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Thursday, October 12th, 2006
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Divas and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera

by Philip Gossett

The Pen and the Baton

A review by G.W. Bowersock

At the end of Voltaire's tragedy about the Babylonian queen Semiramis, her son Arsace kills his own mother. The great bel canto composer Rossini later took over the story for a tragic opera, and his work also ended with the same fearful matricide. But when La Scala in Milan mounted a new production of Rossini's Semiramide in December 1962, the conductor Richard Bonynge coolly changed the plot to make Arsace kill the villain Assur instead, leaving his mother standing on her own solid feet at the end -- ready for the applause. The Milan performance had been conceived as a showcase for Giulietta Simionato and, above all, for Bonynge's wife, Joan Sutherland. Bonynge cut and adapted the score, including altering the finale, so as to provide maximum exposure for the hugely talented soprano. He had taken care to consult Rossini's autograph in Venice, but not to defer to it. His peculiar text served "La Stupenda" for subsequent outings in Semiramide, notably in New York in 1964, with the incomparable Marilyn Horne, and in Boston, again with Horne, the following year.

Yet in spite of all this excitement, the decade of the 1960s was still a time in which Rossini was, as Philip Gossett observes in his fascinating book, a one-opera composer, the creator of the irresistible Barber of Seville. His serious pieces, beautiful works of high tragedy, were scarcely known, and although the Bonynge Semiramide audaciously opened up this repertoire, it is above all to Gossett that we owe the avalanche of Rossini opera seria that followed in subsequent decades. I was lucky enough to attend the Boston Semiramide and still recall the breathtaking performances of those two great singers, particularly as they negotiated a steeply raked and potentially dangerous set devised by Sarah Caldwell's ubiquitous production team.

What really opened my ears to the genius of Rossini's writing in this genre was the Rome Zelmira in late April 1989, when I first heard its extraordinary duettino accompanied only by harp and English horn. Gossett had prepared the edition for this Zelmira and was already on his way to becoming the leading editor of operatic scores from the first half of the nineteenth century. I felt that I was entering a new operatic world, and Gossett, a professor at the University of Chicago, was my guide. Of course, Maria Callas had almost single-handedly revived the bel canto repertoire through her exploration of Bellini masterpieces, and Bonynge was busy looking into Rossini (and much else) to find vehicles for Sutherland beyond those that fans associated with Callas. But if Bonynge investigated neglected masterpieces to prepare new roles for a great soprano, Gossett was the musicologist who entered the field determined to establish the integrity of forgotten scores and, perhaps even more importantly, the performance practice that composers would have expected of singers and conductors at the time they were writing.

From the moment that Gossett moved into the field of early nineteenth-century opera, he turned up in person whenever a major house put on the great works of Rossini, Donizetti, and early Verdi. He became a pillar of the Fondazione Rossini in Pesaro, and he was a driving force in launching the new edition of the works of Verdi. Somehow he managed, through all this, to maintain decent relations with the old and powerful publishing house of Ricordi, whose editions of the old operas dominated the musical world until Gossett came along.

In his erudite and delightful book, Gossett chronicles in detail his revolution in bringing dedicated scholarship to an operatic environment long dominated by sclerotic and autocratic traditionalists. The champions of these traditions were conductors and singers, who felt they knew best because they knew what had been done by previous generations. Audiences were much the same. They knew what they wanted to hear because they had heard it before. Not the least remarkable of Gossett's talents is his ability to work with performers on new productions, to explain the scholarly niceties without ignoring the exigencies of putting a piece across to the public. He has proved that he can do this without compromising his scholarship. He knows that Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi all had to contend with the harsh realities of live performance. He knows that scores could be altered to accommodate a mediocre singer or to replace an incompetent instrumentalist. But he is always searching for what the composer would have expected, and what would plausibly convey the style of a work.

Gossett's book offers detailed accounts of the interaction of scholar and performer, of research and theatrical necessity, of explicit and implicit musical direction. Although many famous artists appear in these pages and some delectable anecdotes are told, this is by no means a collection of backstage stories. It could not be more unlike the recent memoirs of the outgoing general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. It is a passionately earnest investigation of the classic problem of faithfully reconstituting a text for a modern audience. Gossett selects his examples with care to cover such sensitive issues as cuts, transposition, instrumentation, ornamentation, and libretto, and he regularly furnishes apposite musical illustrations for his points. (A reader without at least a rudimentary ability to read music will miss much of Gossett's challenging exposition.)

