The Culture of Opera Buffa in Mozart's Vienna: A Poetics of Entertainment

By Mary Hunter | Go to book overview

Chapter One
OPERA BUFF A AS SHEER
PLEASURE

IF THE INTELLECTUAL context of opera buffa in Vienna suggests that its occasion was understood as being “about” pleasure, the theatrical context of operatic performance did not gainsay this.1 The Viennese theatres, like opera theatres all over Europe, provided a variety of pleasures in addition to the show: cards were played,2 with card tables and lights rentable;3 snacks and drinks were sold during the performance itself by roving vendors, or Numeri;4 and especially for the first aristocracy, whose boxsubscriptions allowed them to go night after night to repeat-performances of operas, those boxes functioned as publicly visible salons, where social life could be conducted much as it might have been at home. Indeed, Count Johann Joseph Khevenhüller reported that Joseph II's surprising avoidance of the theatre was due in part to its unsavory social goings-on.5 Premieres evidently attracted more focused attention than reruns; nevertheless, the impression given by the sources is that the show (whether opera buffa or spoken drama) was often only one of the pleasures of the occasion. Unlike the German spoken drama, however (at least in its most serious guise), opera buffa by and large played into, and was understood as congruent with this ethos of multivalent delight. Not only did those who wrote about the repertory locate it among the mindless pleasures, but the works present themselves in various ways as “about” pleasure for its own sake—decon-

____________________
1
Vienna was, of course, not unique in configuring the theatre as a site of more-thantheatrical pleasure. Numerous accounts of visits to Italian theatres, large and small, for opera seria and opera buffa, indicate that conversation, card-playing, and flirtation were as much the focus of the occasion as the show itself.
2
See Peter Beckford, Familiar Letters from Italy, to a Friend in England (Salisbury: J. Easton, 1805) p. 86: “The new theatre [La Scala in Milan] is said to be a good one: the boxes are large; and it is not unusual to play at cards and sup in them. I can never reconcile myself to card playing at an opera. … It can only be of advantage to a deaf man, who probably would win all the money.” Beckford's visit took place in 1787. Burney also noted the card and pharo tables at La Scala, in The Present State of Music in France and Italy (1773; rpt. New York: Broude Brothers, 1969) p. 84.
3
The Theaterzetteln (posters) for the Burgtheater sometimes include the following sentence: “Ein ordinari Spieltisch sammt Licht und Karten zahlt jedesmal wie gewöhnlich 2 fl.” (A regular card table with light and cards costs 2 fl. per time, as usual.)
4
Gerhard Tanzer, Spectacle müssen seyn: Die Freizeit der Wiener im 18. Jahrhundert (Vienna: Böhlau, 1992) p. 175, shows a print of a “Numero” selling snacks in the Parterre of the Burgtheater.
5
Quoted in Tanzer, Spectacle müssen seyn, pp. 169–70.

-27-

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