Academic journal article Women & Music

Performing Sentiment; or, How to Do Things with Tears

Academic journal article Women & Music

Performing Sentiment; or, How to Do Things with Tears

Article excerpt

She does not look at us. She is one of those who do not look at us ...

Everything seems domestic. And yet such a strangeness wells up in our eyes, like tears. It's that she is already gone, she who is called Bathsheba. But the body remains. That much more body, that much more flesh, that much heavier here, now that she-Bathsheba is elsewhere.

Helene Cixous, "Bathsheba or the Interior Bible"

I BEGIN WITH A DEATH. NOT ONE OF THE innumerable deaths of opera's distressed women, although this death could be described as operatic, and it, too, was accompanied by copious tears. Instead, let us begin with the death in 1816 of Giovanni Paisiello, the celebrated composer of Nina, ossia la pazza per l'amore (1789), an opera famous for its virtuous, weeping heroine driven mad by the loss of her lover. Paisiello won renown for the delicacy and sensitivity of his musical portrayal of grief, but at the end of his life the composer's lot was as desperate as that of the fictional Nina. Paisiello was out of favor with Ferdinando, the king of Naples, for his strong connections to Napoleon during the political upheavals of the past two decades, and his reputation was in eclipse. Since he had lost his French pension as well as his stipend from the grand duchess of Russia with Napoleon's defeat, he was also experiencing financial difficulties. Jno Leland Hunt, with characteristic dramatic flair, describes the composer at the end of his life as a destitute, miserable figure: "He had been abandoned by the court, the nobility, and by all but his closest friends. He took these setbacks badly and was frequently seen weeping over his misfortunes." (1)

Hunt's image of the tearful Paisiello, who ends his days, like Nina, "weeping over his misfortunes," has a certain attraction in that it brings the abundance of tears in sentimental opera full circle, back to the composer's own biography. Perhaps it was this image of the penurious Paisiello, shunned by former connections and patrons, that inspired such an outpouring of grief upon his death. The funeral itself was elaborate: prominent mourners filled the church of Santa Maria la Nuova, including such luminaries of the Neapolitan school as Niccolo Zingarelli and Silvestro Palma, a onetime pupil of Paisiello whose comic operas were widely praised for their simplicity of style. According to Luigi Cassitto, a Dominican priest and one of Paisiello's eulogizers, "The last rites were celebrated with the greatest pomp and exclusively with compositions by the illustrious deceased, because who if not Paisiello was able to bestow homage on himself!" (2) The postfuneral obsequies sustained the same tone: a memorial volume of poetry, letters, and essays--the Onori funebri renduti alla memoria di Giovanni Paisiello, edited by Giovanni Battista Gagliardo and published that same year--praised and lamented the composer in language that self-consciously mirrored the tropes of sentimental opera and fiction. The end of the volume even delves into epistolary homage to the paragon Paisiello, a convention that would have been familiar to readers of sentimental novels.

Chief mourner, composer's double, and monument to Paisiello's enduring genius, the image of his most famous character, Nina, appears again and again in the Onori funebri. The poems and essays repeatedly invoke the weeping maiden, who waits in vain for her lover. One poem by Antonio Fabiani even imagined that her shepherdess companions would forever repeat Nina's most famous aria, "Il mio ben," at Paisiello's tomb--a kind of eternal, reverent Muzak.

   E allor dolente, oppressa
   Tra l'alternar dei gemiti,
   E di quel nome amabile
   Pith non trovo se stessa,
   E solo a farla celebre
   Il pianto le resto.

   Ma sol di Nina il pianto
   Oltre la vita vivere
   No non potea degli uomini
   Senza il celeste incanto
   Onde il vestl l'armonico
   Tuo vasto immaginar.

   Compagne ai suoi dolori
   Voi pastorelle ingenue
   Deh! … 
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