Changing the Score: Arias, Prima Donnas, and the Authority of Performance

January 14, 2010

Musicologists, as well as opera buffs, will welcome this well-documented and thoughtfully written study on a relatively rare topic: namely, the practice and performance of insertion arias in operatic performances throughout the 19th century. Insertion arias, also known as trunk (ie, suitcase) arias, or arie di baule, date from the 17th century, when singers took the liberty of replacing an aria in an opera with another one more to their liking. In most instances, this was a substitution, but in some cases, the aria was interpolated. The nickname "trunk aria" was a reference to the fact that singers, as travelling performers, had trunks that contained not only their costumes, but also the musical scores of these "replacement" arias, which conveniently appeared as required.

While there are a number of studies on this phenomenon for the 18th century, the 19th century has been largely forgotten, so this monograph by Hilary Poriss is a long-awaited addition to the literature. Most of her discussion focuses on Italian operas before 1850 and specifically on composers of the bel canto style of opera, including Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, as well as their contemporaries; however, the examples used are not limited to Italian opera houses since these singers travelled and performed all over the world.

Changing the Score does not simply give a chronological listing of various operas and the insertion arias that were used, but rather focuses on certain singers and operas to explain how, why, when, where and what the purpose of employing a different aria was. For example, in the second chapter, "Selecting a 'Perfect' Entrance: Carolina Ungher and Marino Faliero", Poriss uses this Donizetti opera to illustrate how Ungher, the prima donna, added new text (in the form of recitative) to introduce the newly inserted aria. The reader is then taken through the process of how this singer experimented with three different arias before she found an aria that fitted not only her voice, but also the character and precise dramatic mood of the opera.

In contrast, chapters four and five take as their starting points scenes from various operas and discuss which insertion arias were used and why. In particular, chapter five examines the famous "lesson scene" from Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia, in which Rosina's suitor masquerades as a singing teacher so that he can speak with her about her escape later that evening. He asks Rosina what she would like to sing, and thus creates, for "real life" singers, the opportunity to insert their own favourite aria into the opera, rather than sing Rossini's Contro un cor che accende amore. Poriss analyses the reason the original aria is a brilliant dramatic combination of both a singing lesson and an important literary device for moving the action forward. She then traces various singers inserting a variety of arias into this scene, including the concept of the theme-and-variation aria (a melody that is repeated with more ornamentation) and the trend that occurred in the second half of the 19th century of adding up to four arias.

The final chapter of the book examines a long-forgotten object narrative entitled "Memoir of a Song" (first published in Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country in 1849 and republished here as an appendix). This fictional autobiography is narrated through the voice of an insertion aria, which describes its music, compositional genesis, performance history, and the three divas who sang it. Poriss uses this memoir to summarise, support and justify her previous arguments.

Throughout the monograph, Poriss carefully analyses why these trends appeared to have started, reflecting the reception and wishes of the audiences as well as the critics. The singers are shown to be insightful and thoughtful in their decisions concerning their choice of arias. Overall, the book reveals the value of understanding the performance practice of Italian opera in the 19th century and the important role of the singers, especially the prima donnas. If contemporary operatic practice considers reviving the use of insertion arias, Changing the Score will have accomplished its objective.

Changing the Score: Arias, Prima Donnas, and the Authority of Performance

By Hilary Poriss. Oxford University Press. 236pp, £.50. ISBN 9780195386714. Published August 2009

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