The Politics of Opera: A History from Monteverdi to Mozart, by Mitchell Cohen

An ambitious study that sets musical history within the political context of the birth of the modern state never manages to sing, says Mark Berry

September 14, 2017

The ambition of this study, aiming to place two centuries of operatic history within the specific political context of the birth of the modern state, is laudable; so is its central premise. Alas, elucidation and explanation, historical and musical, prove lacking.

Mitchell Cohen’s grounding is stronger in early modern history than in musicology, or indeed in the absent realm of theatre studies. Hence, I presume, this odd formulation: “Scholars express puzzlement that Couperin…never received principal musical positions at court” – as if to say, “Nothing to do with me, guv.” Cohen is more convincing on the likelihood that an educated (part of the) audience at the marriage celebrations of France’s Henry IV would have noted Platonic themes. His summary of Emperor Joseph II’s enlightened absolutism nevertheless reads naively, as though absolutism were an add-on, detracting from “enlightenment”, rather than its actual means; an anachronistic reference to “totalitarianism” does not help.

Cohen’s discussion of the origins of opera – or, rather, the period of those origins – reads interestingly, if meanderingly: we should reach Monteverdi sooner. Moreover, the extent to which we ever do is debatable, for almost nothing is said about the music. We read, for instance, that, as Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria “progresses, Monteverdi and [his librettist Giacomo] Badoaro present contrasts, scene after scene, to reveal what is at stake”. Indeed. What are they? To say “the musical mood changes from solemnity to lyricism” and leave it at that is insufficient.

Intentionally or otherwise, we sense reborn, largely unspoken, the idea that music somehow merely “expresses” the real, verbal idea of an opera. A case is often made, if overstated, that the history of 17th- and 18th-century opera is primarily the history of libretti, but it needs making – and questioning. More is said on Mozart’s music, but it reads as if hurriedly assembled, and says little: “Mozart, who transformed musical forms, died amidst political metamorphoses.”

That sits very oddly with a claim to musical primacy: “Librettos with fine poetry and interesting ideas will rarely outlive mediocre composers.” Much depends on “will”; they certainly have. When Mozart set a revision of Pietro Metastasio’s La cle­menza di Tito for Leopold II’s coronation as King of Bohemia, he was at least its 41st composer. His contract makes clear that “Metastasio’s Tito” is the work “itself”. While one can always argue about which works should have been chosen for detailed study, Cohen’s omission of this “aristocratic” opera seria, Mozart’s first for a decade – Joseph II had not cared for the genre – is noteworthy. It does not “fit” post-Romantic conceptions of musical and political progress. So much the worse for them.

What, moreover, of these works, canonical or otherwise, now? A Munich performance last June of Rameau’s Les Indes galantes took us, from the prologue’s European classroom, on a multicultural tour through the four civilisations in which the entrées are set: Ottoman, Inca, Turkish and Native American. Characters from each – not Bellone, imperialist goddess of war – became moral instructors in citizenry of a world that celebrated difference and common humanity. The final entrée is titled “Les sauvages”, yet the Europeans, having observed and learned from four dramatic resolutions, joined the “native” ceremony of peace. Work and staging both asked: who is the “barbarian” here? Such is but one example of how engagement with actual performances can help bring to life the interaction between past and present that lies at the heart of both historical writing and musical performance.

Mark Berry is senior lecturer in music, Royal Holloway, University of London. He is currently at work on a biography of Arnold Schoenberg.

The Politics of Opera: A History from Monteverdi to Mozart
By Mitchell Cohen
Princeton University Press
514pp, £32.95
ISBN 9780691175027

Published 5 September 2017

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