Pierpaolo Polzonetti (Writer)

L'America rivoluzionaria vista dall'Opera italiana del XVIII secolo

Jun 09, 2014 3101 ITA ENG

How did Italian opera represent America in the eighteenth century? Pierpaolo Polzonetti, Associate Professor of music and liberal studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, talks about this in this interview 

Professor Polzonetti, please tell us about your book "Italian Opera in the Age of the American Revolution"

My book is about a repertory of operas about America written between 1768 and the early 1790's. These works present direct or indirect references to the American Revolution and are based on unusual topics, often breaking with the conventions of the genre.

The first opera based on a North American subject was I napoletani in America, with music by Niccolò Piccinni, premiered in 1768. This opera is about a Neapolitan girl who after being robbed of her dowry, seduced and abandoned, out of desperation flies to America, where she becomes governor of a province of "American savages".

In L'orfanella americana (1787), a libretto by Porta set to music by Pasquale Anfossi, we have the most explicit reference to the revolution, which began to be seen not as a war against the British, but as a real revolution within England. Here, in fact, we have English soldiers fighting against other English soldiers.

To give an idea of the modernity of these operas, let me mention La quacquera spiritosa, an unusual comic libretto by Giuseppe Palomba. After being premiered in Naples in 1783, the opera was remade in Vienna in 1790 as a "pasticcio". The libretto was altered by Lorenzo Da Ponte to fit new music written by many different, great composers of the time, such as Haydn, Mozart, Cimarosa, Paisiello. This opera is about Vertunna, a young American Quaker woman sent to Italy by her father in order to marry an old Count.

When she arrives in Italy, however, she falls in love with the count's servant. As a good American Quaker lady, Vertunna pays no attention to social status. Because the servant she falls in love with does not like women, she points a gun at him, forcing him to sing her a love aria. The young man then sings an aria in which he compares himself to Dido and the American woman to Aeneas, thus reversing the gender roles: a very unusual dramatic situation in opera. Eventually they get married and decide to go to America, where they plan to have many Quaker children.

The opera is revolutionary also because the character of the Quaker sings in every possible style, showing through the music his ability to navigate among various social roles. In itself this is revolutionary in opera because at that time characters were stuck in role types reflecting often their social status and were not supposed to shift to a different stylistic level. Clearly the American character was not seen as free from the strictures of this system.

Is there a singer who was more than others engaged in the representation of America in Italian opera?

The actor Francesco Benucci played more or less the same character in a number of different operas, playing the role of the Quaker Naimur in L'americana in Olanda, the role of Leporello in Mozart's Don Giovanni and the role of Figaro in Le nozze di Figaro. This actor was clearly a key figure in the dissemination of progressive and ideas, which in part generated or were inspired by in the American enlightenment.

Can you tell us more about Le nozze di Figaro, which does not seem to be about America

Le nozze di Figaro is not about America but was inspired by the American Revolution. Although it was written before the French Revolution, it has been unrealistically interpreted as a prophecy of the French Revolution. Its literary source, Le Mariage de Figaro by Beaumarchais, was written in 1778 in France at the time when Beaumarchais himself acted as a secret agent for the American Revolution.

In this opera America is symbolically represented as a source of revolutionary news. The entire opera is based on the Ius Primae Noctis, the supposed right that the feudal lord had to deflower any of his subjects' brides. In The Marriage of Figaro, a couple of servants, Figaro and Susanna risk to fall victims of this unjust form of taxation, which Beaumarchais as a metaphor for the unjust taxation that triggered the American Revolution.

Is it possible to draw a parallel between the perception of the Americans that Italian elites had with the perception that Americans had of the Italian immigrants at the beginning of the 20th century?

It is difficult to make this comparison. In 18th-century works, America is seen as a wealthy country. In Giovanni Paisiello, Le gare generose ('The contests in generosity') written in 1786 in Naples, an Italian couple lose all their belongings and are enslaved in Boston after being captured by pirates. A wealthy Quaker buys them. They initially pretend to be brother and sister, but when the Quaker finds out that they are married he forgive them and offers them financial support. His riches and his generosity with money are markers of his true nobility. In Europe on the other hand, dealing with money was still perceived as a marker of ignobility.

How did opera disseminate Italian culture before Italy would become a nation?

Italian opera was the only international genre of theater. It was performed in all the wealthy cities of Europe in Italian language, sometimes with printed libretti showing parallel translation – the equivalent of today's supertitles. In the case of Mozart's operas in Italian in Vienna and Prague non-Italian speaking audiences were used to operatic Italian and did not to need a translation. Comic opera supplemented language with action and music.

So, when the Americans nowadays mock the Italians for making too much gestures, they refer to a tradition that somehow has noble origins...

It is an interesting idea. The international dissemination of Italian theatre began before the birth of opera with travelling commedia-dell'arte troupes. They developed a code of gestures and actions supplementing verbal language and serving as a sort of universal language. They were professional actors, while Italian travelers and migrants usually are not. It was also a different code of gestures, which through the centuries has changed more dramatically than verbal language. Anyone who is accustomed to only one culture is more likely to notice what appears an excessive use of gestures in other cultures. When the code of gestures is different, it is natural to pay attention to the code itself rather than to what it means.

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