Dons & Donne

By Howard, Patricia | Musical Times, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Dons & Donne


Howard, Patricia, Musical Times


Opera and society in Italy and France from Monteverdi to Bourdieu Edited by Victoria Johnson, Jane F. Fulcher & Thomas Ertman Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 2007); xxxii, 406pp; £50, $90. ISBN 9780 521 85675 1.

The Puccini problem: opera, nationalism, and modernity Alexandra Wilson Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 2007); xii, 321pp; £50, $90. ISBN 9780 521 85688 1.

Society, culture and opera in Florence, 1814-1830 Aubrey S. Garlington Ashgate (London, 2005); xv, 207pp; £60, $120. ISBN 07546 3451 5.

The prima donna and opera, 1815-1930 Susan Rutherford Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 2006); xii, 381pp; £55, $99. ISBN 9780 521 85167 1.

Opera and sovereignty: transforming myths in eighteenth-century Italy Martha Feldman University of Chicago Press (Chicago & London, 2007); xxvii, 545pp; £32, $55. ISBN 978 0 220 24112 8.

THE TITLE Opera and society in Italy and France from Monteverdi to Bourdieu is a tease. Not only is the late Pierre Bourdieu so little known on this side of the channel that the unwary reader might pick up the book hoping to read about a previously unheard of Baroque composer, but the implication - that the work of the French sociologist marks as significant a moment in opera studies as that signalled by Monteverdi (presumably a shorthand for the earliest opera composers) in opera history - is preposterous. Nevertheless, opera invites interdisciplinarity. And although, over the centuries, it been the object of separate studies by musicians, littérateurs, historians of art, architecture, dance, vocal technique, commerce and politics, it still retains puzzles and ambiguities that can only be solved by bringing together investigative techniques from a variety of specialisms. The subject of Johnson, Fulcher & Ertman's volume is the dynamics of historical change in the world of opera. The aim of the contributors, all of them claiming to have been influenced by Bourdieu, is to 're-embed' opera in its 'social, political and cultural contexts of creation and reception'. Unfortunately not all aspects of the genre benefit equally from a Bourdieu-inspired approach. The essays in this volume can be divided between those in which sociological methodology is a useful tool and those that struggle to wield it when their authors would clearly rather be writing about the music.

In the first category, Franco Piperno's crisp and informative account of three aspects of 18th-century Italian opera is exemplary. He tackles major topics that cannot be explained through the usual musicological channels: repertory dissemination, the creation of a new genre of sacred opera, and the relationship between the different production systems of seria and buffa and their contrasted musical styles. Addressing the interface of art and politics, Wendy Heller writes elegantly on the curious disjunction between the administration of the Venetian republic and the systems of government represented in its favourite operas. Philip Gossett's topic of Verdi's choruses and their role in the formation of an Italian sense of nationhood is equally amenable to a 'Bourdieu' approach. French opera fares less well. I am unconvinced by attempts to see choruses in Baroque opera as representing societies. Rebecca Harris-Warrick, with her formidable knowledge of the structural, decorative and metrical imperatives that ballet imposes on opera, is well-placed to say enlightening things about Lully's choruses, but here her analysis seems to be driven by the need to pursue an inappropriate sociological enquiry. Catherine Kintzler takes the same subject further to include the works of Rameau, but meets the same dead end, conceding that in French iyth- and 18th-century opera 'the ordinary world of the people is not touched upon directly'; she concludes that the most powerful function of the chorus is in the creation of spectacle, a dimension of drama excluded from the contemporary legitimate stage. …

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