The Culture of Opera Buffa in Mozart's Vienna: A Poetics of Entertainment

By Mary Hunter | Go to book overview
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Chapter Two
OPERA BUFFA'S CONSERVATIVE
FRAMEWORKS

ALTHOUGH opera buffa clearly asserts that sheer pleasure is its function, and although its context seems to support the genre's self-representation, these works do in fact regularly address some of the social and ideological changes working their way through Europe during the eighteenth century. Questions of social mobility, pretension, inner and “outer” nobility, the limits, benefits, and obligations of power, and the changing relations between the genders are all integral to these operas. One could reasonably argue that the strength of the repertory's frame as mere entertainment and sheer pleasure contains and neutralizes the potentially problematic representations of socially sensitive subjects—after all, “what is not permitted to be said in our time is sung,” as the writer for the Realzeitung noted right after the premiere of Le nozze di Figaro.1 And if Mario Lavagetto's Freudian argument is taken seriously, then one could also argue that opera buffa's reconfiguration of these real social tensions as a series of stock dramatic formulae allows them to be absorbed into the comforting domain of the familiar and controllable.2

But entertainment is, after all, a political category, as imperial adviser Tobias Philipp Gebler may have recognized in a 1775 document, “A Most Humble Suggestion for the Improvement of the National Stage and Theatre in General,” attributed to him: “Every subject who can give joy and pleasure in alternation keeps his spirits up and bears work and ill fortune patiently. Public dance-places, concerts, walks, [and] especially good plays are the means to make the public cheerful. He who tries to keep his fellow citizen in a good humor lightens the burden of government for the Regent, since it will be easier to rule his subjects in this cheerful condition

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1
Michtner, DAB, p. 208.
2
Quei più modesti romanzi (Milan: Garzanti, 1979) chapter 1, n. 14. The repetitious child's game described by Freud confirms the child's mastery not only over the game itself, but also over the troubling circumstances that gave rise to it. In a more sociological mode, Richard Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia,” Movie 24 (1977) pp. 2–13; reprinted in Rick Altman, ed., Genre: The Musical (London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981) pp. 175–89, suggests that one function of entertainment is to enact Utopia by compensating for the tensions or absences in the society that spawns it. Thus, according to this model, one utopian component of opera buffa would be the clarity and predictability of the social order it projects, in the face of increasing fluidity and disorder in late-eighteenth-century society.

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