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Remaking the Song: Operatic Visions and Revisions From Handel to Berio.

Remaking the Song: Operatic Visions and Revisions From Handel to Berio. By Roger Parker. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. [xii, 165 p. ISBN 10: 0520244184; ISBN 13: 9780520244184. $29.95.] Music examples, index.

The esteemed opera scholar Roger Parker delivered a collection of talks as part of the Bloch Lectures Series in 2002 at the University of California, Berkeley. They were, according to the author, "a series of meditations on (also I hope celebrations of) operatic texts, in particular ways in which operas long known to us have been, and might in the future be, subject to change of one sort or another" (pp. 11-12). Simple enough. Or is it? What constitutes "one sort or another" ranges from a single aria to an entire scene, and it is the argument and rationale that preoccupies Parker. The resultant publication, Remaking the Song, deals in those sorts of changes one might consider argumentative minutiae, but are fiercely important to the operatic world. Consider, for example, the fit opera producer Jonathan Miller threw over Cecilia Bartoli choosing to use two substitute arias in his 1998 production of Le nozze di Figaro. Mozart composed the arias for a production of Figaro in 1789, three years after the premiere. Miller saw them as evidence of a diva pressuring Mozart to accommodate her, and not belonging to the "true" work. Miller was still talking about it four years later in an interview (Martin Bernheimer, "Operating Theater," Opera News 66, no. 12 [June 2002]: 20-25). Parker heads into these issues with what he describes as "a chipping away at some very familiar works--testing places where they were and might still be liable to change, in particular finding new ways we might think about them in their altered circumstances" (p. 13).

His first stop is Verdi. Chapter 2, "Of Andalusian Maidens and Recognition Scenes: Crossed Wires in Il trovatore and La traviata," looks at the dichotomy scholars have imposed upon the two operas, pairing them as opposites, when upon closer inspection, they are inextricably linked. Due to illness and scheduling delays, Verdi had no choice but to compose La traviata while in the process of orchestrating and rehearsing Il trovatore for its Roman premiere. Recently published sketches reveal music from both operas appearing together on the same piece of manuscript paper. This leads Parker not to jump to conclusions about those precise pairings, but to examine what he refers to as "musical doubles" between the two operas. The first of these is La traviata's act 2 finale, in which the female Parisian guests perform a mock zingarelle (gypsy dance). Parker finds shared musical context between the introduction to the zingarelle and Ferrando's description of Azucena in Il trovatore. Further evidence of the operas bleeding into one another comes later in the finale, when the men (as story-telling matadors) share remarkably similar thematic material with Il trovatore's act 2 duet cabaletta between Azucena and Manrico. But wait, there's more: in the first half of Il trovatore's third act, as the Count di Luna and Ferrando interrogate Azucena, a series of ironically sweet chromaticisms and trills accompany the revelation of Azucena as avenger and mother of Manrico. Parker informs us that those same trills become "a prime symbol of Violetta's champagne and tears, her dissembling gaiety" (p. 37). All this serves to teach the reader there are cases that resist interpretative scholarship, and one should simply (as it were) enjoy the recognition.

Chapter 3, "Ersatz Ditties: Adriana Ferrarese's Susanna" delves into the substitute aria problem in Le nozze di Figaro. Parker finds the criticism following Cecilia Bartoli's use of "Un moto di gioia" for "Venite, inginocchiatevi" in act 2 and "Al desio di chi t'adora" for "Deh vieni, non tardar" in act 4 evinces a "cultural pessimism about music and opera, perhaps about all art: a mood that makes us miserly and grasping, fearful of loss. We attach fanatical reverence to the works precisely because we doubt that what is to come will ever be as good" (pp. 51-52). Parker reminds us of the Neue Mozart Ausgabe's four full volumes of substitute arias, rendering moot Miller's opinion that Mozart composed the "right music" for the opera in 1786. In his overview of the work-protection argument, "never trust a trilling soprano" (p. 60) leads the list, especially if she is thought to have influenced the composer. The soprano in question, Adriana Ferrarese, was chosen to create the role of Fiordiligi in his upcoming opera, Cosi fan tutte, and Parker reads elements of "Un moto di gioia" and "Al desio" as trial runs of sorts for "Per pieta, ben mio, perdona." His examination of both substitute arias reveals layers of complexity and meaning directly relative to their dramatic contexts, and coupled with their Cosi affinities, Parker presents two arias too good to ignore.

