Waiting for Verdi: Opera and Political Opinion in Nineteenth-Century Italy, 1815-1848

Waiting for Verdi: Opera and Political Opinion in Nineteenth-Century Italy, 1815-1848

by Mary Ann Smart

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The name Giuseppe Verdi conjures images of Italians singing opera in the streets and bursting into song at political protests or when facing the firing squad. While many of the accompanying stories were exaggerated, or even invented, by later generations, Verdi's operas—along with those by Rossini, Donizetti, and Mercadante—did inspire Italians to imagine Italy as an independent and unified nation. Capturing what it was like to attend the opera or to join in the music at an aristocratic salon, Waiting for Verdi shows that the moral dilemmas, emotional reactions, and journalistic polemics sparked by these performances set new horizons for what Italians could think, feel, say, and write. Among the lessons taught by this music were that rules enforced by artistic tradition could be broken, that opera could jolt spectators into intense feeling even as it educated them, and that Italy could be in the vanguard of stylistic and technical innovation rather than clinging to the glories of centuries past. More practically, theatrical performances showed audiences that political change really was possible, making the newly engaged spectator in the opera house into an actor on the political stage.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520276253
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 06/22/2018
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 266
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Mary Ann Smart is Gladyce Arata Terrill Professor in the Department of Music at the University of California, Berkeley. She is author of Mimomania: Music and Gesture in Nineteenth-Century Opera and editor of Siren Songs: Representations of Gender and Sexuality in Opera

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Risorgimento Fantasies


In 1816 and 1817 two competitions were announced in Milan within a little more than a year of each other. One was a serious and official undertaking: the royal theaters of Milan sponsored a contest for a new libretto, promising that the winning entry would be set to music by a composer chosen by theater officials, and given a première at the Teatro alla Scala. No record survives of the winner — it is likely that none was ever declared — but one of the contenders was Giovanni Gherardini's Avviso ai giudici, a drama of legal persecution and social injustice set after the French Revolution that eventually became the basis for Rossini's La gazza ladra. The competition does not seem to have had the desired rejuvenating effect. On reading the submissions, judge Vincenzo Monti came to the realization that Italian dramatic poetry was in crisis. In a letter to one of his fellow judges, Monti declared that it would take a miracle to overcome the illogical libretti and the musical pretensions that had reduced opera to nothing more than "a monstrous coagulation of words without meaning."

A little over a year later, the Milan-based journal of fashion and culture, the Corriere delle dame, announced a competition of its own. Held under the auspices of the impressive-sounding but entirely imaginary "Accademia de' Romantici Transcendentali," this contest advertised that it would identify and reward the best romantic tragedy of the moment. The guidelines for prospective applicants fill more than a page of dense type and amount to a virtual catalogue of romantic affectations. The winning tragedy must denigrate Italy and Italians as much as possible, the list begins, and therefore all the villains of the piece must be Italian. Competing playwrights are advised to have thirty or forty characters die in full view on the stage, to extend the action over "no less than five years, no more than fifty," and to place one scene in Italy and the next in Babylon, or perhaps to divide the action between Mecca and Siberia.

The tongue-in-cheek recommendations go on and on, but all of them engage in this jesting way with the classical unities and with related aesthetic conventions that had long governed the narrative modes of both spoken drama and opera libretti. In a light-hearted vein, the editors of the Corriere were fighting back against the encroachment of romantic aesthetics that was beginning to infiltrate Italy from the north, a movement whose new currency was trumpeted most loudly by Madame de Staël's article "On the Manner and the Usefulness of Translations," which had appeared in Italian translation in the first issue of the Biblioteca italiana in 1816. In the midst of a generally disparaging evaluation of the current state of Italian literary production, she called for the translation of Shakespeare, Schiller, and other northern authors as the best antidote for Italian backwardness. The sentence about "denigrating Italians" in the Corriere's contest is a clear swipe at Mme. de Staël, and the sarcastic calls for multiple deaths and action that veers wildly across time and space were indirect responses to the dramatic values promoted in her article and represented by the authors she championed.

