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In the early 1960s a PhD candidate at Princeton University informed his professors that he wished to write a dissertation on the operas of Gioachino Rossini. He was pointedly discouraged from doing so and told that, if he wished to be taken seriously in musicology, he should focus on worthwhile repertory such as Renaissance music or works by nineteenth-century German composers. The student persisted in his purpose and, with his groundbreaking dissertation, set the study of ottocento opera on a solid trajectory. That student was Philip Gossett. Recently, at a gala event celebrating Philip's ‘retirement’, many of us who have focused our scholarship on this repertory were reminded about the evolution of the study of nineteenth-century Italian opera during the past 50 years.
In 1946, W.H. Auden began a series of weekly lectures on Shakespeare's plays at New York's New School for Social Research. Arriving at The Merry Wives of Windsor, he pronounced it ‘a very dull play indeed’. Nevertheless, he allowed, ‘We can be grateful for its having been written, because it provided the occasion of Verdi's Falstaff, a very great operatic masterpiece’. Having nothing to say about The Merry Wives, he played a recording of the opera for the duration of the class.
At the crux of Byron's epic poem The Corsair lies a moral dilemma for its imprisoned hero, Conrad. Should he kill his sleeping enemy, Seyd, and thus evade impending torture and execution the next morning? Or should he accept death as the just recompense for his crimes? His decision is swift. He resolutely refuses the path of the ‘secret knife’; in contrast, Seyd's favorite slave and concubine, Gulnare, declares her readiness to do the deed instead. When Conrad, pursuing her through the winding passages of the high tower, sees her again, he at first thinks that her ‘softening heart’ had spared Seyd's life.
A certain Filippo Nardoni, upon completing his review of the libretto of Giuseppe Verdi's Don Alvaro (the Roman version of La forza del destino), wrote to the director of the police: ‘I have marked in pencil the proposed corrections, which I have thought advisable for the wretched subject of the opera. If you don't like them, they can be easily erased with sandarac’. It seems strange that an ostensible censor would correct a libretto and then not mind seeing his corrections erased; censors were, after all, gatekeepers of morality and political propriety, and no libretto was supposed to be permitted without their approval. As it turns out, Nardoni was not an official Roman censor, and yet, he and other prominent personalities were more important in censoring Verdi's operas than their official colleagues. They were not only more rigorous when it came to identifying potentially dangerous passages but also worked as a team, passing the libretto around among themselves until an acceptable alternative was found.
Much ink was spilled on the subject of music in fin-de-siècle Italy. With the rapid expansion of the bourgeoisie during the last decades of the nineteenth century, opera-going in Italy was at its apogee, and as opera attendance surged so too did the demand for gossip about singers, titbits about the lives of composers and reviews of the latest works. This was a moment at which the booming Italian opera and journalism industries converged, particularly in the large northern cities, to produce an explosion of periodicals devoted to opera, encompassing a range of critical methods. The 1890s, however, also saw the development in Italy of a new branch of criticism devoted to more ‘serious’ types of music, penned by writers explicitly hostile to opera's domination of Italian musical life, who looked to the north as their cultural spiritual home.