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‘Meta-operas’, that is, operas portraying the world of opera and its protagonists (such as impresarios, music directors, librettists and virtuosi), became increasingly common during the eighteenth century. Most of the scholarly literature on meta-opera, however, concentrates on the operas' poetic texts, their librettos. Scholars have dealt with these operas about operas almost as though they were spoken dramas, without taking into account the many ways in which metatheatrical practices and conventions are made more complex by the presence of music.

What do meta-operatic scores look like? Are they similar to other ‘ordinary’ scores of the same time, or do their metatheatrical techniques set them aside as special? Considering a number of eighteenth-century works, this article points out how specific musical means can contribute to the overall effect of meta-operatic plots: the stratified nature of meta-narratives is, in fact, mirrored in the scores when realistic music is performed on stage. On these occasions, the presence of more than one layer of musical performance (of music and ‘music’) can be detected in the score. Furthermore, the presence of realistic music allows for a highly flexible treatment of standard operatic practices, and a number of passages work across conventional oppositions such as recitative/closed number, ‘real-life’/‘performed’ and ‘spoken’/‘sung’. Meta-operas, therefore, offer a special perspective on the presence of realistic music in opera.



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1 Various terms have been used to distinguish these two types of music. Edward T. Cone uses ‘realistic singing’ to indicate that the characters are singing within their fictional world, and ‘operatic singing’ to refer to the rest of the music; see Cone, ‘The World of Opera and Its Inhabitants’, in Music: A View from Delft, ed. Robert P. Morgan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 126. Carolyn Abbate calls ‘phenomenal’ the music that the characters on stage hear as music; see Abbate, Unsung Voices: Opera and Musical Narrative in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 5. The terms ‘diegetic’ and ‘extradiegetic’ have also been used to define the music within the narrated world (realistic music) and the music outside it.

2 See, for example, Girolamo Gigli and Domenico Scarlatti's La Dirindina, intermezzo for Ambleto (Rome, Teatro Capranica, Carnival 1715), or Pietro Metastasio and Domenico Sarro's L'impresario delle Canarie, intermezzo for Didone abbandonata (Naples, Teatro San Bartolomeo, 1724).

3 In L'opera in prova alla moda (Giovanni Fiorini/Gaetano Latilla; Venice, Teatro San Moisè, 1751), the virtuosi first rehearse (Acts 1 and 2) and then perform (Act 3) the opera seria Urganostocor, tragedia tragichissima ma di lieto fine (Urganostocor, very tragic tragedy but with a happy end), whereas the farsa L'italiano a Parigi occupies the whole second act of the opera buffa La novità (Giovanni Bertati/Felice Alessandri; Venice, Teatro San Moisè, 1775). An interesting case is that of Le tre commedie in una (Pasquale Mililotti/Francesco Buonanni; Naples, Teatro de' Fiorentini, 1768), an opera buffa in which not one but two pieces are embedded: in the second act of the framing opera, characters are shown performing the first act of the inset opera buffa La finta contessa (Act 2 Scenes 5–13); in the third act, they stage the intermezzo La giardiniera (Act 3 Scenes 3–14).

4 I have maintained the label ‘play within a play’ when referring to this metatheatrical device in opera because of its widespread acceptance in writings on spoken theatre, even though there are no ‘plays’ as such to talk about in the operas under consideration.

5 In spoken (meta)theatre a similar device exists: there are examples of comedies in prose functioning as framing dramas for inset plays in verse. See, for example, two plays of the seventeenth century both entitled La comédie des comédiens: one is by Gougenot (1633) and displays three acts in prose followed by three acts in alexandrines (corresponding to the embedded comédie d'intrigue La courtisane); the other is by Scudéry (1634), with the framing drama in prose and the embedded one (a tragi-comédie pastorale, L'amour caché par l'amour) in verse. See Georges Forestier, Le Théâtre dans le théâtre sur la scène française du XVIIe siècle, second edition (Geneva: Droz, 1996), 351.