Mme. de Staël felt no more positive than Monti about the operatic dimension of Italian culture and even went so far as to blame opera for the sad state of the nation's literary tradition. Advocating the translation of a drama by Chateaubriand into Italian, she paused to make a distinction between the sheer quality of Italian music and the frivolity of the social settings in which it is heard:

I do not doubt that Athalie would be appreciated in Milanese theaters, especially if the choruses were accompanied by wonderful Italian music. But they say that in Italy people go to the theater not to listen but to meet and chat with their dearest friends in the boxes. And I will conclude from this that sitting for five hours every evening listening to what passes for words in Italian opera must dull the intellect of the nation, for want of exercise.

With this dismissal of operagoing as both tranquilizing and distracting, Mme. de Staël anticipated — and perhaps also provided the script for — the poet Giacomo Leopardi, who a few years later in 1824 would offer his own scathing evaluation of opera and its effects on Italian society. Leopardi lamented that Italians knew little of the free exchange of opinion or of close interpersonal bonds beyond the family, compared to other European nations:

Many reasons conspire to deprive Italy of society, not all of which I can enumerate here. The climate, which predisposes Italians to spend most of each day in the open air, and encourages long walks and things like that, the vivacity of the Italian character, which causes citizens to prefer the pleasures of live performance [spettacoli] and other delights of the senses to those of the spirit, and that pushes them to pure entertainment divorced from any effort of the soul, as well as to negligence and indolence. ... There can be no doubt that the passeggio [the public evening walk], the spettacoli, and the rituals of the church have nothing at all to do with that type of society that other nations possess. Today the passeggio, the theater, and the church are the principal venues for what little society Italy does possess, and indeed they constitute its entirety ... since Italians do not like domestic life, nor do they take pleasure in or excel at conversation. So instead they stroll, they go to the theater and other entertainments, to Mass and to sermons, and to sacred and secular feasts.

Whereas Mme. de Staël imagined Italian audiences lulled into a stupor by five-hour stretches of pretty music, Leopardi characterizes opera going as a herd activity like promenading through the piazza before dinner or gawking at a religious procession, all activities that militate against independent thought and debate.

Reading Monti, Mme. de Staël, or Leopardi, one might conclude that opera was an entirely negative force in early-nineteenth-century Italy. All agree on the low literary quality of the libretti, and the last two resoundingly blame operatic culture for the deficiencies they observe in civil society and public engagement. Around 1816 this was no trivial matter: the cities and regions of Italy were grappling with the upheavals wrought by the decade-long occupation of much of the peninsula by Napoleonic forces and the political reorganizations imposed by the Congress of Vienna. After 1815 Milan and Venice were subsumed into the Habsburg Kingdom of Lombardy-Veneto, ruled by viceroys appointed by Vienna; Naples and Sicily were returned to the control of the Bourbon king Ferdinand who had governed the city for a turbulent half century before the advent of French rule in 1806; Bologna and its environs became part of the Papal States with Rome; and cities such as Florence reclaimed their status as autonomous duchies. Linguistically, the peninsula remained at least as diverse — a mosaic of regional dialects — so that the language sung on the opera stage would have been one of the few occasions on which audiences scattered across the peninsula enjoyed the same spectacle in the same standard Italian. Enmeshed in such tumultuous change, some among the literati saw an opportunity to reposition Italy in relation to Europe and to restore Italian letters to the widespread renown of the age of Dante or Michelangelo. A scant few among those were also wondering what steps they might take to gain independence from foreign rule or to knit the peninsula's regions into a single entity; but for most the idea of a unified and independent Italy was no more than a shadow, if even that.

