Monteverdi's Musical Theatre

By Williams, Peter | Musical Times, Autumn 2003 | Go to article overview

Monteverdi's Musical Theatre


Williams, Peter, Musical Times


Stageworthy PETER WILLIAMS Monteverdi's musical theatre Tim Carter Yale UP (New Haven & London, 2002); x, 326pp; L25. ISBN 0 300 09676 3.

Near the close of his major new book, Professor Carter explains its thrust: much of what happens in Monteverdi's stage music is determined at least by the arts of poetry on one hand, and of the theatre on the other, and to treat these works as somehow purely, or even supremely, 'musical' is fundamentally to miss their point. To this end he discusses what is documented and can be speculated about the composer's priorities, context, biography, colleagues, patrons, circumstances and understanding of stagecraft and verse, with respect to the wide-ranging genre or genres we might call 'musical theatre'. His expert handling of the primary and secondary literature is clear on every page, and particularly helpful to English-speaking devotees of Monteverdi and of early opera generally - its character, purpose, distinctiveness - will be the author's command of Italian poetic forms, metres, verse-types and thus musical types. Many practical issues of performance, especially of the three extant and complete operas (Orfeo, Il ritorno, Popped), are covered at length, though not performance practice as such. The book is assured of a place in the literature of early opera for this as for its presentation of what is known and unknown about the many lost works, the questions of authorship in Poppea, the ample discussion of various kinds of dramatic work that is not strictly opera (such as the Combattimento), and for its alert interpretation of the stories and myth (Orpheus, Nero, Seneca, Ulysses, Penelope) as they were used in the new musical genres. Very welcome is the setting out of precisely what-happens-where in such pieces as the Combattimento, or showing in a table how in the complete operas the singers' roles can be distributed. The chapter on balli raises interesting doubts as it attempts to deal with such musical cruxes as the dubious seven-bar phrases in Ballo delle ingrate by finding reasons in the text for them. Perhaps there is something a bit cold-blooded or prosaic in listing the keys of the exquisite Prologue of Orfeo or in describing the fabulous opening of Il ritorno as having 'expressive power and dramatic effect', but some such discussion seems inevitable in any book on great operas.

A focus on texts and their position in all kinds of Italian secular vocal music of the time leads to a rather wordy book not very easy to follow in its layout, especially when a music example precedes its reference. A glossary would have helped, e.g. to remind one what versi sdruccioli are, as would the original texts of the translated documents - replacing, perhaps, some of the self-references and unnecessary politesses (e.g. why apologise for not viewing Monteverdi 'through the prism of gender studies'?). Since the documentation is a strength of the book, to have the originals as well would have given it permanent value.

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