Adrienne Ward. Pagodas in Play: China on the Eighteenth-Century Italian Opera Stage.
Opera holds a central, yet odd, position in Italian culture. For three centuries opera has been croce e delizia, bringing honor and shame to letterati, philosophers, and musicians. In spite of that (or because of that), Italian opera, like fashion and food, was rapidly and widely exported, contributing to the formation of global culture and representing today one of the most emblematic cases of 'glocalization'. When approached within the field of traditional "Italianistica" opera appears often embarrassing, in part because of the questionable literary quality of the libretti, in part because of the indeterminacy of the texts. Moreover, while opera is one of the most emblematic cultural products of Italy, it is more often than not a mirror of the world outside of Italy than of Italy and its inhabitants. For these reasons, the study of opera has often been delegated to musicologists who, for obvious reasons, tend to privilege the score over the libretto.
Adrienne Ward's book tackles the problem of representations of China in Italian eighteenth-century opera libretti with a complete understanding of the importance and complexity of this phenomenon. She operates within the broader field of Italian studies, which, being concerned more with the study of cultural products than with literary criticism, is an ideal arena for the study of libretti. She shows time and again that the way in which Italy represents China is multifarious and complex and it cannot be done by applying any reductionist theory on exoticism or orientalism a la Said.
This beautiful volume starts by addressing two fundamental issues: the first is that, of the entire body of European dramatic works representing China in the eighteenth century, half were Italian and a large portion of them were operas; the second is that the representation of China in Italian opera escapes easy generalizations and reductive readings. After an introductory section comprising two chapters on methodology and general concepts, the book zooms into carefully chosen case studies presented in rough chronological order and divided in two sub-sections. The first comprises two chapters devoted to opera seria and the second comprises three chapters devoted to opera buffa. The book ends with an extended conclusion and helpful appendices that feature lists of European dramatic works about China, opera plots and information about sources, composers, and performance history. The critical apparatus shows that this book is not merely the result of an extensive research on period sources. The notes and bibliography also reflect the broad cultural scope of the volume by engaging with an interdisciplinary array of secondary readings. Each section offers extended summaries taken from authoritative opera studies about genre definition and salient aspects of opera history. This compendium of opera history can be tedious to the reader specialized in opera studies, in part because it is far from being an original contribution, but it may tuna helpful to readers coming from other fields in the humanities, which is to say, to the targeted readership of the volume. The book features an impressive iconographic apparatus. Though most of the images seem to be ornamental and are not referrenced in the text, but they contribute nevertheless to visualize the ways China was represented in eighteenth-century European culture and set the stage, so to speak, for the unfolding of the book's narrative.
Among the drammi eroici or opere serie, the first case study discussion of Teuzzone by Apostolo Zeno (from now on I refer only to the authors of the libretti since the music is not discussed at all in this book). This part offers an enlightening example of how China was aligned with classical antiquity. As Ward writes, "Teuzzone represents Middle Kingdom antiquity not as a competitor with that of Europe, but as a complement, even a virtual equivalent ..." (85). The analysis of the stage sets is quite surprising to the experts of the genre. The Chinese Palace is described as a "Sala pastorale, che rappresenta la Reggia della Primavera tutta di flori adornata" (idem). Ward points out that "the bucolic environment flourishes indoors, inside the royal chambers. The courtly interior, emblematic of refinement, of man's civilized domestication of nature's wild impulses, embraces the simplicity and purity of rural spring" (idem). Both the stage sets and the drama itself show that, in this opera, instead of a clash of East and West, or of a process of appropriation or assimilation, Teuzzone reaches a "China-Greece synthesis" (86).
