Start with the words: ‘Understanding Italian Opera’ (Book review)

Understanding Italian Opera
by Tim Carter

Book review by Lauri D. Goldenhersh

First off, I was a little surprised by the density of information, as the description seemed to indicate a more lay audience:  the publisher’s description wraps up with the claim, “Understanding Italian Opera is a must-read for anyone with an interest in and love for this glorious art.”.  While the fairly populist marketing language is appealing, this rather epic endeavor is far more advanced, and perhaps a good text for higher education, assuming accuracy.  (This is where I admit that my education is performance-oriented.  I am not an Italian scholar, and would welcome comments from other readers who can speak to Carter’s effectiveness in that regard.)

The work assumes a significant amount of prior knowledge, in spite of the rudimentary theory outline in the preface, and the author’s insistence that speaking Italian is not required to enjoy this book.  While much of the Italian included in the book is indeed translated, many terms used offhand are not, and are likely to create an occasional speed bump in the flow of comprehension.

The essential premise of the book is an exploration of five major Italian operas through history:  Monteverdi’s Il coronazione di Poppea; Handel’s Giulio Cesare; Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro; Verdi’s La Traviata; and Puccini’s La Bohème.  The author works within the notion that these disparate works, though spread over hundreds of years, are intrinsically tied together through the language they share, rather than the composer’s ethnicity or stylistic “norms” associated with a single culture.  This context is explained by looking at the challenge of creating an Italian libretto out of a French original — a dilemma faced in all three of the final operas examined in this tome. This struggle is also illustrated well through a background story about Mozart’s frustration with changing trends, as a young man living in Salzburg saw royal tastes shift from the German Singspiel, then back to the previously popular Italian buffa.  C’est la mode.

It is the focus on text that sets Understanding Italian Opera apart, and while the textual analysis is intense and sometimes unrelenting, it provides something substantively valuable in building a nearly quantifiable appreciation for the contributions of the poet/librettist as co-creator.  While the poetical mechanics weren’t enthralling, they were explained well.  Studied carefully, these diatribes would undoubtedly provide the groundwork for a deep connection with the topic.  The erudite vocabulary will put some readers off, but unlike so many other scholars, Carter is not afraid to offer (and back up) criticism about otherwise great works.  For instance, his exacting and forthright explanation of the flaws in Mozart and da Ponte’s Cosi fan tutte text/music relationship were refreshing to see on the page, and further validate the reservations that quite a few artists have with the piece over the years.  (But then again, what do artists know?)

He also expounds on the lessening value placed on poetical structure as Puccini’s more realistic operas started to take over: while meter certainly played their part in La Boheme, a less rigid attitude toward the adherence to syllabic patterns and meter opened up a new world of emotional expression that changed the operatic art for more than a century since.

What this in-depth textual analysis does, for those who are truly ready to dive down the rabbit hole, is to very specifically lay out facts and figures about the creators’ treatment of the story with text and music.  This almost obscene quantification will drive many people to hair-tearing, garment-rending madness worthy of the best Lucia.  But more intensely focused scholars will see, in no uncertain terms, strong and well-supported arguments as to how Monteverdi was genuinely clever in the way he set Poppea, the ways that satire and local timeliness matters (particularly in political references), and why his works are not just well-crafted artifacts of a bygone era, but fully realized portraits of the same emotional, moral and ethical conflicts that fill modern life.  This sort of literary time travel is profoundly rewarding for those who see it through.

This stalwart connection to text and refusal to dumb down the synopses of these five great operas probes deeper into the relationships portrayed, and is aided by loads of presumably noteworthy historical context.  One of the greatest differences in today’s presentations of opera is an almost sacred respect for the way a show has been presented in the past, rather than an urgency to making it relevant to current times, language and/or local culture.  Could it be that too many directors and conductors simply fail to go this deeply into the material in the first place, when they present earlier works?

This book is testament to the possibility that intensive textual analysis is not only worth the effort, but is the best way to find real throughlines from one era to another.  Such study may come with the bonus of an even deeper passion for centuries-old masterworks — one that could enable innovative artists to update and revamp earlier operas with a better chance of preserving the spirit, and the essential message, that the original creators intended.  Hopefully the savviest readers will see and embrace this promise.

It’s likely that the rest of the world, the more casual opera buffs among us, simply won’t get it. But for those of us who care about not only preserving the work, but the humanity and spirit behind it, Carter should have our full attention.

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