Parker again addresses Verdi in chapter 4, this time through the lens of Theodor Adorno. His process of analyzing Richard Wagner's compositional method to reveal "inner meaning" rouses Parker to do the same with Verdi's Falstaff, notably in the case of act 3, scene 1. We learn that Verdi uncharacteristically put off writing the scene until the rest of the opera was finished, leading to some unusual musical moments. These include a quote from Wagner's Parsifal--the "Verfuhrungs" motive from the opening of act 2. Searching for meaning, Parker explores the relationship between the works, as well as Verdi's hot and cold stances on Wagner. Frustratingly, Parker draws no conclusion here, other than to say the composer's musical borrowing is a compositional and historical curiosity, one Parker hopes will promote a renewed appreciation of Falstaff, if nothing else.

Chapter 5, "Berio's Turandot: Once More the Great Tradition," traces the various efforts to complete Puccini's last opera. All of Turandot, save the last scene, was finished before the composer's death in 1924, and Franco Alfano was given the weighty task of realizing Puccini's sketches for the 1926 premiere. While his efforts were unheard (Toscanini stopped the performance where Puccini's score ended), Alfano's completion has become standard for the opera, despite its lack of cohesion with the rest of the score. Luciano Berio composed a new ending for the opera in 2002, also using Puccini's sketches, but also deviated from what Puccini would have composed. Alfano ignored Puccini's orchestrations, Berio, his tonal language. Parker examines their treatments, notably the final kiss between Calaf and Turandot. Alfano executed the kiss over two measures with loud percussion and low winds; Berio inserted a three-minute orchestral interlude including music from previous scenes, sketch fragments, quotes from Mahler, Wagner, and Schoenberg, and new composition. Parker sees great potential in Turandot's "unfinished" status, and encourages further exploration by other composers within the final scene. Berio's ending may be "a beginning, the start of a great tradition" (p. 120) of reworking historically problematic scenes in various operas.

Last, but not least, Handel. "Sudden Charms: The Progress of an Aria" details Parker's search for meaning in Rodelinda's "Dove sei amato bene?" Parker explores the implications of material in early drafts of the aria (later deleted), and how various drafts can convey different meanings. He is also concerned with how decisions made by critical edition editors can bear down on the history and interpretation of a piece. This particular aria is one of Handel's most famous, namely due to English "versions" assigning new text and, in many cases, new music. Its incarnation as "Art Thou Troubled," edited by W. G. Rothery, carried the aria into the twentieth century; choral arrangements of this text have been widely translated, even reaching the African continent with Zulu and Xhosa translations. Parker concludes that once an aria has a history of accumulated meaning, no one (lay person and musicologist alike) can make a claim on its "authentic" context or meaning.

Parker's words lead the reader through an unusual collection of puzzles, one that may satisfy some and merely whet the appetite of others. When he proudly proclaims in his introduction, "I am here to argue for change" (p. 2), I hoped something more substantial would follow. His chapters on Verdi, while beautifully crafted, leave the reader unsated and cranky--he unfairly avoids solid arguments or conclusions in a collection that supposedly exists to make them. However, his promotion of substitute arias in Figaro and his delicate musical analyses make it a book most academic music libraries should own. Ultimately, Parker's intent is to expose a few vulnerabilities in established works, ruminate on a few musical notions, and not ruffle too many feathers. This he accomplishes in spades.


VanderCook College of Music
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Author:Bonjack, Stephanie
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Date:Dec 1, 2007
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