Opera and Romanticism
This short introductory essay argues for the centrality of opera, and its controversies, to Georgian culture. Further, it demands that the neglect of this crucial field of inquiry be redressed by romanticist scholars. Brief synopses of the articles in this edition follow.
Scotland, close enough to visit, far enough to seem untamed and mysterious, enthralled nineteenth-century composers. Fascination fixated on Sir Walter Scott, whose works spawned numerous foreign operas. When these musical mutations migrated across the channel, however, they often collided with Britain's vision of her 'national' author. This is especially true with Boieldieu's La Dame blanche (1825). The opera succeeded in continental Europe, but two separate London productions failed. What stymied this metamorphosis? As I argue, the conflict between Londoners' nationalistic possessiveness of Scott and Scottish melodies on the one hand, yet their uneasiness with the novels on which the opera was based and its complex score on the other, placed these adaptations at a kind of cultural impasse. Ultimately, the layers of meaning Scott's works had accrued in England made the White Lady one citizen the English could not repatriate.
This essay will examine how sentimentality and its valorization of virtue spread through one particular intersection of opera and literature; that is, the seduced maiden narrative is enacted in these operas, once as a comedy of sorts, once as a tragedy. Giovanni Paisiello's "Nina" (1789) was clearly influenced by the works of Samuel Richardson and Laurence Sterne, while Fernando Paër's "Agnese" (1809) is a direct adaptation of Amelia Opie's popular novella "The Father and Daughter" (1801). Furthermore, both of the operas spin in and out of ideological orbit with Richardson's novel Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded (1740-41), which in turn was rewritten by the Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni in his dramatic adaptation Le Pamela Nubile (1753), the Irish playwright Isaac Bickerstaffe as the comic opera The Maid of the Mill (1765), and which then was later adapted and transformed by François de Neufchâteau into the opera Paméla (1793). And certainly we can detect sentimental familial concerns in Denis Diderot's dramas, particularly "Le Fils Naturel ou les épreuves de la vertu" ("The Natural Son; or, The Trials of Virtue," 1757). What I hope to suggest is that music and literature have collaborated in constructing a few fairly basic cultural scripts (domestic, familial, painful, and cathartic: recall Oedipus or Demeter/Persephone) that are then retold endlessly, continually readjusting the particulars to accommodate changing social and political conditions. Sentimentality as a value system, a potent ideology, almost a secularization of religion was spread throughout eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century European culture not simply through novels and dramas, but also by being performed in opera houses from London to Rome and Naples.
In contrast to the notion that Italian opera has no relation to romantic opera or to romanticism generally, this essay demonstrates that the Italian castrato was a prominent figure in London during the period around 1800. The essay argues that the idea of the romantic castrato makes it possible to revise understandings of the (aggressive) relationship between sight and sound that is so often attributed to literary production of this period, particularly to William Wordsworth. The essay explores the ways that the castrati-c imagination (ironically) facilitates an analysis of romantic sound imagery that is mindful of materiality, offering in particular a reading of the relation between castrati, sound imagery, and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
By the time he came to add act IV to the original three acts of "Prometheus Unbound" in late 1819, Percy Bysshe Shelley had amassed a diverse set of musical experiences, ranging from the first London performance of Rossini's "Il barbiere di Siviglia" in March of 1818 to the grand festivities or "funzioni" in Rome during Easter week in 1819. While critics and reviewers of the past two hundred years have struggled to find a suitable analogy for "Prometheus Unbound" in literature, it seems possible that Shelley had non-literary models in mind. Indeed, the world of music provides a clear parallel to Shelley's lyrical drama in the form of the Italian "opera buffa" that so delighted the poet and his friends during the London seasons in 1817 and 1818. This essay argues that the organization of discourse and the specific dramatic arrangement of Shelley's "Prometheus Unbound" have strong affinities with the Italian operas of his day, particularly the works of Mozart and Rossini.
Librettists Scribe and Delavigne transformed M.G. Lewis's Gothic episode in The Monk into a tale conforming to the conventions of mid-nineteenth-century French "grand opera." Charles Gounod's setting of this libretto closed after eleven performances in the autumn of 1854 and has never been revived. The production was beset with problems arising from opera-house and prima-donna politics, but its failure may also imply crucial cultural transformations in Europe since the revolutionary 1790's when Lewis had published his novel. A translation of the libretto gives Anglo-American scholars ready access to this paradoxical opera in the Gothic tradition.