Inventing the Business of Opera: The Impresario and His World in Seventeenth Century Venice.
As they make clear in the preface, Beth and Jonathan Glixon have been working on this book for many years, and their work is both long awaited and well worth the wait. Inventing the Business of Opera is not intended for the casual reader; it jumps headfirst into the business of opera in its earliest commercial period. As such, it is a book of extremes: it is extremely well-researched and extremely dense; it also makes no apologies for assuming of its readers a thorough grounding not only of the subject but of its principal players, their work, and the social situation in seventeenth-century Venice. For background on this specialized topic, a reader would be well-advised to begin with Simon Towneley Worsthorne's Venetian Opera in the Seventeenth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1954) or Ellen Rosand's Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice: The Creation of a Genre (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991) before venturing into this work.
To be sure, this topic is increasingly of interest to scholars, and as such, the book is of great importance to current studies of opera and the arts industry as a whole. In this work, the Glixon team has made exhaustive studies of many original documents that have been hitherto unknown. Other than the already-known work of Giovanni Faustini, who seems to have chronicled every move he ever made (as described in the Venetian State Archives Scuola Grande de San Marco), they have found documents to flesh out the work of other impresarios including Boldu, Barbieri, Lappoli, Ceroni, Minato, Vettor Grimani Calergi, and others. The colorful description of their business interests (chap. 4: "Case Studies," pp. 66-105) is especially vivid. This chapter helps to illuminate the relationship of composers to librettists (such as there was any), of impresarios to singers (much of which is new information to me), and precise accounts of the costs of production.
One of the hazards of studying opera in the seventeenth century is that many of the operas have not been recorded. While a few operas by Cavalli (Giasone, La Calisto, Xerse, La Didone, Statira pincipessa di Persia), Sartorio (L'Orfeo), and Cesti (Oronlea) are available (to say nothing of Monteverdi's operas), this list is short in comparison to the number of works produced in Venice. It is difficult, then, to discuss the music, the text setting, or the staging, since the scholar must rely on the libretto and the score, which, in nearly every case, are in manuscript (often in messy manuscript). This book tantalizes with chapters purporting to deal with the librettos and the score, but which in fact deal with ancillary issues like the price of the score, or the means of financing the libretto. I would argue that the music and the text-setting need a great deal of further study in order for music historians to be able to contextualize the relative historical and aesthetic importance of the people and work of seventeenth-century Venice. It cannot be questioned that the impresarios must have known the works they brought, to the stage well, and yet not once in the book is any opera dealt with, musically, in detail. While this is a common occurrence in this field, it is a lacuna. If we do not know, by any standard, current or contemporaneous, the qualities of the works that were the purpose of this industry, then we cannot know whether the operas studied reached a wide audience, if they gained popular acceptance, or in what way they formed or were formed by the Venetian Zeitgeist. At the same time, I hesitate to criticize the authors for this because it may be outside of their purview. However, until someone studies a large number of these works, no one will be able to decide either how important this period was artistically, or how central it should be to music history.
Other chapters in the book include details about the amount of money earned by composers and librettists, who bought the costumes, who supplied the set materials and other details that are difficult to describe in an engaging manner--and which, because of their great detail, tend to obscure the overall narrative. Perhaps the majority of this material could have been placed in appendices and footnotes. But this is quibbling with what is in fact a major achievement, a massive effort of research, in moving forward the study of this field. In fact, the book offers a chronicle of opera productions from 1651-1668 including all the people associated with them (appendix 1, pp. 325-37), information on the division of classes in Venice (appendix 2, pp. 338-39), a valuable glossary of terms in common use (pp. 359-62), as well as several lists of expenses and attendance records, and even a note on the otherwise confusing Venetian monetary system, all of which provide interesting material for further research. The bibliography is particularly strong on archival sources, pointing to the greatest strength both of this book and its authors: that is, their vast knowledge of, and use of, historical documents in Venetian archives. They take issue, for example, with Ellen Rosand's study of the Novissimo theater as one driven by the Accademia degli incogniti, something they question effectively (p. 75).
Seventeenth-century Venetian opera is considered by many to be the earliest model, or at least the earliest example of the hybrid between the areas of drama, music, and business. Thus, the inevitable discussion about whether this was, in fact, commercial, is reserved for the end of the book. This last chapter is by far the most thoughtful, and thought-provoking. I am indebted to them, for example, for dealing with the difficult subject of audiences. This subject, notoriously difficult to describe with any certainty, is dealt with systematically by studying documents related to box (palco) rental, including rental contracts and legal documents, so that the names of the tenants, although not comprehensive, is more complete than any other previous study. Various other problematic areas, including the make-up of the audience in the parterre (where the middle-class cittadini tended to sit) are well described, considering the absence of definitive information on their numbers or natures. Their admirable attempts to define who the audiences were, despite the fact that they cannot really assess the success of the show or the size of the audience is the best such study to date. The two paragraphs about courtesans could have been fleshed out more, given the existence of excellent studies (such as Martha Feldman and Bonnie Gordon, eds. The Courtesan's Arts: Cross-Cultural Perspectives [New York: Oxford University Press, 2006]).
Some other topics of current interest are dealt with very well. The issue of publicity, which has been neglected except in specialized studies, (see Ellen Rosand, "The Opera Scenario, 1638-1655: A Preliminary Survey" in In cantu et in sermone: For Nino Pirrotta on his 80th birthday, ed. Fabrizio Della Seta and Franco Piperno [Florence: L. S. Olschki, 1989], pp. 335-46; and Sandy Thorburn, "What News on the Rialto? Fundraising and Publicity for Operas in Seventeenth-Century Venice," Canadian University Music Review, 23, no. 1-2 : 166-200), are dealt with in some depth, allowing speculation about the nature of tickets, guests, frequency of attendance, and the nature of "popularity" in the early modern world. A tantalizing section on patronage (pp. 315-16) describes the current consensus on the issue of public vs. private opera (as it relates to this period of Venetian opera, as described by Lorenzo Bianconi and Thomas Walker, "Production, Consumption and Political Function of Seventeenth Century Opera" Early Music History 4 : 209-96), and then they discuss how the libretto, the score, and the production were patronized, how operas were commissioned and the audience responded. Their conclusion, the most satisfying to date, is that:
[t]he impresario and his creative team had somehow to craft a performed work that satisfied, at one level or another (that is, socially, financially, or artistically), the wealthy theater owners, investors, and boxholders, and also the middle-class ticket buyers in the parterre. If any of these were dissatisfied, an opera, or a season, could fail. (p. 320)
Despite the fact that the book sometimes takes individual aspects of Ellen Rosand's book to task, it is in many ways the sequel to her monumental work. It is exceptionally well-written, although it suffers from several typos and a strange typesetting (there is often no space between a period and the capital letter at the beginning of the next sentence). It is highly readable and its scholarship is without any significant errors. It has filled in a great many details, making this period in the history of music much more alive, adding greatly to the literature. Although the authors chose not to enter into aesthetic speculation by studying the scores and librettos for their social, aesthetic, and historical value (if they had, the work might have been more valuable as a general historical work, allowing entry to non-specialists), it is an excellent book aimed at the expert on seventeenth-century Venetian opera.