19 Feb 2008

SALIERI: Prima la musica e poi le parole

In 1786, Habsburg Emperor Joseph II commissioned a pair of short operas from two of the biggest names in Viennese musical theater: Salieri and Mozart.

He wanted these pieces to entertain his guests at a party for the visiting Prince Albert of Sachsen-Teschen and his wife, Marie Christine (Joseph’s sister). From stages set up at opposite ends of the Orangerie at Schönbrunn, the Italian troupe performed Salieri’s Prima la musica e poi le parole, and the German troupe put on Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor. The evening highlighted Joseph’s love of competition in music: between composers, librettists, singers, and languages. Both these pieces represent what Betzwieser calls “metamelodramma,” that is, an opera in which the subject of the plot is opera itself. (I prefer John Rice’s term “self-parody.”) This is not a new category of theater, and these are not the last examples. Benedetto Marcello poked fun at operatic excesses in his satirical tract Teatro alla moda (1720). From the eighteenth century there are several parody operas: Domenico Scarlatti’s La Dirindina (1715), Domenico Sarri’s L’impresario delle isole Canarie (1724), and F. L. Gaβmann’s Opera Seria (Calzabigi’s libretto La critica teatrale), 1769; more recently, one thinks of Richard Strauss’s Capriccio (1942), which was inspired by the Salieri work, and even the likes of “Chorus Line” and other Broadway musicals. Moreover, the debate over which should have primacy, words or music, goes further back into the history of music: Monteverdi clashed with Artusi over the “prima prattica” and “seconda prattica,” and Gluck endeavored to reform opera seria.

Salieri’s one-act divertimento teatrale has a cast of four characters, each depicting a player in the creation of an opera: the Maestro (bass), the Poet (bass), Eleonora (soprano), a prima donna, representing opera seria, and Tonina (soprano), an opera buffa singer. The plot lampoons everyone and everything in opera production. The Poet is obliged to write his verses to music already composed by the Maestro, who cares nothing about expressing the words in the music. Both singers try to use unfair influence. Seria and buffa elements (normally kept strictly apart) collide in a duet of two simultaneous arias, in which Eleonora sings hers in the serious style and Tonina sings hers in the comic style. And so on.

Salieri was fortunate to collaborate with the skilled librettist, Giovanni Battista Casti, whose dramaturgy easily surpasses that of Mozart’s librettist, Johann Gottlieb Stephanie. The editor observes: “Casti’s and Salieri’s opera is incomparably richer in allusion than its German counterpart.” This very genius, however, contained the seeds of its own destruction. What was readily apparent to 18th-century Viennese audiences, but unlikely to be perceived by today’s listeners are the musical references to and quotations from popular operas of the time. Opera fans will recognize this technique from the supper scene in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, where the composer quotes from operas by Martin, Sarti, and his own Figaro. In Prima la musica, Salieri borrowed much more extensively. The editor cites three long “complexes of quotations” from Giuseppe Sarti’s Giulio Sabino, including a castrato aria transferred here to female soprano. Thus, laden with allusions to the Viennese operatic world and bearing myriad quotations, Salieri’s opera was not “viable” beyond the imperial city, where it received only three more performances. This fate sets it apart from his many operas that achieved wide-spread popularity, and made him one of the most celebrated composers in Europe.

Despite its short run, Prima la musica represents Salieri at the height of his musical and dramatic creativity. The score masterfully entwines the serious and comic, taking many colorful twists and turns. The action entertains by farce, absurdity, even slapstick. On the whole, it stands up well against the inevitable comparison with the Mozart companion piece. (May I suggest that to solve the problem of unrecognizable quotations we should revive Sarti’s Giulio Sabino.)

Prima la musica was published in a vocal score by Schott in 1972, and it has been revived in performance a number of times since then. Nikolaus Harnoncourt directed a production in Vienna in 2005. The present publication is the first “Urtext” and critical edition. The vocal score, extracted from the critical edition, has the text in Italian with a good singing German translation. The full score and orchestral parts are available as rental. According to the preface to the vocal score, Betzwieser examined all the surviving sources (the composer’s autograph score and three manuscript copies), and it seems evident from the vocal score that the edition has been carefully prepared. This publication of Salieri’s Prima la musica e poi le parole is a welcome addition to the growing corpus of Salieri’s works available in good critical editions.

Jane Schatkin Hettrick