16 Jul 2013

Opera from Cambridge University Press

Although part of a series entitled Cambridge Introductions to Music, Robert Cannon’s wide-ranging, imaginative and thought-provoking survey of opera is certainly not a ‘beginners’ guide’.

Starting with the Classical Greek and medieval precursors of the art form, Cannon takes the reader through a probing investigation of the development of opera, from its sixteenth-century Florentine origins, through its Enlightenment transformations, its Romantic revolutions, to its modern-day ‘radical narratives’.

The intention is to reveal to the reader ‘how opera works’. And, Cannon imagines two ‘complementary readerships’: the music student who ‘needs a basis for approaching this very particular and complex musical application’ and the experienced opera-goer who ‘want to know more than is provided by a history or synopses’. The latter is just the sort of reader who might have been a student on the Opera Studies degree programme, the first of its kind, which Cannon co-founded in 1997, and for which I was a tutor in its early days: that is, the opera enthusiast, with many years of experience ‘in the theatre’, who craves further technical explication and does not want to be patronised!

Indeed, the bullet-point format of the study’s four proposed aims — to develop understanding of a chronological ‘through-line’ and of the different way opera and its forms ‘work’, and appreciation of the formative role of opera’s major exponents and opera’s relationship to the world around it —resembles a set of academic ‘learning objectives’, but that does not make these ambitions any less worthy or relevant.

Cannon’s survey is chronological — although, he argues, the development of opera should not be seen as evolutionary — and the focus falls equally upon changes in operatic form and style and upon the philosophical and cultural debates, and social and political contexts, informing those changes. Thus, interspersed among the specialist explorations of seventeenth-century Reform opera, Grand opéra and nineteenth-century nationalism are ‘generic’ chapters, which arise naturally from the particular but which also relate to the general. In this way, consideration of matters such as dramaturgy, the libretto, the singer, tonality, ‘authenticity’ and the role of the director enliven and enrich the historical and musicological review, in a manner true to the reader’s own experience of opera.

So, following a chapter entitled ‘Comedy and the real world’, which explores the rise of eighteenth-century opera buffa culminating in an analysis of Mozart’s Da Ponte operas, there comes a chapter on ‘Authentic performance’, introducing debates relating to the reliability of the score, technical elements of original performances, instruments and instrumentation, pitch and range, singers and techniques, and performance contexts and conditions. Such ‘diversions’ from the chronological path could have been disjunctive or distracting, but throughout Cannon immerses the reader in opera’s cultural and socio-political milieu, and thus these side-lines arise naturally; in this particular instance, the reader is encouraged to appreciate the differences between former and modern perspectives, and the issues involved in recreating that past in the present-day.

Cannon’s argument, persuasively articulated, is that the development of opera was integrally related to European cultural debates and movements, and influenced by contemporary social and political factors; as such, opera is not a ‘singular’ entity but a multifarious, hybrid medium capable of enabling a peculiarly rich range of expression and of producing a deep and influential impact upon individuals and societies. For example, opera buffa is shown to have both reflected and realised changes in sentiment and a shift towards a new ‘realism’ which mirrored social change during the eighteenth-century, as ‘trade became a social force which challenged the supremacy of the aristocracy’. The newly prosperous middle class was both thirsty for knowledge about the fields that supported its commerce — mathematics, geography (resulting in a shift from the traditional focus of high culture, such as religion, the classics) — and eager for political self-determination. Cannon argues persuasively that out of such conditions arose a ‘new form, the novel … that used the language of life to describe people and places as the middle class knew and valued them’, and consequently a new kind of theatre — and, in turn, opera — was also born.

The author’s breadth of knowledge and scope is impressive, and his own particular interest in art, architecture, and indeed all cultural manifestations of socio-political change, ever apparent. Hence an appraisal of the earliest operatic forms and the transition from the High Renaissance to the Mannerist world of the early Baroque places the work of Caccini and Monteverdi alongside complementary visual arts — Buontalenti’s Belvedere of the Pitti Palace in Florence, Maderno’s Façade of Santa Susanna in Rome, Rubens’ The Descent from the Cross — and the pastoral dramas of Guarini and Poliziano. Similarly, Goldoni’s libretti for the new comedic form is examined in the context of Samuel Richardson’s novel, Pamela. Moreover, reference to Diderot’s Encyclopedia, published between 1751 and 1780, reveals the relationship between the theoretical and the practical.

It is the nineteenth century to which most attention is devoted. Here, Cannon offers a detailed account of the social and political upheavals of the age of revolution and explores the way that operatic form was shaped both by nationalist ideologies which were mythologised through art and philosophical speculations on the sublime. Turning the microscope on Italy, he focuses on technical and formal matters; in France it is the role of Grand opéra in forming a distinct political and cultural identity which takes centre-stage. Wagner is the only composer to be assigned an entire chapter: standing half-way through the book, this is also the heart of the thesis, as Cannon suggests that Wagner’s endeavour to change the musical and dramatic content of opera resulted in a change in its aesthetic and social function that in turn created a new ethos for evaluating opera.

There is an engaging chapter on late-nineteenth-century Nationalism, noting that the fluidity of European national boundaries makes the notion of ‘pure’ national styles somewhat problematic and drawing interesting correlations between events and themes, with particular appreciation of the enormous influence of Pushkin at this time. Typically, the discussion of vernacular musical language and form integrates the musicological and the general. Chapter 12, ‘The role of the singer’, explores both the technical — range, vocal types — and the practical: dramatic ability, the ‘star’ singer, the relationship between singer and composer, and the influence of the singer upon repertoire and the popularity of particular works.

Only when turning to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries does Cannon become more eclectic and, naturally and understandably, there is less sense of shared ideologies and contexts. Following a useful explication of modernist aesthetic (‘Where Puccini’s scores are designed to hold a series of dramatic fragments together within a lyrical whole, in Janáček they are contained purely within the dramatic continuum.’), the spotlight shines inevitably on Strauss, Debussy, Weill, Berg, Britten (afforded a lengthy section), Henze, Stravinsky, Tippett, Turnage, Stockhausen and Birtwhistle; but there are also less obvious choices — Sallinen, Dusapin, Nono and Zimmerman. There are inevitably omissions — there is no Ravel, Les Six, Bartok, Menotti, Prokofiev, Ligeti, Szymanowski, Mawell Davies for example — and the landscape is distinctly European with Adams and Glass the only, brief, American representatives.

The text is accompanied by frequent tables, providing structural breakdowns of whole works, detailed analyses of individual acts and scenes, illustrating parallel developments in different European centres, and presenting chronologies of a genre or composer’s oeuvre. These tables are designed ‘as frameworks within which ideas and interconnections can be studied’ and they do present and summarise material in a concise and readily absorbable manner. But, the tabular analyses of particular works are necessarily selective: Gluck is represented by Alceste, Mozart by Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Così fan tutte, Verdi by Macbeth, Rigoletto and Otello. Some of these analyses are more obviously useful than others: few readers, I imagine, will make practical use of the lengthy tabular explication of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. But, these are small quibbles; and the frequent summarising bullet points that draw attention to the essentials are particularly helpful for the reader with less prior knowledge.

This is a valuable book which makes an excellent attempt to balance the long and near views. Detailed studies of the particular rest comfortably alongside energetic sweeps of the contextual landscape, revealing the broader concerns informing specific works. The operatic novice may prefer to begin with a ‘Rough Guide’, but the informed, experienced listener will find much here to stimulate and satisfy.

Claire Seymour