Opera's Orbit: Musical Drama and the Influence of Opera in Arcadian Rome

Article excerpt

STAGE AND SCREEN Opera's Orbit: Musical Drama and the Influence of Opera in Arcadian Rome. By Stefanie Tcharos. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. [xiv, 320 p. ISBN 9780521116657. $95.] Music examples, illustrations, bibliography, index.

Musical genres are thorny things. Repre - senting artifacts of the classifying imagination, generic designations defy categorization along clear-cut lines, let alone transhistorical definition. Witness the example of Joseph Haydn's early keyboard works, many of which were originally designated as divertimenti or partitas by their creator, but were soon renamed sonatas. Or consider the origins of Mozart's two-act serenata Il Re Pastore (1775) in a three-act dramma per musica (1751) by Pietro Meta - stasio. Of course, as Stefanie Tcharos acknowledges, "categorizations and genre titles were seminal and effective," if only within their own cultural context and "in spite of their inability to hold any real consistency, categorical protectionism, and enclosure" (p. 13). It is the modern scholar's task to come to grips with the "multiple manifestations of form and presentation" (p. 162) of each genre by redressing its social dimensions as performative event. Stefanie Tcharos boldly accepts this challenge in Opera's Orbit: Musical Drama and the Influence of Opera in Arcadian Rome, but whether she succeeds in her daunting quest remains to be seen.

Tcharos's work area is the lateseventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century Roman stage, which she does not understand as an "actual stage of a particular theater or a context in which a given composer's works were performed" (p. 1), nor as a "collection of discrete formal texts" (p. 2), but rather as a "metaphorical and symbolic" stage, and a "highly problematic" (p. 1) one at that. As she stresses throughout her opening chapter, "Enclosures, Crises, Polemics: Opera Production in 1690s Arcadian Rome" (pp. 20-45), opera lived an uncertain existence in the transitory decades at hand, now enjoying unrestricted freedom under such bons vivants as Alexander VIII, then facing outright proscription under Innocents XI and XII. But "despite the conventional wisdom which argues that the upheavals of papal policies regarding opera . . . were to the detriment of Roman theatrical life," Tcharos asserts that the "city's peculiar predicament and necessary pocketing of opera culture into various private corners had creative advantages," allowing "for a variety of opera models" and a "change from the more singular adherence to the institutionalized formulas that dominated Venice's theater scene" (p. 22). Opera's "sphere of influence" or "orbit" (the term is Mikhail Bakthin's) thus reached further than the actual dramma per musica; it also encompassed the three genres Tcharos turns to in the central chapters of her book: the oratorio, serenata, and cantata.

The first of these chapters, "Disrupting the Oratorio" (pp. 46-97), combines an interpretation of Arcangelo Spagna's Discorso intorno a gl'oratorii (1706) with discussions of Pietro Ottoboni's Il martirio di Sant'Eu - stachio (1690) and Alessandro Scarlatti's two Giuditta oratorios (1694 and 1697) to argue that the late-seventeenth-century Roman oratorio tended to be "resolutely 'anti-opera' in official function," while at the same time being "intimately bound with conceptions of the theatrical" (p. 46). Notwithstanding their mission to "erase all that opera signified morally and socially" (p. 46), various oratorios in fact incorporated theatrical features, including stage decorations and dance in the case of Sant'Eustachio. Unfortunately, Tcharos omits several aspects that could have helped her chart the inextricable ties between the Roman oratorio and opera with more historical depth and precision than happens to be the case. It is a mystery, for instance, why she ignores the long tradition of the mystery play and sacra rappresentazione, many examples of which-reports and drawings tell us-enacted martyrs' lives in equally "theatrical" and musical fashion as Ottoboni's Sant'Eustachio did. …