Representations of Consciousness in Eighteenth-Century Opera

Session 1: Thursday, 12.30 – 1.45

Rebekah Ahrendt, Utrecht University , ‘Masters of Fate or Victims of Madness? Suicide at the Paris Opéra’

In 1670, an ordinance of Louis XIV criminalized self-destruction, decreeing that the corpses of suicides be desecrated and their property confiscated. And yet, beginning with Atys in 1676 (supposedly the king’s favourite), suicides were a regular feature of Parisian opera. Indeed, Polyxena’s bloody end by her own hand in Achille et Polixène (1688) seems to have inaugurated a trend to conclude operas abruptly with a death. Yet the ways in which characters end their lives reveal the tensions in contemporary debates on suicide: Is suicide a conscious act or one precipitated by madness? Is it sinful self-murder or rather the only power that mortals have against the gods? And in what situations might suicide be justifiable? This paper surveys the motivations and methods of self-immolation explored on the stage of the Paris Opéra in the decades around 1700. My principle argument is that the musical gestures employed served to mediate the experience of the suicide, revealing the mental state of the characters and ultimately the justifiability of the act.

Anne Desler, University of Edinburgh, ‘”La stomachevole, ed orrida Morte di Catone medesimo in Scena”:  Metastasio’s Catone in Utica and the Construction of Historical Characters on the 18th-Century Italian Stage’

Instead of audience approval and increased poetic repute, Metastasio’s ambitious decision to use the heroic suicide of Cato the Younger (Cato Uticensis) as the subject matter for his first original dramma to be premiered in Rome earned the librettist satirical remarks as well as serious criticism.  Both an anonymous critic and the prominent scientist and literary critic Antonio Conti identified lack of verisimilitude as the main problem. 

Undoubtedly, Italian literati not only evaluated Metastasio’s choices regarding character construction, plot development and sets in Catone in Utica (1728) with reference to current debates that aimed to restore ‘true’, i.e., spoken, tragedy to greatness and dignity.  They also compared them to those of prominent authors in recent tragedies ending with the death of famous Romans, namely Conti, Pier Jacopo Martello and Joseph Addison.  The intense reception in Italy of the latter’s Cato, A Tragedy, in the 1710s and 1720s had stimulated detailed discussion about the verisimilar portrayal of historical characters on stage that offers insight into both eighteenth-century dramatists’ aesthetic aims and audience expectations.

Metastasio’s departures from some of the principles established by leading literary authorities, especially regarding the representation of Cato’s onstage death, constituted miscalculations by the young poet in gauging the effectiveness of dramatic solutions that had been effective in other libretti as well as his actors’ skills.


Session 2: Thursday, 2.00 – 4.30

‘Literary approaches to mind and music in  eighteenth-century drama’

David Taylor, University of Warwick: ‘The Rational Pleasures of Addison’s Rosamond: Visuality, History, and Peace of Mind’

This paper will read Joseph Addison’s 1707 Rosamond as a meta-opera that through its plot and cast of characters quietly allegorizes its own attempt to incubate an English operatic form that could counter what the likes of Addison and John Dennis saw to be the threatening enthrallment and sensuality of imported Italian opera. Addison carefully upturns earlier renderings of the Rosamond Clifford legend by transforming a tragic tale into a comic one. Here, the pathologically jealous Eleanor of Aquitaine becomes a figure of self-mastery and virtue, Rosamond’s safe removal to a convent enacts the sequestering of suspect visuality, and Henry II finds adulterous love to be quelled by the rational prospect of national destiny.

Rebecca Tierney-Hynes, University of Edinburgh, ‘Semioperatic Semiotics: King Arthur and Corporate Englishness’

Dryden’s and Purcell’s semi-opera ‘King Arthur’ (1691) stages English national character as a contest between, but in the end a kind of vexed collaboration of Saxon and Briton. The piece has a funny political history involving the suppression of some pro-Stuart material, but I’m more interested in the way Dryden and Purcell might understand the collaboration of the arts (music and poetry) as a kind of allegory for a pluralistic nation and/or individual national character.

Ros Ballaster, University of Oxford, ‘Improvising the author and operatic (non)sense: Henry Fielding’s Eurydice (1736)’

dramatic authorship is something ‘improvised’ in performance. The author anticipates his or her own presence in the mind of the consumer of the art work; to make that presence visible may not be to secure authority but equally to destabilise and decentre it, but apparent abnegation of such authority can also be a means of mocking those forms that appear to challenge it (the sensory power of song in opera, women’s preference for sexual pleasure over aesthetic experience). With his mock-heroic metatheatrical farce Eurydice,  Fielding improvises improvisation: he writes a performance play in which the anticipated narrative is not completed and in which those who make the stage play (author, prompt, critic, actors, even audience) also threaten to undermine its anticipated effect. But in doing so he enacts a process of control – he staves off or rather incorporates such predictive uncertainty within the industrial economy of theatre once more.