6 In the opera buffa La commediante (Antonio Palomba/Nicola Conforto; Naples, Teatro de' Fiorentini, 1754), the intermezzo La cantarina (Domenico Macchia/Nicola Conforto) is staged in Act 3 Scenes 8–13; the ‘burletta’ I bambocci is performed within L'opera nuova (Giovanni Bertati/Matteo Rauzzini; Venice, Teatro San Moisè, 1781).

7 On opera buffa's references to and uses of opera seria see Mary Hunter, ‘Some Representations of Opera Seria in Opera Buffa’, Cambridge Opera Journal 3/2 (1991), 89–108.

8 Of course, in many cases (especially in arias), operatic characters express their thoughts or feelings and are not actually ‘speaking’.

9 There are cases in which the use of realistic singing is not consistent throughout. Cone has emphasized the incongruities in the use of this type of singing in Verdi's La traviata and Rigoletto and in Bizet's Carmen (‘The World of Opera’, 125–138). However, only the spectators of an opera perceive a confusion of ‘speaking’ and ‘singing’ in opera, whereas the very characters on stage are faced with it in meta-opera.

10 As Richard Taruskin has suggested, ‘if we are operatically literate we do not wonder whether the characters are “aware” of the music they inhabit. That question will normally come to consciousness only when the convention is flouted’; see Taruskin, ‘She Do the Ring in Different Voices’, Review of Carolyn Abbate, Unsung Voices, in Cambridge Opera Journal 4/2 (1992), 194, note 1.

11 La Dirindina had been scheduled as intermezzo to Scarlatti's Ambleto (Rome, Teatro Capranica, 1715), but was eventually cancelled. The earliest known performance took place at the Teatro San Samuele, Venice, in 1725, but it is not certain whether this was with Scarlatti's music; see Malcolm Boyd, ‘Dirindina’, in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, ed. Stanley Sadie (London: Macmillan, 1992), volume 1, 1181.

12 In the fiction, Dido is depicted with a dagger in her hand; Dirindina uses Liscione's sword instead.

13 Extract from the libretto, with English translation by Michael Talbot, in La Dirindina: Musical Farce in Two Parts by Girolamo Gigli/Domenico Scarlatti, ed. Francesco Degrada, Intermezzi del Settecento (Milan: Ricordi, 1985), xlvi–xlix.

14 In setting this passage to music, Domenico Scarlatti did not underline the difference between Dirindina's performance and Liscione and Carissimo's comments (for instance by setting the former in obbligato recitative and the latter in secco). On the contrary, the composer blended fiction and reality by resorting to simple recitative for the entire passage. Another version of the same text, with music by Giovanni Battista Martini (Bologna, 1737), adopts the same solution.

15 Giulio Sabino, dramma per musica by Giuseppe Sarti to a libretto by Pietro Giovannini (Venice, Teatro San Benedetto, 1781). Sarti's opera was so successful that the full score was published in Vienna in 1781 (a fact rather unusual for the time). Giulio Sabino was revived in Vienna in 1785, with the famous castrato Luigi Marchesi in the title role. In this production, however, several numbers were replaced by those of other composers (Salieri among them), to the point that Giulio Sabino became a pasticcio. See John A. Rice, Antonio Salieri and the Viennese Opera (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 379.

16 Giambattista Casti, ‘Prima la musica poi le parole’, in La cantante e l'impresario e altri metamelodrammi, ed. Francesca Savoia (Genoa: Costa & Nolan, 1988), 246. Translations are mine unless otherwise specified.

17 In the score it is ‘Da capo in carità’ (‘da capo, please’). Pietro Metastasio, ‘L'impresario delle Canarie: intermezzi per la Didone’, in Tutte le opere di Pietro Metastasio, ed. Bruno Brunelli (Milan: Mondadori, 1953), volume 1, 58.