From this perspective, the institution of opera would not seem a promising place to begin inquiry into the process of "making Italy" that stretched from 1815 through the unification of the Italian peninsula in 1861. Opera figured in these polemical essays because it was both the central form of entertainment for educated Italians and an important trope in the lively and anxious discourse about the place of Italian culture in a European context. Long before Verdi and the tales of spontaneous patriotic outpouring that rose up around some of his works, opera was heralded as something that Italians did better than anyone else in Europe, and therefore as a medium for projecting Italian character into the world. The primacy of Italian operatic style was rooted in the delivery of cantilena, the smooth, unbroken singing of a melodic line; and such melodies were thought to arise naturally from the inherent musicality of the language: "remarkable for its smoothness and the facility with which it enters into musical composition," as Italian was described in one eighteenth-century geographical compendium. Rossini champion Giuseppe Carpani recast this conviction in more oppositional and more nationalistic terms in the pages of the Biblioteca italiana in 1818: "We see two genres of music emerge and contend on the battlefield: the ancient and regular Italian style based on song and melody, and the Romantic German style, poor in cantilena and rich in harmony, full, erudite, capricious." As we shall see in chapter 2, such discourse could be just as debilitating as the conversation about how opera encouraged passivity and dullness of mind. The association between pure, vocally conceived melody and italianità could become a prison, with writers on opera circling endlessly around the same narrow lexicon of approved notions, each new work evaluated in relation to a mythical ideal of pure Neapolitan melody.

Yet going to the opera could also feel like the very opposite of imprisonment. In his pseudodiary from 1817, Rome, Naples, and Florence, the always effervescent Stendhal tells of being a frequent guest in the box of Ludovico di Breme at La Scala, amid a distinguished company that included Mme. de Staël's Italian translator Pietro Borsieri, philosopher Ermes Visconti, politician and patriot Federico Confalonieri, and revolutionary poet Silvio Pellico. "One never saw women," Stendhal admits; but for female company one could escape to the loge of Nina Viganò, singer and daughter of the choreographer Salvatore. Stendhal's description of the people he met in di Breme's box at La Scala is both energetic and intellectually intense: the fragments of conversation he relays, in fact, mostly concern Mme. de Staël's controversial article on translation, forming a sort of viva voce counterpart to the many weighty responses to that essay that were published in the pages of the Biblioteca italiana, Il conciliatore, and in freestanding pamphlets. It is a commonplace that the most important function of opera in the early nineteenth century was as a place of assembly, one of the few venues where large groups could freely gather, mingle, and react to what they saw and heard. But reading Stendhal against Leopardi, one could add that opera houses and the nearby cafés in which performances were dissected the next day were a crucial component of Italy's emerging public sphere, one that was invisible to the reclusive Leopardi.

A striking absence in Stendhal's bright picture of operatic sociability is any mention of music or musicians. He tells us that di Breme was generous enough to welcome Stendhal into his loge as a guest almost every night except Fridays, when the theater was dark; but he never mentions what operas they saw, and they never seem to encounter Rossini or any other musician. When Rossini does make an appearance a few pages earlier in Stendhal's idiosyncratic diary, it is almost in the guise of a jester, or perhaps a caricature of Italian charm and desire: at the Caffè dell'Accademia across from La Scala, the composer is overheard boasting about his conquest of a (married?) countess. The format of Rome, Naples, and Florence as combination diary and travelogue makes the juxtaposition seem accidental; but the strict separation of the actual, practical business of making music from matters of the mind is also typical of the book, perhaps even integral to its conception.


Two contests — one genuine, the other satirical, devised entirely to amuse the readership of a fashionable journal. Two manifestos — one penned by a woman of letters of impeccable cosmopolitan credentials, the other by a sheltered Italian from Le Marche. And then the exuberant testimony of Stendhal, an essential voice in operatic history, despite his chronic fallibility. This eclectic sampling puts before us some of the possible contemporary stances about how opera might connect to the public sphere, to political feeling and political thought. At the same time, the project of reading the Corriere delle dame in satirical mode alongside the letters of Vincenzo Monti, or juxtaposing the reclusive Leopardi with Stendhal's giddy prose makes clear one of the challenges of narrating the operatic history of early-nineteenth-century Italy, archived as it is in documentary material that is variously indirect, satirical, heavily censored (or self-censored), and oblique.

