subject and situations.” Even the occasional and inevitable incoherence is admissible. What matters is whether the displacement functions effectively in the theater, and whether it illuminates those elements of the drama that are independent of time and place. Those are judgments each member of the audience must make.

On the subject of more radical stagings, Gossett pulls no punches. He calls out specific directors whose stagings did not work and explains why. This is one of the most interesting aspects of the book, in large part because Gossett is no purist. He speaks for a lot of us in saying, “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.” 

Gossett’s look at 19th century opera next brings us to the issues involving the changes in musical instruments between the first half of the 19th century and the present day. 

There are excellent reasons to use period instruments and there are excellent reasons to use modern instruments. There are even better reasons to use modern instruments with an intimate knowledge of the way earlier instruments sounded, alone and in various combinations. (p. 408) 

Gossett provides much detail and many examples of how bel canto era orchestration produced different timbres than would be achieved using modern instruments. Anyone who conductions Italian opera will want to study that chapter.

A final chapter entitled “Two Kings Head North: Transforming Italian Opera in Scandinavia” recounts two specific situations. The first was an attempt to present the opera that eventually became Un ballo in maschera in its originally conceived setting in 18th century Sweden for a production at Gothenburg Opera. The second was an attempt to create a version of Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims without the unfortunate pomp glorifying the coronation of Charles X whose reign would prove short and disastrous. Both were valiant attempts with controversial results. Again, these accounts are full of detail and well worth reading, especially by anyone tempted to take on such a task.

In closing, I will allow Philip Gossett to summarize his book in his own words:

Yes, opera scholars are as passionate as opera fans about the art form. Indeed, opera scholars are opera fans. But in a world where there is such a paucity of serious thought about performing Italian opera, the task of bringing divas and scholars together seems positively quixotic. Nonetheless, those of us who love this art form in all its complexity, who are negotiating the past with the present, the practical with the theoretical, the needs of staging with the vocal health of singers, the written score with performances based on it, will continue to work diligently to raise the level of discourse. It is to that end that my books has been dedicated.