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The Culture of Opera Buffa in Mozart's Vienna: A Poetics of Entertainment.

The Culture of Opera Buffa in Mozart's Vienna: A Poetics of Entertainment, by Mary Hunter. Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1999. xix, 331 pp. $45.00 U.S. (cloth).

The author focusses on a sample of several of the over 128 opere buffe performed in Vienna between about 1770 and 1790 to elucidate conventions of these works and their systems of signification (musical, textual, dramatic and performative), and determine why the audience repeatedly went to see and hear them. Rather than discussing opera buffa solely as a musical phenomenon, the author attempts to locate the genre in the broader cultural and intellectual context of the time and to explore how the genre interacted with its context (p. 4).

It is striking that for such defined scope of investigation, the author does not implement any of the existing theoretical frameworks relating music and culture, nor does she develop her own. In reconstructing "a broader intellectual and cultural context" in which opera buffa functioned in late eighteenth-century Vienna, the author refers to merely half a dozen sources, most of them dated. Such unfortunate scholarship leads to doubtful inferences, for example, the connection between the appearance of new characters (apologetic noblemen) in opera buffa plots in the mid-1780s with Joseph II's withdrawal from his earlier reforms (pp. 78-79).

Opera buffa is discussed primarily within its own frame of reference. The limitation of this self-referentiality is epitomized in the chapter on opera buffa as sheer pleasure. Although the author states that she is interested in the ways opera buffa functioned in relation to the audience (p. xi), she does not discuss the reception of the genre. The author infers what made opera buffa pleasurable primarily from textual analysis of its typical structural plot components (such as familiarity, conventionality, predictability and plot archetypes). While such analysis determines the most frequent tactics used by the authors of opera buffa libretti, it tells nothing about the audience's response. The author supports her contentions as to what made opera buffa pleasurable by Freud's contested idea of the pleasures of pervasive conventionality (reported from a secondary source). Even if predictability and conventionality are clues in explaining the success of the opera buffa genre with the audience, the question remains about the particular content of the familiar and the conventional perpetuated by the genre, that is, why was opera buffa so profoundly conservative?

In the absence of the conceptual framework, the section on "class and gender" appears more like the lip service to a politically correct label, than a contribution to the recently developed major are a of study in women's/gender history. Similarly, in the chapter on opera buffa's social reversals, the author mentions the seminal work of Mikhail Bakhtin and enumerates a number of later contributions in a footnote, but she does not incorporate them into her discussion. This gives the erroneous impression that the essay "The Frames of Comic Freedom" by Umberto Eco is the latest statement on the issue as well as the most comprehensive theoretical approach.

The reader unfamiliar with the scholarship on the opera buffa will be unable to evaluate the contribution of Mary Hunt's book. Although she enumerates a number of authors who published on the topic before her, she does not explain in what way her book differs from theirs. Further, she quotes the works published mainly in the 1970s and 1980s; later scholarship, although sometimes listed in the footnotes, is rarely incorporated into the discussion. Similarly, the section "Works Cited" at the end of the book lists works which are never cited in the book.

Due to the lack of a conceptual framework, effective methodology and substantial contextual analysis, the book does not sufficiently link opera buffa with its extra-musical context, nor does it incorporate musicological analysis into the field of cultural history. However, the book may provide a rewarding experience for the reader looking for a musicological analysis, textual approach and competent guidance through the selected repertoire of Viennese opera buffa in the second half of the eighteenth century.

Jolanta T. Pekacz

University of Saskatchewan
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Pekacz, Jolanta T.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2000
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