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The premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress (1951) was a much-hyped media event, one that entered into the heart of musical debates. An epithet attributed to The Rake’s Progress in the press was that it was a ‘true opera’, and yet its music was received as disturbing as well as satisfying. Although critics were unsettled by Stravinsky’s reliance on the past, they sought to reinforce their view of the work as modern, as the ultimate expression of contemporary opera culture – an impression that jars with scholarly assumptions that see the opera as incongruous within the postwar context. This ‘ritorno all’antico’ was in fact becoming a feature of contemporary media culture via the network broadcasting of opera on radio and the steady release of opera on record. Theatres such as La Fenice were also increasingly reliant on past classics, an older phenomenon now perceived as taking place to an unprecedented degree. Theatres were, in other words, solidifying into lieux de mémoire at a time otherwise more occupied with forgetting the past and looking to the future. Revisiting The Rake’s Progress in this new context challenges its traditional historiographical positioning, and provokes reconsideration of the nexus between opera, high modernism and technology.
By the time Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel was premiered in Venice in 1955, it was no longer new but was mostly unknown. Composed and revised on and off between 1919 and 1927, the opera had long languished unperformed. Questions reverberated after the opening night as audiences grappled with now passé symbolism. Critics have continued to revisit these questions to this day: some have sought to philosophise the opera’s concerns, others have dismissed its plot as religious and erotic hysteria. Rather than attempt to resolve these issues – as many have sought to do –this chapter resituates The Fiery Angel at the moment of its premiere, to unearth the values laden in its production and reception within an Italian context. The premiere prompted a new definition of magic realism in opera, a definition forged in relation to emergent debates on modern magical thinking that were occurring at the same time in Italian intellectual circles.
For the 1959 festival, three one-act music theatre pieces were commissioned to demonstrate the vitality of theatrical activity in Italy. The occasion was the festival’s official response to widespread cries of opera crisis in public discourse. The resulting works were Luciano Berio’s Allez-hop, Alberto Bruni Tedeschi’s Diagramma circolare and Negri’s Il circo Max. All three were concerned – whether directly or more obliquely – with the devastating aftermath of war. While normally keen to promote firebrand political modernism, leftist critics criticised Bruni Tedeschi for making his musical conception too subservient to a political message; instead they praised Berio for the ‘openness’ of Allez-hop. 1959 was the year in which Umberto Eco began to publish essays on his idea of opera aperta, an embryonic term premised on notions of indeterminacy and openness; ‘Opera aperta’ was also the working title of Berio’s theatre piece. Although at the time the movement was called a neoavanguardia, it crystallised around ideals later to be seen as synonymous with postmodernism. This chapter shows how emergent Italian literary postmodernism was thus intimately connected to a previously neglected musical moment, one earlier than any accounted for by standard histories of musical postmodernism.
Chapter Two looks at the ways in which the revival of Verdi’s Attila (1846), as part of the 1951 Venice festival, marked a high point in a year of events to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the composer’s death. The performance of a long-neglected opera by the nation’s favourite composer became a locus for Verdian discussion that year. In particular, the opera formed part of a broader concern with posterity, something that became a growing cultural fixation of the immediate postwar period. Furthermore, critics claimed that this was the moment when Verdi’s image and his music became politicised. This chapter explores the ideological and historical stakes in this particular case study of Verdian commemoration, and suggests that opera at this moment served as a focus for ideas of national loss and historical rewriting, of nostalgia and emotion.
The final chapter considers in what sense the premiere of Nono’s Intolleranza 1960 at the 1961 festival can be seen as a retreat from the 1959 festival back to high modernism. Despite its impenetrable sound world, critics grappled with its complexities in the most prolific discourse of all the operas here considered: this, many on the Left claimed, was the work they had been waiting for throughout the previous decade. Prompted by the premiere, the critical press began a series of debates and redefinitions in response to what struck them most: how noisy the opera was. In a debate in L’Unità, the hubbub was interpreted as a new kind of realism, formed in order to use memories of the Fascist regime as an allegory of contemporary oppression. Although they agreed that Nono’s work was unlikely to be popular with a broad public, many immediately recognised that Intolleranza could serve to recall the horrors of Fascism and the sounds of war – to offer, in other words, a warning call that history must not repeat itself.
Since the premiere of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw in Venice in 1954, the opera has been subject to contestation: whether the opera submits to gothic ‘thrills’ or is elevated by recourse to serial technique; whether the ghosts that haunt the children are real or imaginary. British and American commentators have repeatedly paid attention to the opera’s intellectual rather than its visceral appeal: they have sought to disavow its more lowbrow qualities, claiming them in defence of its modernism. Rather than stressing The Turn of the Screw’s modernist credentials, however, Italian critics were openly appalled and affronted – not just by the sexual suggestiveness, but particularly by its gothic elements. These critics could not, in other words, move beyond a visceral response. They ascribed the conflation of gothic qualities with modernism as a peculiarly English trait, one that jarred with their own cultural climate. And yet such a reaction involved, somewhat ironically, taking the gothic elements seriously. They labelled the opera a ‘giallo’ – a ‘thriller’, an Italian counterpart to the idea of the gothic. This cultural mistranslation thus gives rise to a surprising moment when beleaguered Italian operatic culture was being explicitly defined in relation to an English operatic modernism.
Beginning from the unlikely vantage point of Venice in the aftermath of fascism and World War II, this book explores operatic production in the city's nascent postwar culture as a lens onto the relationship between opera and politics in the twentieth century. Both opera and Venice in the middle of the century are often talked about in strikingly similar terms: as museums locked in the past and blind to the future. These clichés are here overturned: perceptions of crisis were in fact remarkably productive for opera, and despite being physically locked in the past, Venice was undergoing a flourishing of avant-garde activity. Focusing on a local musical culture, Harriet Boyd-Bennett recasts some of the major composers, works, stylistic categories and narratives of twentieth-century music. The study provides fresh understandings of works by composers as diverse as Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Verdi, Britten and Nono.