18 English translation from the libretto: Pietro Metastasio, The Master of the Opera: An Interlude. Performed by Sig. Anna Maria Faini, and Signor Antonio Lottini, at the King's Theatre in the Hay-Market. The Musick Is Composed by Sig. Domenico Sarri (London: J. Chrichley, 1737).

19 Transcribed from the manuscript score held at the Conservatorio San Pietro a Majella in Naples. The parts copied are voice and continuo only. In the transcription, I have kept the incongruities found in the score (the time signature and all time changes throughout) because thay are linked to the way in which the score has been created: they underline a continuous conflict between Dorina's aria in 6/4 and Nibbio's interjections in 3/4.

20 The words uttered by Nibbio at the end of Dorina's B section (‘Da capo in verità’) provide an interesting meta-reference to the actual form of the da capo aria.

21 Ranieri de' Calzabigi, ‘L'opera seria, comedia per musica’, facsimile of the 1769 libretto in Italian Opera Librettos, 1640–1770, volume 15, Italian Opera, 1640–1770, volume 96 (New York: Garland, 1984).

22 It is quite amusing that, in the bit added by Gassmann's setting, Sospiro uses typical musician's syllables, moving from ‘ta’ to ‘trai’ on the emphatic e2 that marks the passage from dolce to forte – a syllable that the violins will ‘interpret’ as an emphatic chord. All music examples of L'opera seria are transcribed from the facsimile of the manuscript score published in Florian Leopold Gassmann, L'opera seria, Introduction by Eric Weimer, Italian Opera, 1640–1770, volume 89 (New York: Garland, 1982). In examples 6, 7 and 8, only the voice and the continuo parts are given.

23 Cromatico (maestro di cappella): ‘Quel poeta famoso… Metanasio’ (‘That famous poet … Metanasio’) (Act 1 Scene 8).

24 The original aria is in Metastasio's Demetrio (1731), and the ‘real’ first quatrain reads: ‘È la fede degli amanti | Come l'araba fenice: | Che vi sia, ciascun lo dice; | Dove sia, nessun lo sa’ (Act 2 Scene 3) (‘True faith, in love, we may compare, to that Arabian Phoenix rare, said to exist, tho' none knows where.’). Pietro Metastasio, Demetrius: An Opera. As Perform'd at the Theatre Royal in the Hay-Market (London: J. Chrichley, 1737). Italics are added here to distinguish the ottonari from the settenari.

25 L'amore in musica, dramma giocoso da rappresentarsi nel teatro Giustiniani di San Moisè (Venice: Francesco Valvasense, 1763), 10.

26 This music example is my transcription from a manuscript copy of the score held at the Conservatorio San Pietro a Majella in Naples. I have transcribed only the voice line and the continuo, not the string parts.

27 It is interesting to compare this setting with that of a later (and more famous) misquotation of the same Metastasian quatrain, near the beginning of Mozart's Così fan tutte (Vienna, Burgtheater, 1790). There, the original text is only slightly altered (Don Alfonso provocatively says ‘femine’ – women – instead of ‘amanti’) and the situation suggests that Don Alfonso is speaking or, better, declaiming those words, not singing them. (This is a rare case in which the characters on stage perceive the words as spoken verse.)

28 Calzabigi, ‘L'opera seria’.

29 Music examples are taken from Antonio Salieri, Prima la musica, poi le parole: Divertimento teatrale in einem Akt von Giambattista Casti, vocal score by Friedrich Wanek, German translation by Josef Heinzelmann (Mainz: Schott, 1972).

30 Casti, ‘Prima la musica poi le parole’, 244.

31 ‘Alamirè’ indicates the pitch ‘a’ in the hexachordal system. Casti, ‘Prima la musica poi le parole’, 245.

32 Casti, ‘Prima la musica poi le parole’, 247.

33 Casti, ‘Prima la musica poi le parole’, 247.

34 Casti, ‘Prima la musica poi le parole’, 248.

35 Casti, ‘Prima la musica poi le parole’, 248.

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