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Sweet Thunder: Music and Libretti in 1960s Italy.

Sweet Thunder: Music and Libretti in 1960s Italy. By VIVIENNE SUVINI-HAND. (Italian Perspectives, 16) London: Legenda. 2006. x + 294 pp. 45 [pounds sterling]. ISBN 978-1-904350-60-6.

The term' libretto' names the text--usually poetic--set to music by the composer of an opera. Published separately from the vocal or full scores, this 'little book' will also give stage directions and a list of characters. Of the five works studied by Vivienne Suvini-Hand, only Luigi Dallapiccola' Ulisse (Berlin, 1968) has a libretto. The other four set what musicians simply call' texts' (not' lyrics' , as Suvini-Hand repeatedly has it: a term reserved for popular genres). But Italian composers of the 1960s had not ceased to write operas, even if the younger generation preferred to call their music-theatrical assaults on bourgeois proprieties 'azioni sceniche' . A book that lived up to Suvini-Hand's subtitle would survey a good three dozen works, demonstrating a striking range of verbal and musical forms and styles, from the politically committed avant-gardism of Luigi Nono's Intolleranza 1960 (Venice, 1961) through the high modernist Ulisse to the quirky productions of Gian Francesco Malipiero and the conservative music dramas of Ildebrando Pizzetti.

After her Dallapiccola chapter, Suvini-Hand instead discusses three avant-garde concert works that combine voices, instruments, and tape: Luciano Berio's Laborintus II (1965), Giacomo Manzoni' Parole da Beckett (1970), and Bruno Maderna's Ausstrahlung (1971). Between the Berio (which, admittedly, may also be presented theatrically but rarely has been) and the Manzoni she tackles Armando Gentilucci's Strofe di Ungaretti (1967) for six voices. Texts and translations follow as an appendix. Ulisse and Laborintus II are reasonably well known; scores of the other three, by contrast, are not easily to be found in British libraries, if at all; and neither the Manzoni nor the Gentilucci is available on CD. One wonders why Suvini-Hand has elected to write detailed commentaries on pieces that will be inaudible or invisible (or both) for most readers, as she does not make much of a case for them: throughout the book, she largely bypasses the music of her chosen compositions in order to trace sources for and connections between the components of their texts. When one considers that, apart from the Ungaretti poems set by Gentilucci and the libretto of Ulisse, these texts scarcely invite consideration away from their music, and further, that in Parole da Beckett, as Suvini-Hand puts it, the words 'are, to a large extent, treated as raw elementary sound, and the actual text is often unintelligible' (p. 142), the project begins to take on an air of perversity.

Nor is one convinced by the author's argument for gathering these five studies together, all of which have previously appeared as articles. In the introduction Suvini-Hand states that her 'precise focus' is 'collage libretti comprised of or inspired by exclusively literary texts' (p. 1). All of the 'libretti' treated in her book 'employ a Neo-Avant-garde collage technique' (p. 4). Both these statements are problematic. The notion of an exclusively literary collage applies only to the Manzoni. It is introduced to justify the failure to discuss a text that is truly a collage libretto, that of Nono' Intolleranza 1960, which juxtaposes literary and documentary materials. Neither of the texts of Laborintus II or Ausstrahlung is 'exclusively literary' :the former contains extracts from a medieval encyclopaedia, the latter fragments from ancient Indian sacred writings. Gentilucci assembles a short cycle of brief poems by a single author, an entirely conventional procedure. And there is nothing' Neo-Avant-garde' about Dallapiccola's libretto, which is not collage-like but' unobtrusively' allusive, as Suvini-Hand acknowledges (p. 29), even' old-fashioned' (p.68).

Ulisse provokes the richest discussion of the book. The author interprets the hero's epiphanic acknowledgement of divine presence at the end of the opera not as the redemption of his search for meaning and identity, but as confirmation of the despairing notion that haunts him: that he is without identity, 'nessuno' . Ulysses comes to understand the 'hubris' of his attempts to grasp 'absolute knowledge' (p. 53). It is a reading which suggests that, for all Suvini-Hand's references to Kierkegaard, she has not appreciated the existential character of Dallapiccola's theology. As to her gestures towards the scores of this and the other works, it would be kindest not to comment in any detail. Non-specialist readers may be satisfied by the level of musical commentary provided; they should be aware that, from a musicological perspective, it is barely competent.


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Author:Earle, Ben
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2008
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