Rupert Christiansen

Departing wisely from the text

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Divas and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera

Philip Gossett

University of Chicago Press, pp. 704, £

This enthralling and important book offers vital reading for anyone with a serious interest in opera. Its author Philip Gossett describes himself as ‘a fan, a musician and a scholar’; more specifically, he works from a base at the University of Chicago as one of the foremost authorities on the period broadly circumscribed by Rossini’s Tancredi (1813) and Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera (1859), supervising the ongoing complete editions of those two composers and counselling singers and conductors on productions and recordings.

This volume is the summation of his life’s work. Written with unfailing clarity and waspish wit, it charts the musical problems, both theoretical and practical, presented by the autograph manuscripts, printed scores and performances of this great corpus. They turn out to be every bit as complex and frustrating as anything in the baroque or early music fields — a trail of contradictions, ambiguities and lacunae in the evidence along which Gossett proves the canniest of sleuths.

In matters of interpretation, he is a liberal, but a rigorous one, insistent on consistency and honesty. ‘Authenticity’ is not a term he likes, and he is highly sceptical of the claims of Riccardo Muti and his kind to stand for the text come scritto, ‘as written’. ‘What does it mean to perform an opera exactly as it was conceived?’ Gossett asks. Very little, he replies, his view being that there is rarely any such thing as a pure, correct or original text, and the banner of accuracy begs the question — accuracy to what?

Italian operas of this epoch were in a constant state of transmutation — scores were designed to fit the circumstances of particular theatres, censors insisted on rewriting of the text, prima donnas altered keys and added ornaments and cadenzas, composers changed their minds in rehearsal. Not all of this va et vient was recorded on paper, and the surviving evidence is often confused or incomplete, with the participants much too occupied with the travails of getting the show on the road to consider the need to leave clear instructions to posterity (in Verdi’s case, the archaeology has been further hampered by his descendants’ reluctance to allow examination of his primary sketches). Gossett is particularly fascinating on the increasingly omnipotent music publishers Ricordi, originally employed by theatres to copy out the parts, whose sloppiness led to all sorts of inaccuracies and unsanctioned traditions being perpetrated in print. ‘There was no malicious intent to falsify, but the entire system encouraged a laissez-faire attitude.’

So the best a conductor today can usefully do is to attempt to establish how the score stood at one particular moment. Be upfront, Gossett recommends, and recognise that rather than chasing the chimera of a composer’s original intention, the more informed and sensitive course is to allow the abilities of the performers to shape and fill the open ends. This licence applies to production too — Gossett refuses to take the line that updating, or ‘displacing’ as he calls it, is mere directorial vanity.

The practice is historically defensible as long as the works preserve, in Verdi’s words, ‘the subjects and situations’. Even the occasional and inevitable incoherence is admissible. What matters is whether the displacement functions effectively, and whether it illuminates those elements of the drama that are independent of time and place.

Those are wise words, which Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells should heed.

The establishment of coherent texts may be Gossett’s main theme, but a great joy of the book is the wealth of incidental information that emerges en route. For instance, it elucidates the import of the disposizione sceniche, production handbooks which accompanied operas as they travelled from theatre to theatre. There is a gripping disquisition on the effects of differing dimensions of manuscript paper — oblong folios necessitating additional sheets to accommodate extra orchestral parts and generally adding to the muddle. Nor did I previously know that a composer was contractually expected to be present in the orchestra pit at the first three performances of his opera, giving cues and setting tempi, but that the orchestra’s leader was in all other respects the conductor, working not from a full score but from a violin part with instrumental cues and the vocal lines noted.

Gossett’s insistence that he is a fan as well as a musician and scholar means that he is uninhibited about parading his prejudices, and there are moments when I find his views of singers irritatingly overstated — Marilyn Horne, for instance, can do no wrong, and Beverly Sills no right. But this is a tiny price to pay for such passionate enthusiasm, married to such depth of knowledge and fine judgment.