Bringing musical artists and scholars into confrontation is not an easy business. I have the impression that some of the more acerbic and unwelcome reactions that Gossett has received have galvanized him to write these pages. In 1975 he attempted to explain to a New York audience why he considered the Metropolitan Opera's production of a Rossinian opera called L'Assedio di Corinto an utterly unacceptable conflation of two different works: Maometto II, set to an Italian text, and Le Siège de Corinthe, set to a French text with an altered plot. This hybrid had been created for La Scala six years before, with Beverly Sills and Marilyn Horne under the direction of Thomas Schippers. In 1975 Sills, who was finally making her Met debut in what Gossett cattily calls "the promised land," sang her heart out to the pleasure of many fans, but Gossett's strictures on what was actually sung led her to observe tartly, "I think some so-called musicologists are like men who talk constantly of sex and never do anything about it." Gossett knew perfectly well that Sills performed brilliantly, even if, in his opinion, inappropriately; but her barbed remark clearly left a wound that he still feels.

The same can be said of Donal Henahan's assessment of the Met Semiramide in 1990. Reviewing, for The New York Times, the whole season in which it was performed, Henahan found it to have been given "in a new edition that put exhaustive scholarship before operatic effectiveness." What Gossett calls Henahan's "banal" dichotomy was nevertheless a gauntlet thrown at his feet. Divas and Scholars is his passionate, meticulous, candid, and devastating riposte.

For starters, the Met Semiramide made concessions that clearly bypassed the ears of the Times critic. The 1990 edition resurrected the original scoring for stage band (banda sul palco) in three separate numbers with twenty-two instruments. Ideally, exhaustive scholarship would have put this band back on the stage where it belonged, but the physical conditions of the Met did not allow the necessary synchronization of pit and stage bands in the rehearsal time available, and the band parts were simply incorporated into the pit orchestra. As Gossett writes with an almost audible sigh, "Exhaustive scholarship and operatic effectiveness were both sacrificed on the altar of practical expedience."

In that same production, Samuel Ramey, whose mad scene in the role of Assur was justly admired at the time, found himself confronted in that scene with a score by Rossini that was harmonically incompatible with his sustaining a final high F for seven dazzling measures. (Rossini had written that the bass should descend to the tonic and not even reach for that high note, then let go after two measures when the harmony shifted to the dominant chord.) While allowing the high F, Gossett persuaded Ramey at least to exit properly after only two measures, before the harmony changed. But in subsequent performances Ramey, left to himself, did exactly what he wanted. He made the orchestra alter the music to provide seven measures of tonic support for his long sustained F. It is clear that Gossett felt a thrill of schadenfreude when he returned to hear Ramey try to do this later in the run: the bass's voice cracked after two bars, "leaving the orchestra to repeat the tonic chord in solitary splendor."

The scholar's role is never merely an exhaustive exercise. It is certainly that, but also much more. The preparation of an edition of an opera is, in its nature, not much different from the honorable enterprise of establishing reliable texts for ancient authors whose work is transmitted in manuscripts. This is the academic discipline known as philology, which has a distinguished pedigree from the Renaissance onward and was even practiced by scholars in Alexandria in the days of the Ptolemies. In modern times biblical scholarship led the way, but philological methods of textual criticism soon passed to Shakespearean scholarship and to the editing of the Greek and Latin classics. Philology, as practiced by its most austere acolytes, has often been perceived as the soulless enemy of beloved traditions.

The crisis that Riccardo Muti faced at La Scala in a production of Verdi's Ernani in 1982 is emblematic of the philological enterprise, and of the animosity it can sometimes provoke. Even though the conductor chose to use the Ricordi edition, dating from the late nineteenth century and bristling with errors, he announced that his Ernani would be performed without cuts, exactly as the composer wished. His claim was largely based on his recent discovery that Verdi's autograph omitted Silva's cabaletta "Infin che un brando vindice" from the finale of the first act. So he chose to cut the cabaletta, and this promptly led to accusations of "philology." At the opening performance, according to Gossett, who was there, the absence of Silva's cabaletta provoked "a cry ... from the recesses of the theater: 'La cabaletta, filologo!'"

With that cry, the close link between the editorial work of Philip Gossett on opera manuscripts and the textual criticism of such masters of the Greek and Roman classics as Richard Bentley and A.E. Housman becomes not only apparent, but also important. Sills and Henahan might complain about the interventions of a musicologist in a live performance, but nowhere outside of Italy, I suspect, would one hear an accusation of philology. It is probably not accidental that two of the greatest philologists of the twentieth century were Italians: Giorgio Pasquali and his pupil Sebastiano Timpanaro, both of whom were deeply imbued with the classical learning of nineteenth-century Germany. Timpanaro's long-admired study of the philological method of the nineteenth-century scholar Karl Lachmann, which recently appeared in a masterly English translation by Glenn Most, illuminates the depths from which that cry of filologo emerged.