From our current vantage point it might seem that the historian's task was once much simpler. After the clouds of fascist-era historiography had cleared and before the suspicious mindset and magpie impulses of New Historicism hit musicology, it seemed possible to link specific operas and operatic styles to political events in a relatively straightforward way: one that relied on a distinction — and implicit interdependence — between "text" and "context." The same logic that allowed the linking of Mozart to the Enlightenment, or Beethoven to Napoleon, could authorize the pairing of Verdi "and" the Risorgimento, a dyad based more on contemporaneity and contiguity than on any demonstrable indications that Verdi's operas had affected — or reflected — the thought or action of Italy's period of nation-building. The few instances of more concrete political relevance were worked very hard, none more so than the notorious case of "Va pensiero."

The story went that, inspired by the beauty of the tune and its words voicing the lament of an enslaved people far from their homeland, the audience at the 1842 première of Verdi's Nabucco at the Teatro alla Scala spontaneously insisted that the chorus be repeated, defying a police ban on encores. The story of that encore launched a thousand hermeneutic ships before being discredited in 1988 by Roger Parker. When Parker turned to the tome in which the anecdote was first recounted, Franco Abbiati's 1959 Verdi biography, he found that the author had more or less invented the passage, cobbling together bits from two different reviews to attribute to "Va pensiero" an encore that had actually been demanded for another chorus, the Hebrew prayer "Immenso Jeovha." The purported encore was not the only basis for connecting Verdi's early operas to popular patriotic feeling; but it was one of the few instances that pointed toward a concrete audience response rather than the assumed import of words or music. Writing in 1981, David Kimbell took the interpretive leap of faith that is almost inevitable in "Risorgimento" interpretations of the early operas: "Nabucco established Verdi in the front rank of Italian composers because in it he showed that his peculiar brand of vehemence and melancholy was ideally matched to expressing the dilemma of contemporary Italy in operatic terms." Philip Gossett, too, seemed to be forcing open a hermeneutic window when he heard what he perceived as a mismatch between words and music in "Immenso Jeovha" as a signal of subversive intent that audiences would have understood. Journalist Alexander Stille exemplified the wide popular uptake of these theories in his 2007 review-essay in the New Republic, culminating with those familiar "crowds of patriots" who shouted "Viva Verdi!": "Since political speech was carefully monitored by the powers that controlled most of Italy ... the cultural expression of italianità became a way of building a political identity while avoiding censorship. The operas of Verdi were commonly regarded as allegories of unification and patriotism."

Probably the most common strategy in connecting Italian opera to politics has been based on morphologies — between the subaltern groups depicted in the early operas of Verdi and the oppression of northern Italians under Austria, but also between musical forms and states of mind. For example, the energy released in the fast concluding section (or "cabaletta") of the standard two-part "double" aria has been heard as a correlate to — and sometimes as a trigger for — the surge of aggression needed to overcome Habsburg domination. Such interpretations falter partly because the similarities of design that seem so obvious to listeners today may not have been perceptible to audiences and writers in the 1830s and 1840s, who were less conditioned to see their own experiences in terms of allegory or abstract structures. To put this another way, the fact that it is possible to observe structural similarities between operatic plots or music and contemporary life does nothing to guarantee a relationship of influence — or even meaningful connection — between artworks and the offstage world.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1 • Risorgimento Fantasies
2 • Accidental Affinities: Gioachino Rossini and Salvatore Viganò
3 • Elizabeth I, Mary Stuart, and the Limits of Allegory
4 • Reading Mazzini’s “Filosofia della musica” with Byron and Donizetti
5 • Parlor Games
6 • Progress, Piety, and Plagiarism: Verdi’s I Lombardi at La Scala

Notes 185

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