Academic journal article Themes in Theatre

The Violettas of Patti, Muzio and Callas: Style, Interpretation and the Question of Legacy

Academic journal article Themes in Theatre

The Violettas of Patti, Muzio and Callas: Style, Interpretation and the Question of Legacy

Article excerpt

Whereas the field of musicology, in principle, embraces both the study of the musical score and the musical performance, little interchange has traditionally taken place between these two branches. Students of the great composers rarely combine close readings of the scores with examinations of how the music has been performed historically, and students of performance practice rarely use their knowledge of the history of singing, the development of the musical instruments, etc. for in-depth analyses of the classics. As a student of the original productions of operas by Monteverdi, Mozart and Verdi, I have been surprised to leam how much is actually known about how many of the original singers played and sang their roles, and even more surprised to realise how little impact this has had on how the scores have been analysed and interpreted.

Perhaps this is where the approach of theatre studies is called for because one of the traditional virtues of the dramaturge is the trained ability to read a dramatic text as more of a theatrical script-one containing an infinite variety of scenic possibilities-than as a finished work of art. If operatic singing is indeed a stage language on a par with the actor's delivery, a musical performance in the theatre is a theatrical performance, too, and one could even argue that the history of operatic singing cannot be properly understood without regard to the history of acting. It is striking, at least, when one examines the history of vocal art through the lens of the theatre historian, how closely the development of operatic singing reflects historical changes in the theatre.

In the following, I intend to demonstrate my point by comparing the performances of three famous sopranos-Adelina Patti, Claudia Muzio and Maria Callas-in Verdi's La Traviata. We may get an idea of their portrayals by studying reviews and other eyewitness accounts in the light of contemporary scenic and vocal performance practice.

ADELINA PATTI (1843-1919)

Without any doubt, the most celebrated Violetta of the nineteenth century was Adelina Patti whose fame was so overwhelming that the 1860s, 70s and 80s are sometimes referred to as "the reign of Patti". Emma Calvé compared Patti's voice to "a string of luminous pearls, perfectly matched, every jewel flawless, identical in form and colour" (Calvé 1922: 161), Nellie Melba found the timbre of her voice "exquisite, the diction crystalline" (in Cone 1981: 1), George Bernard Shaw praised "her unsurpassed phrasing and that delicate touch and expressive nuance which make her cantabile singing so captivating" (1932 Vol. Ill: 4) and William J. Henderson believed that her name would stand out on the pages of musical history "as that of a singer in whom luscious beauty of voice, admirable facility in florid music and exquisite, ravishing beauty in pure cantilena were happily united" (Henderson 1968: 296, 298).

While praise for Patti as a vocalist was unanimous, opinions regarding her abilities as an actress differed to a striking degree. One of those least impressed with her histrionic powers was Shaw who found that her

offences against artistic propriety are mighty ones and millions. She seldom even pretends to play any other part than that of Adelina, the spoiled child with the adorable voice; and I believe she would be rather hurt than otherwise if you for a moment lost sight of Patti in your preoccupation with Zerlina, or Aida, or Caterina. [...] Patti will get up and bow to you in the very agony of stage death if you only drop your stick accidentally. (Shaw 1950: 354)

According to Clara Louise Kellogg, Patti

never acted; and she never, never felt. As Violetta she did express some slight emotion, to be sure. Her "Gran Dio" in the last act was sung with something like passion, at least with more passion than she ever sang anything else. [...] But her great success was always due to her wonderful voice. Her acting was essentially mechanical. …

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