No less a scholar than Erasmus prepared the first printed edition of the Greek New Testament, and although his work is generally regarded as one of his least successful scholarly efforts, the text that he produced became the traditional text, and in a somewhat contaminated form it constituted the "received text" that was widely diffused in Protestant churches. As Timpanaro observed, "From then on it was indeed permitted to amass variants at the foot of the page -- John Mill collected more of them in his Oxford edition of 1707 than anyone else did -- but every attempt to introduce modifications into the text, even if on the authority of the oldest manuscripts, encountered the theologians' fierce opposition." In short, the received text, which was as artificial as any other and equally subject to human error, was "venerated as the tradition and made a return to the ancient manuscripts seem a rash innovation." Timpanaro pointed out that this prejudice extended into classical studies, in which acceptance of the currently available vulgate was preferred to consulting the available manuscripts. In Italy, Dante scholarship was caught up in the same mindless conservatism, which lasted well into the nineteenth century. What Housman once dryly called "the application of thought to textual criticism" was a most unwelcome exercise to those who wanted familiar works to be familiar rather than accurate and reliable.

The problem that philologists of all kinds -- and Gossett too -- must face is that the edition of a text will inevitably never be more than an approximation of the ideal. The proliferation of manuscripts and alterations made in the course of copying them introduce various changes, such as scribal emendations in a faulty classical text or revisions in a score to accommodate the exigencies of a particular opera house. For the editor of ancient texts, the luxury of consulting an autograph does not normally exist, but as Gossett knows very well, the existence of opera autographs by no means simplifies matters. A composer can make mistakes in writing out the score, as Verdi did when he inadvertently copied a line of Manrico's aria at the end of Act III of Il Trovatore in the wrong place. This error, repeated in all printed editions until 1993 and included in all performances up to that date, has the authority of Verdi's own hand.

It is more difficult to discern the intention of a composer when his autograph shows changes that are clearly deliberate. The mad scene in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor is a notorious example. Everyone knows the highflying duet between soprano and flute, but doubts about the canonical scoring arose in 1941 when a facsimile of Donizetti's autograph revealed that the composer had originally scored the duet with a glass harmonica instead of a flute. Donizetti had used this instrument once before, in support of another distressed woman in Il Castello di Kenilworth. It had a distinguished pedigree as a form of musical glasses designed by Benjamin Franklin and memorably exploited by Mozart. Its unearthly music seems an inspired accompaniment for the deranged Lucia -- and yet Donizetti clearly substituted a flute before opening night at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples on September 26, 1835. Is this what he really wanted? It would seem perverse to quarrel with his own rewriting in advance of the first public performance. Yet diligent research has now revealed that Donizetti had written for a particular performer, Domenico Pezzi, who had in fact rehearsed the scene with the first Lucia and full orchestra. But when Pezzi had a disagreement with the opera house earlier that year over his work in a ballet, the glass harmonica was replaced by a flute during the run of the ballet. He sued the theater, and the possibility of employing him in Lucia vanished in the dispute. Donizetti had no choice but to rewrite the scene with a flute.

As Gossett says, a good edition of the opera should present both scorings and leave it to the artists to choose. It seems obvious that what Donizetti really wanted was the glass harmonica, but what he finally wrote called for a flute. To pair the soprano with a flute represents both tradition and the written score, although it does not represent Donizetti's original intention. The written text is never sacrosanct. It can be no more than a pointer. Composers, like writers, were usually prepared to adjust their ideas to secure the best effect, and conductors and singers today cannot be faulted for the same instinct, though this can lead them into embarrassing confrontations with the audience.

A new generation of scrupulous conductors, including Riccardo Muti and Gianluigi Gelmetti, has rallied to the cause of performing a work precisely as they imagine it to have been written: come scritto. But this noble aim can lead to howls of protest, as with the omitted cabaletta in Ernani or the elimination of the high C at the end of "Di quella pira" in Il Trovatore. That traditional and beloved high note is absent not only from the autograph, but even from all printed editions of the opera. Yet if audiences like to hear it, why should a tenor who can reach it not deliver it? In fact, Gossett suggests that the tenor for whom Verdi wrote the role lacked a range (or tessitura) that could reach the high C, and so he devised the music accordingly. Performers and musicologists need more than a little flexibility in confronting live audiences in the real world.

