Not Without Madness: Perspectives on Opera

spacer By Fabrizio Della Seta, translated by Mark Weir
University of Chicago Press; 303 pp. $55

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What gives an opera meaning? It ­doesn't come solely from the text, from the onstage action or even from the way music amplifies or illustrates the libretto's dramatic argument. Instead, as Fabrizio Della Seta argues in Not without Madness,meaning "is detectedthrough the operation of all these resources." Luckily, Della Seta is in a position to do this detective work: he is a polymath who combines musicological insight (he's the editor of the critical edition of La Traviata)with an immersion in contemporary aesthetic theory.

The book is a collection of essays, rather than a sustained treatise, but they all grow out of the author's ambition to find "an idea of 'the dramatic' in which the verbal text is not a priori the founding principal." He seeks to demonstrate how the different elements of opera — music, text, sets and costumes, singers and musicians — interact to define and animate the art form. In a chapter called "What 'Happens' in the Act 2 Finale of Le Nozze di Figaro?" he considers the discovery of Susanna in the closet through the ensemble of recriminations and apologies that follows, and he dissects structure, text, harmonic scheme and motivic gestures in an effort to get at the scene's substance. He cites the analogous moment in Beaumarchais to demonstrate that, even if the play's action is similar, Mozart and da Ponte have produced a passage whose meaningis created through the materials of opera itself.

Aside from the Figaro chapter and another on Meyerbeer's critical reception in nineteenth-century Italy, the discussion centers almost exclusively on nineteenth-century Italian opera, especially the works of Verdi — a natural enough focus, given Della Seta's background. He is at pains to demonstrate that Verdi, while using tactics wildly different from those of Wagner, created operas that are as fully deserving of the appellation "music drama." The author achieves a tour de force of musical analysis in his chapter on "D'amor sull'ali rosee," an aria that unfolds so inevitably that it hardly seems to have been composed at all. But Della Seta goes back to Verdi's early drafts to show how assiduously the composer worked to give the piece its "sense of a constantly renewed discourse, driving forward." In dissecting the great melody's inner workings, he shows us Verdi's genius in close-up.

Not without Madness is not an easy read. Della Seta assumes the reader has a thorough grounding in recent trends in aesthetics, and his prose (at least as translated) is by no means immune from the opacity that characterizes so much academic writing. Casual readers are advised to dip into the volume selectively, rather than reading it cover to cover. Still, there is much here to satisfy any reader with an interest in getting a close look at some key operatic moments. spacer 


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Current Issue: April 2014 — VOL. 78, NO. 10