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

By Mary Hunter | Go to book overview

Chapter Three
OPERA BUFFA'S SOCIAL
REVERSALS

IF THE OUTERMOST framework of opera buffa is its reception and selfpresentation as sheer pleasure, the inner frame, so to speak, is its representation of immutable hierarchy as the social fundament of the genre. However, opera buffa would not be comedy if it did not routinely test and stress those conservative frames with a variety of disruptive elements. Appealing alternatives to the framing order arise (in Così fan tutte, for example, the “wrong” lovers might marry); normally subordinate characters occupy the center of attention and sympathy for considerable stretches of time (Susanna is a classic example); structurally powerful characters are made to look foolish or even wicked (Count Almaviva serves as the obvious case here); and problems of power are continually in the air (Don Giovanni can be read—at least in part—as a disquisition on the obligations and limits of aristocratic privilege). One could argue that opera buffa's explicit function as mere entertainment reduces its social reversals and disruptions to the status of decontextualized titillation, and surely that is how some spectators would have understood them. At the same time, the fact that these endlessly reiterated reversals all concern then-recognizable—and negotiable—social relations suggests that one should not ignore their potential for effects beyond easy titillation.

There are at least two complementary ways of understanding the social dimension of opera buffa's comic reversals: we can call them the “direct” and the “carnivalesque” modes of understanding. Reinhard Strohm's acute observations about mid-century opera buffa can represent the former. He writes: “Opera buffa does not simply represent different relationships between the various strata like a broad panorama; rather, the problems of upward social mobility, of socially unequal marriages between the nobility and the bourgeois, of unworthy or ignorant behavior of nobility, of the mistaking and switching of high and low origins, and of social fraud, are among the central themes of the genre. [These are], then, themes that call into question and ironize socially embedded distinctions.”1 Basing his argument in part on a reading of Goldoni's stage plays, Strohm argues that the primary social aim of opera buffa was to effect some sort of reconciliation

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1
Reinhard Strohm, Die italienische Oper im 18. Jahrhundert (Wilhelmshaven: Heinrichshofen, 1979) pp. 249–50.

-71-

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