Gelmetti's loyalty to the written score, as he found it, could sometimes generate major problems, as Renée Fleming learned when she took on the title role in Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia at La Scala in 1998. The opening night was one of the rare disasters in her career, and it was because she was working with a conductor who believed that he had to conduct every note exactly as written. The issue was the appoggiatura, an eighteenth-century convention that was taken over in the early nineteenth century in Italy by Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. At a feminine verse ending, as in the word amore, with stress on the penultimate syllable, composers customarily wrote the same pitch for the two final syllables, but it is well known and documented that singers were expected to take the penultimate pitch up a whole step (or occasionally down) before concluding on the pitch as written. The appoggiatura, as Gossett observes repeatedly, was not an optional ornamentation. It was simply the way to sing the music, and it was what the composer expected when he penned the notes.

The hapless Gelmetti, seeing the same pitch for two notes where Donizetti clearly expected an appoggiatura, insisted that the pitch should remain the same in performance. Fleming knew better, but (as Gossett reports) "singers and conductor were working at cross-purposes, and the developing atmosphere was fraught with tension." On opening night, massive hissing and booing embarrassed the diva and led to the conductor's collapse and dispatch to the hospital. Even after he recovered, Gelmetti remained in blissful ignorance of his ignorance. In the fullness of time, Verdi, who knew the appoggiatura convention perfectly, decided to start writing the pitch-change directly into his scores, and so Gossett asked Gelmetti with heavy irony whether he thought that Verdi had invented the appoggiatura when he wrote its occurrences into the score of Nabucco. Gelmetti missed the point.

Knowing how to construe the signs in a score or a text is an essential part of any good editor's scholarly equipment. No one can rely upon the doctrine of come scritto, as if the truth lay in a straightforward rendering of what appears on the manuscript page. A Greek manuscript in which the letters theta and sigma appear alongside each other cannot be rendered as theta-sigma; a knowledgeable person knows that this is an abbreviation of theos, or "god." Manuscripts in both Greek and Latin abound with conventions, abbreviations, ligatures, and other devices that readers were expected to understand. Composers such as Rossini and Donizetti were no different, although Verdi must have recognized that the written convention was becoming increasingly unfamiliar when he opted to write out his appoggiaturas.

Of all forms of musical ornamentation, the appoggiatura is undoubtedly the most obvious and non-controversial. The extended cadenza was a more elaborate form of decoration that allowed singers exceptional liberty in elaborating the notes before them. But, as Gossett points out, there were stylistic limits on what could be done. Fortunately, these can be deduced from some precious examples of ornamentation that survive from the composer's hand, as for example a brilliant cadenza that Rossini himself wrote for Giuditta Pasta in the duet in Tancredi. Later in his life he wrote out other ornamentations, and the notebooks of singers of the day provide invaluable insight into the expectations of composers such as Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, and the practice of great artists such as Pasta.

Regrettably, toward the end of the nineteenth century an aberrant style of coloratura and variation became prevalent, to the great detriment of the works it was supposed to animate. Gossett signals this deterioration of taste by reference to a notorious edition of "Una voce poco fa," the great soprano aria from The Barber of Seville, by a certain Estelle Liebling. Of this edition he writes that "I still see this execrable piece of work in the hands of young singers, and I simply cannot fathom the know-nothingism that allows such a practice to continue to flourish in American conservatories." Liebling transposed the cavatina up a half-step to suit a higher voice and allow for a coloratura virtuosity more appropriate for the Queen of the Night than any Rossini heroine. By inserting cadenzas in the wrong places, Liebling disturbed the composer's symmetry of design, and with a final high F she thumbed her nose at Rossini himself, whose own tasteful version for Matilde Juva survives. To quote Gossett on the practitioners of this nonsense: "'The audience expects it.' 'My public demands it.' 'If I don't sing it, they'll think I don't have it.' 'What would my mother say?' You name the justification, I've heard it."

Excisions from tradition are undoubtedly controversial, but so, too, are additions. Near the end of the second act of The Barber of Seville, Rossini wrote a brilliant aria for the Count, "Cessa di più resistere," which has traditionally been omitted in modern performances. Tullio Serafin, a respected maestro of bel canto opera from a previous generation, waged a war on behalf of Ricordi against charges from a young Australian rebel named Denis Vaughan, who accused the old publishing house in 1958 of purveying scores that were crammed with mistakes. Serafin laid claim to knowledge of a continuing performance tradition, and in that context he defended the omission of the Count's number in the second act of Barber. He declared the aria superfluous to the action, probably an accommodation by Rossini to a tenor's request, and already omitted in the first performance. He felt that Rossini had written the piece without "complete conviction." Gossett makes mincemeat of these arguments. But for those of us who heard Juan Diego Florez sing this amazing aria at the Met in 2002, no argument is needed. It not only belongs in the opera, it has to be there.