Antonio Salvi's Il tartaro nella Cina shows a very different attitude towards China. Here we have a clash of uncivilized Tartar invaders (equated with barbarians) versus a civilized and sophisticated Chinese court. Again, the most convincing part, in my opinion, is the analysis of the visual element leading Ward to show that "Salvi is careful to distinguish between the two cultures, with respect to landscape, architecture, furnishing, and other visual details" (90). In her reading of opere serie, Ward does not miss the importance of the intermezzi, as in Lalli's Camaide, l'imperatore della Cina. Here, she shows that, contrary to what is generally assumed, the topic of the intermezzi is consistent with that of the opera, and we are offered a glimpse of the decadent culture embracing chinoiserie aesthetics, a world populated by spoiled well-to-do ladies who love to surround themselves with exotic novelties in fashion, decoration, design ... and with cicisbei. As in almost every chapter, Ward takes details from the opera libretti to explore the culture that generates them, from fashion to art, from travel literature to periodicals, and so on. The chapter on Metastasio's L'eroe cinese is the most extensive, offering more textual and dramaturgical analysis of the libretto. Ward offers a solid representation of the historical context that produced this opera, both in Vienna, where Metastasio was
the official court poet, as well as in Italian culture, which informed Metastasio's views on politics and religion. Here Ward takes into special account Muratori's writings, confirming Berenger's historical interpretation of how "Vienna had a long-standing penchant for Italian (Latin) Catholic culture over all others, and that Enlightenment initiatives in Habsburg territories resembled those in centers such as Naples and Milan more than they did the projects emanating from France" (99). In this case it is somewhat unsettling that the author does not clarify to the reader that the edition of the libretto she uses corresponds, in fact, to the Viennese performance on which she focuses--the book shows a reproduction of the cover page of the Venetian libretto, while the quotations are from a modern edition of Metastasio's collected works. The reason is that libretti often present remarkable variances from production to production.
The section on opera buffa offers a chapter on Goldoni's L'isola disabitata, read contextually against works by Genovesi and Baretti and without forgetting the importance of entr'actes dances, which she defines as "colonial moments" (126). Here, Wards shows how challenging the work of the translator can be when it comes to non-sense imitation of Chinese language that still retains traces of meaning. Her great admirable ability as a translator can be appreciated even more when she deals with complex idioms, such as eighteenth-century Neapolitan, as in Lorenzi's L'idolo cinese. In her study of this opera libretto, she shows how, in the Kingdom of Naples, Bourbon monarchy used a Buddhist-Catholicism conflation to attack the inferences of the Church in local politics. For a contextual understanding of the religious aspects emerging from this opera, Ward takes into account period travel and religious literature by Magalotti, Gemelli, Careri, Matteo Ripa, and others. The most interesting aspect of this study is that anti-Catholic sentiments appear not to be the expression of progressive views; on the contrary, they emanate from a group that was mainly concerned with the defense of feudal, baronial rights. This explains why the opera also uses China "to negatively represent bourgeois newcomers and their potential to destabilize the status quo" (146). If Goldoni uses China to represent a clash between Venetian (republican) aristocracy and the emerging middle classes, Lorenzi' s China reflects the very different political situation in Naples. This shows how the global sensibilities of opera makers representing China reflect their views on local politics in a politically fragmented Italy.
The strength of this book is textual and contextual analysis. In the book Ward adheres to a pure-libretto approach that does not take into account music. Somebody like myself, who operates in the field of musicology, can be tempted to dismiss this project on the assumption that every opera study should include music analysis. This would not be fair criticism, as I learned a good deal from this book. However, while outlining the theoretical foundations of her study, Ward sets a trap for this otherwise praiseworthy intellectual project by embracing a method that is impossible to pursue with a pure-libretto approach, a method that in fact does not describe at best what she actually does in the book. In the introduction, Ward adheres to theoretical models devised by Umberto Eco, Patrice Pavis, and Jean Alter, all of whom stress the multiplicity of signifiers in theatrical performances; Pavis and Alter insist also on "the consubstantiality of text and performance" (22). But Ward also engages in one of the most important discussions of multivalence in opera studies, starting with contributions by Roger Parker, Carolyn Abate, and James Webster, who maintain that precisely because opera poses a multiplicity of codes and texts, the study of opera must take into account music. Without music opera also looses the texture of the voice. It is through music and gesture that in opera "the text becomes texture" (22).
Wards justifies her pure-libretto approach on the basis that "the librettos still yield plentiful information about the onstage 'textual practice' of China operas" (23), and by deploying ancient, no longer sustainable, arguments on the superiority of the text over music. There is no need for such a defensive standpoint because this book, in fact, sheds light on the text and context and, in so doing, it helps to better understand opera, including its music. Opera is a complex phenomenon and as such it can be approached at best from a plurality of points of view and with the contribution of scholars active in different disciplines. Scholars in the field of cultural studies are called to play a fundamental role in this process and scholars of early-modern Italian studies cannot afford to dismiss opera if they wish to understand the role of Italy in global culture. Ward's Pagodas in Italy does not say the last word about operatic representation of China in eighteenth-century opera, but it offers plenty of material for the exploration of the encounter between Italy and China and its impact on the world of opera. The book encourages readers to want to know more, which is the best that an academic book can do.
University of Notre Dame
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2011|
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