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The Birth of Opera.

The title of this volume, The Birth of Opera, belies its true breadth, for F. W. Sternfeld has presented an encyclopedic study which concentrates on some of the main themes and devices of opera from its pre-history in the Orpheus myth of classical antiquity to the neo-classical representations of the myth by Stravinsky and others. To be sure, the author dwells on Renaissance treatments of these themes and devices in intermedi, pastoral drama, and other types of verse set to music, and their influence on the early history of opera; but he goes far beyond their culmination in Rinuccini's and Peri's Euridice (1600) and Striggio's and Monteverdi's Orfeo (1607) in the first decade of opera's lifetime to considerations, albeit brief ones, of Gluck's Orfeo (1762) and Mozart's Zauberflote (1791) - where he sees an allegorical connection between Tamino's quest and that of Orpheus - as well as, for example, Tippett's oratorio, The Mask of Time (1984).

The books organization is thematic rather than chronological, the main themes being the influence of Ovid (Chapter 1), and the role and development of the ensemble finale (Chapters 3-5) and of the solo lament (Chapter 6). For Sternfeld, lament and finale are the most significant "constituent elements of early opera, indeed of opera altogether" (34). In this scheme of things, the importance of recitative as a central ingredient of early opera is underplayed, although it does receive some attention in Chapter 2, entitled "Definitions and Non-Definitions." There, and indeed throughout the book, the author's approach to such terms as "opera" and "monody" is commendably pragmatic rather than dogmatic; for his purposes, "terminology is less important than an awareness of the synthesis of diverse elements" (55). The seventh and last chapter, a survey of the uses of repetition and echo in poetry and music which concentrates especially on the pre-history of opera in the Italian Renaissance, functions as a fascinating postlude to the chapter on the solo lament, the centerpiece of so many early operas, in which the echo device finds its most convincing application.

Ovid and Poliziano figure prominently in Sternfeld's exploration of the models that served the early librettists, models which included Ovid's Heroides as well as his Metamorphoses. Ovid's stature as a compelling storyteller is supported by Sternfeld's illuminating discussion of the Roman poet's retelling of Orpheus' tale in the Metamorphoses and the eight subsidiary stories that are imbedded within its frame. All aspects of the Orpheus myth and its implications, as well as its allegorical treatment in the fourteenth-century Ovide moralise, are reviewed. Particularly thorough is Sternfeld's discussion of Monteverdi's "Apollo ending," the altered version of Orfeo, Act V that was published in the 1609 score, and the impact of Apollo's intervention on our interpretation of Monteverdi's opera and later works is fully evaluated.

The importance in the pre-history of opera of Angelo Poliziano's verse pastoral, Orfeo (1480), has long been acknowledged. However, working with a recent scholarly edition of Orfeo by Antonia Tissoni Benvenuti (1986) and bringing to bear his own impressive knowledge of Renaissance poetics, Sternfeld greatly enhances Poliziano's centrality as influential forerunner of Rinuccini, the first opera librettist. He devotes parts of several chapters to Poliziano's role in forging the dramatic structures that served opera plots for centuries to come, as well as in providing a model for the echo lament, transmitting classical traditions from both Greek and Latin literature to the early Italian librettists, and establishing the popularity of octosyllabic verse which Rinuccini then adopted as a suitable meter for his closing choruses. Of particular interest are Sternfeld's reproduction and witty translation (199) of the first Italian echo poem, Poliziano's "Che fai tu, Ecco," dating from 1479 or earlier, and the inclusion of the earliest manuscript version of the poem as the volume's frontispiece; and the earliest compositions on Italian echo poems (c. 1568), including settings of two strambotti by Serafino Aquilano, are among the approximately thirty brief musical examples in the book.

Although Sternfeld emphasizes the more lyrical structures, solo laments and choral finales, in this study, the pair who collaborated in the invention of recitative, Rinuccini and Peri, are given their due as the true innovators of opera. In addition to crediting Rinuccini with establishing many of the verse conventions of the genre, Sternfeld chronicles the librettist's influence well beyond Striggio and Monteverdi, although he admits that in some cases it is more a question of the historical continuity of certain themes than of direct influence. Like the Florentine writer G. B. Doni, Sternfeld virtually champions Peri and does not hesitate to call "great" Orfeo's moving lament, "Non piango, e non sospiro" in Euridice. He also includes two useful Italian passages about opera's beginnings from Doni's Trattato della musica scenica, passages to which reference is often made but which are rarely quoted at length; and here, as throughout the book, the translations are impeccably accurate as well as readable.

Students of history, literature, and music, then, can all learn much from, and take delight in, this wide-ranging investigation of the beginnings of opera, its humanistic ancestry, and its legacy in modern times.

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Author:Hanning, Barbara R.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1995
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