A good editor has to lay out the options. This is as true for the texts of Sophocles and Virgil as it is for the scores of Rossini and Donizetti. Gossett understands this supremely well, owing to his direct involvement with opera productions. He strives to maintain the style and the expectations of the composer without neglecting the constraints of house and artist. In this respect he is merely re-enacting the constant accommodation to necessity that was (and still is) the daily life of anyone who writes for public presentations. The Greek tragedies have come down to us with interpolations by the actors as well as by the scribes who transmitted them. The interplay of audience engagement, artistic vision, and fidelity to the original work remains the ultimate goal of anyone who wants to mediate between scholar and impresario.

Gossett's book closes with two remarkable leaps from the archive into the orchestra pit -- two productions in which he fashioned by adaptation works of Verdi and Rossini that had never existed in those forms before. The first, created for the new opera house in Gothenburg, Sweden, was a bold attempt to cut through the absurdities in current versions of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera. This work, which included the onstage assassination of a king, had encountered serious problems with the censors in the course of its gestation, and operagoers by now will be familiar with both the Boston and the Sweden settings of the piece. Anckarström seems an odd character in Boston, and Tom and Sam are out of place in Stockholm. The tortured history of the score impelled Gossett to put together an opera called Gustavo III, attending closely to the Naples version of Verdi's work called Una Vendetta in Dominò. Obviously the recreated opera is in no way an original or authentic work by Verdi. Gossett speaks of "the chimera of authentic performance." It is, rather, an imaginative reconstruction that affords a glimpse into the Naples masterpiece that might have been.

I wish I had heard and seen the Gothenburg Gustavo III, but I did at least have the good fortune to be present for a performance of Gossett's other venture into rewriting nineteenth-century opera. This was a new production of Il Viaggio a Reims at Helsinki in 2003, under the direction of Dario Fo. The discovery of Viaggio itself had been a relatively recent occurrence, with a memorable Pesaro production in 1984 after the work had been pieced together from newly found scores. They served to confirm inferences from the later Le Comte Ory, which had drawn from it. A glorious recording by Claudio Abbado with a stellar cast still evokes the excitement that attended the discovery of this extraordinary work. I first encountered its Gran Pezzo Concertato for fourteen voices at the Rossini bicentennial birthday gala on February 29, 1992 in New York. Among the fourteen singers on stage simultaneously for this exhilarating number were Deborah Voigt, June Anderson, Frederica Von Stade, Marilyn Horne, Chris Merritt, Rockwell Blake, Thomas Hampson, and Samuel Ramey.

Viaggio is a silly piece, and all the more wonderful because of it. It is a tale of eccentric European grandees meeting at a spa on their way to the coronation of Charles X at Rheims in 1825. They wait for their carriage, and it never comes: that is the entirety of the plot. Since the piece was written to order for that very occasion, its political context is indisputable, and for an anarchist such as Dario Fo its crazy quilt of aristocratic pomposities was irresistible. He re-imagined and rewrote the Viaggio text within the frame of Rossini's infectious and dazzling score. It fell to Gossett to do the musical surgery necessary to accommodate Fo's inventions. The Helsinki program book credits Gossett with the adaptation of Rossini's music to Fo's text. It was clear from the moment that the opera began that Fo wanted to have an in-your-face impact upon his audience. He brought on circus high-wire antics, magic umbrellas, hats flying through the air, and, above all, a parade of large posters with political slogans in Finnish.

By the time I saw the Helsinki performance I knew the music fairly well, and I found that it cast its spell as powerfully as ever. Gossett's alterations seemed to my ears seamless, and they allowed the piece to achieve an immediacy that was probably greater than anything experienced since 1825. Finns in the audience, who were the majority, clearly responded heartily to the frequent display of large posters. Although the texts inevitably left me in the dark, I had a visceral sense of what Dario Fo was trying to achieve, and that he had achieved it. The collaboration between the formidable professor of music and the outspoken rebellious anarchist was a miracle to witness. If Sills could have attended this Viaggio, I am certain that she would have revised her opinion of at least one musicologist. Philip Gossett is a superb scholar, but he is also a true man of the theater.


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