Review of Mitchell Cohen, The Politics of Opera: A History from Monteverdi to Mozart, Princeton University Press, 2017, xxxii+477 pp., $39.95, ISBN 978 0 691 17502-7

In this first-rate scholarly work that is made up of a series of interlinked explorations, Mitchell Cohen, Professor of Political Science at Baruch College and editor emeritus of Dissent, provides a study that is both instructive in itself and methodologically and conceptually valuable for other periods and, indeed, media. Far from treating either politics or opera as the essentially passive imprint of the other, which is an approach that it is all-too-easy to adopt, Cohen, instead, sees both as dynamic, and this provides a highly fruitful approach not least in considering the politics of opera, as opera as generally understood. Born in Cremona, Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) was in the employ of the Duke of Mantua from 1602 to 1612, and during that time developed a new type of entertainment, opera, with Orfeo (1607) and Arianna (1608). In Orfeo, Orpheus moved Pluto to pity with song. There had been significant precursors, notably interludes between the acts of plays, and verse dramas accompanied by music, with Italy important in both from the fifteenth century. Mantua, Ferrara, Florence, and Venice were all significant centres of musical innovation. Monteverdi, however, produced a musical unity, drafting his music on a large scale. From 1613, he lived in Venice, writing for the public theatres. The Coronation of Poppea (1642) is frequently seen as his masterpiece.

Venice saw the construction of many opera houses from 1637. Indeed, at least 16 were built by 1700. As a result, many operas had to be written to match demand. A pupil of Monteverdi, Pier Francesco Cavalli, who wrote about forty operas including Calisto (1651), and Marc Antonio Cesti were key figures in mid-century. Major opera houses were also built for princely courts, including in Parma (1618). The operas of the period were often spectaculars, with “architectural” sets providing the background for such episodes as supposed fires and floods.

As Cohen points out, the removal of disguise is a key political and artistic device in the operas, at once moral in its consequences and emotional in its intensity, using music to define and reveal character and plot. He then presses on to consider another great Italian composer, the Florentine Giovanni Battista Lulli (1632-1687), who became Jean-Baptiste Lully. Lully is seen as an effective servant of Louis XIV, whose subject he became in 1661. Skullduggery, politics of another type, got him the near-total monopoly of music, musical theatre, and ballet, although that was also dependent on his talent. His early death was spectacle as farce. To beat time for his great Te Deum, Lully used a large baton, only to stab his own foot, causing eventual fatal gangrene.

In the eighteenth century, national and social tensions came into play in the discussion of opera, a process encouraged by musical journalism which developed in response to an increase in public interest. This provided a forum for a stylistic debate that opposed new operatic forms to the dominant opera seria, a world of classical mythology, serious heroism and solemn music brought to life by Italian composers and singers. In London, the ballad opera, exemplified by John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera (1728), offered popular tunes and song and scenes from low life, in a deliberate attack on the Italianate operas patronised by the cosmopolitan court and composed by, among others, Handel. These operas were driven out of fashion. Handel produced his last in 1741, but the following year enjoyed a considerable success with his Messiah, an oratorio that revealed the commercial possibilities of sacred music. Such music had always been public, but now it increasingly served commercial, rather than liturgical purposes, being performed at concerts.

In Italy, the challenge came from the lighter opera buffa, one example of which, La Serva Padrona, caused a great stir in Paris in 1752. Related, although not identical, trends led to the development of the opera comique in France, the Tonadilla in Spain, and the Singspiel in Austria, which is ably discussed by Cohen in the case of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio. Russian comic operas appeared in the 1770s, using settings in rural or peasant life and receiving powerful stimuli from specifically Russian needs and conditions. In contrast to the cosmopolitan nature of opera seria, these novel forms tended to offer entertainment in the vernacular.

The new moral simplicity influenced opera in the second half of the century. In Orfeo (1762), Christoph Gluck (1714-87) offered a stern and simple work with self-consciously simple arias and only three soloists. In the dedicatory epistle to his opera Alceste (1767), Gluck pleaded for a “noble simplicity” and condemned superfluous ornament. Music was intended to express the sentiments of the story.

Opera was the most popular élite art of the century. It could also offer spectacle. In 1750, visiting the opera house in Turin, Edward Thomas thought it:

the finest opera in Europe, both on account of the music and machinery. . . .  You might see cities taken by storm and elephants on the stage with their castles and as it were whole armies drawn up . . . sometimes above 40 dancers together with a chorus of above 200 persons in gorgeous apparel.

Verdi and Puccini, the great composers of the nineteenth century, provided a heroic reading of the past. In Norma (1831), Vincenzo Bellini (1801-35) drew a parallel between Gaul under Roman rule and Italy under that of Austria. Deeply committed to the Risorgimento, but mindful of the problems posed by Austrian censorship, Giuseppi Verdi (1813-1901) used often distant and indirect references, rather as Rossini had done with William Tell (1829). In Nabucco (1842), the exiled Hebrew slaves in Mesopotamia (Iraq) offered an allegory for oppressed Italians, while La battaglia di Legnano (1849) employed the defeat of the (German) Emperor Barbarossa by the Lombard League in 1176 as a rallying call for the present. Set in Mantua, Rigoletto (1851) depicted a villainous duke, presumably one of the Gonzaga who had ruled from 1328 to 1708. In La Forza del Destino (1861), Verdi showed the defeat at Velletri in 1744 of the Austrians by the Neapolitans—in this case perceived as Italians. Verdi supported Garibaldi’s expedition in 1860 and served in the Italian parliament.

In Tosca (which had its premiere in Rome in 1900 and was based on Sardou’s 1887 play), Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) presented Papal Rome in 1800 in the grip of counter-revolutionary forces who had suppressed the Roman Republic the previous year, as indeed happened. The heroes, Cavaradossi and Angelotti, are stalwarts of liberty, while the villain, Baron Scarpia, the head of the Secret Police, is out to suppress all those seeking change. Napoleon’s failure or success echoes through the action, as his initial failure in the early stages of the battle of Marengo is greeted with a Te Deum, but his eventual success both inspires the captured Cavaradossi, a freethinker living in sin, to sing triumphantly of liberty, and dismays Scarpia. Modern settings of the opera in Fascist Italy do violence to the intensity of the moment it recreates, and reflect a glib, and often misleading, reading from one cultural impulse to the other.

Other operas confronted the present, notably the verismo of the 1890s with the depiction of peasants, as in Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana (1890), and slum dwellers, as in Umberto Giordano’s Mala Vita (1892). Set in Sicily and Naples respectively, these operas also offered a view of the “Southern problem” for audiences elsewhere in Italy.

Culture, its production, regulation, and reception, is not simply nor solely a construction of the political situation. However, the failure to understand the impact of politics on culture and culture on politics can lead to serious misunderstandings. Mitchell Cohen is an able guide to the subject.


Established Professor of History at the University of Exeter and Senior Fellow at FPRI, Jeremy Black has published many books, including Italy and the Grand Tour, The British Seaborne Empire and The Power of Knowledge.

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