Don Giovanni

By Said, Edward W. | The Nation, September 26, 1987 | Go to article overview

Don Giovanni


Said, Edward W., The Nation


The Barber of Seville Don Giovanni

Much of the great outburst of intellectual energy in recent literary criticism has focused on the difficulty, even the impossibility, of interpretation. Psychoanalysis, semiotics, linguistics, deconstruction, feminist theory and Marxism have so expanded our notions of what a text or an authorial performance is that saying what was meant in King Lear or Ulysses is now an enormously complex enterprise. At its best, interpretation has therefore become inventive, a form of deliberate misreading, supplying all sorts of frankly conjectural possibilities as a way of rendering the work's historical distance, the author's silence, the critic's manifest power over the work. Texts that are subject to the tyranny of the unconscious or the tactics of class are no longer read for their lifelike depiction of characters, setting or history. "Wordsworth' has become a convenient shorthand for the writer whose text--a much more significant word--is the tangled meeting place for innumerable and unstable forces, none of them renderable "realistically' in the way that a photograph of a waterfall represents a real waterfall.

Musical performance is, of course, an art of interpretation. Yet it isn't plausible to expert a pianist playing a Beethoven sonata or an opera director staging Wozzeck to produce creative misreadings of these works. Most musical performance is still held in by mimetic norms. The pianist tries to play as exactly as possible what he or she thinks Beethoven actually wrote, in the order that he wrote it, first movement first, last movement last. Similarly, opera productions, although they give the director considerable leeway, must still respect character and plot. It would be impossible to do Aida without an Aida, although in a famous Frankfurt production Wieland Wagner had her skulking in the background, leaving the central position to Amneris. Directors and audiences (to say nothing of singers and dancers) retain a common realistic expectation of what the intactness of a piece is, otherwise there would be no opera, and no paying audience.

So it has been the case that musical revivals have tended to be conservative, trying to get back to some lost or forgotten original. The vogue for early music played on original instruments, the revival of bel canto repertoire and style, the return to Mahler: All these have embodied not just the idea of recuperation but a usually unstated ideology of authenticity. The musical results are often satisfying. But it is not generally noted that even so apparently harmless and "correct' a notion as faithfulness to an original is itself already an interpretation, in which a slew of unverifiable entities (the composer's intention, an original sound, etc.) are set up and bowed to as if they were facts of nature.

Take as an illustration the current Rossini revival. With the exception of The Barber of Seville, Rossini's operas were scarcely performed in this country until about thirty years ago. A number of factors--the interest in bel canto, the advent of singers like Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne, the massive re-editing of Rossini's scores undertaken by Ricordi, the pioneering historical research of scholars like Philip Gossett --stimulated interest in the other operas, which are now available on records and occasionally performed with some educated attention to his extraordinary music. Rossini's work is still not appreciated as it ought to be or performed with the frequency it deserves, but it is rare to encounter even The Barber today without also noting a salutary change in interpretive attitudes to Rossini's music and drama.

As a performance of The Barber of Seville at London's Covent Garden in July revealed, even the most well-known Rossini is no longer played as simple comic entertainment, fit for children or softheaded adults. The contemporary Rosina, sung in London with a wryly confident maturity by Lucia Valentini-Terrani, is a cynical mezzo, not a soprano ingenue. …

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