James Harriman-Smith, University of Newcastle: ‘“Verse is the Music of Language”: Daniel Webb and the Movements of the Passions’

In 1769 Webb’s Observations on the Correspondence Between Music and Poetry proposed that both music and poetry aroused emotion through a coincidence of acoustic and sentimental movements: the abrupt, smooth, growing and diminishing movements of a melody or a poem were, in Webb’s eyes, directly analogous to the internal movements of an audience’s passions. In Dryden’s Alexander’s Feast, or Milton’s Paradise Lost, expansive verse lines thus awake (and emblematize) pride, while sudden shifts in tone plunge an auditor into melancholy.  This paper outlines Webb’s theories before demonstrating how they might furnish twenty-first century critics with a new approach to eighteenth-century artworks that brought music and speech together.

Session 3: Thursday, 5.00 – 6.45

Bruno Forment, Royal Conservatoires of Antwerp and Ghent, ‘“Non son io che parlo”? Probing the Interiority of Metastasian Characters’

Metastasian characters seldom live up to present-day standards of psychological realism, or so critics believe. Subordinating ethos (costume) to plot (favola), according to Aristotelian doctrine, these ‘cardboard figures’ seem to behave like pawns on a chess board, fashioning their subjectivity on a scene-by-scene basis, along dramatic archetypes and Christian-Stoic codes of conduct, and relegating inner motivations to music-dramatic ‘pathos formulas’ (to borrow Aby Warburg’s term). And yet, quite every example in the genre features at least one episode, most often a soliloquy, in which a protagonist’s façade breaks under the weight of tragic consciousness. Deploying more haphazard idioms and structures, such as parole sceniche in harmonically adventurous obbligato recitatives, mixed with ariosos or cavatinas, these momentary lapses from rational control tend to be favoured by modern listeners, while the distressed characters themselves dismiss them as madness – dé-raison, in the Foucauldian sense of the word. As Fulvia (Ezio, 1728; III.12) puts it after her anagnorisis and ensuing outburst: “Ah! Non son io che parlo, è il barbaro dolore che mi divide il core, che delirar mi fa.” (“Ah! ’tis not I that murmur so, it is my unrelenting Woe, that ever rends my wretched Heart, and makes me into Madness start.” – trans. Humphreys, 1732). Her utterance is yet another commonplace, to be sure, but Freudians might consider the io in such scenes as instantiations of the disciplinary Super-Ego, neurotically suppressing inner drives (id) in order to comply with parental and societal norms. The daughter of a Roman patrician, loved by both the Emperor and General of the Roman armies, Fulvia wished she had dissimulated her inner life.

This paper seeks to interpret this and similar outbursts of interiority in opera seria. Analysing excerpts from self-produced Metastasio stagings, and taking cues from a wide range of eighteenth-century courtesy books, pedagogical novels and Metastasian critiques, I aim to show how patterns of drive- and affect-control reveal eighteenth-century psychic dynamics that go beyond the models of Renaissance courtliness and Cartesian mechanicism, in favour of richer theatrical personae that differentiate their Self and Other alike, in keeping with what Norbert Elias termed the ‘psychologisation’ of later court societies.

Antonella D’Ovidio, University of Florence, ‘Beyond the model heroine: the voice of Andromache in Jommelli’s Astianatte

Together with Dido, Andromache was probably the most popular operatic feminine character in eighteenth-century opera seria, at least starting from the successful libretto that Antonio Salvi in 1701 derived from Racine’s Andromaque (1667). When in 1741, at the beginning of his career, Jommelli was about to set to music his Astianatte for the Teatro Argentina in Rome, he had a long series of previous models to draw inspiration from. Although Jommelli’s score recalls some stylistic traits already present in Vinci’s Astianatte (Napoli, 1725), however, it shows a significant deviation from this tradition, particularly in the characterization of Andromache as a model heroine.

In this paper I intend to examine how in (re-)shaping Andromache’s figure, Jommelli tries to go beyond the tragic prototype (and perhaps stereotype) of the faithful woman and the afflicted mother shifting towards a more complex, intense, introspective vision of Andromache’s interiority and consciousness.  In particular, I will focus on the final sequence of Act II, scene 15 (obbligato recitative Quando mai fine avranno le pene mie) and aria Caro figlio non chiedermi aita).

In this scene the instrumentation and the formal structure, the interaction between voice, orchestra and gesture are functional to evoke the space of Andromaca’s inner action and follow step by step the remnants of the protagonist’s devastated mind. Through a manipulation of the rhetorical and pathetic language conventionally related to the inner conflict of Hector’s widow, Jommelli thus offers us a (modern?) portrayal of Andromache far beyond the static image of perfect love and conjugal fidelity.


Ellen Lockhart, University of Toronto, ‘To Carthage Then I Came: Hearing Consciousness on the Opera Seria Stage’

Virgil’s Aeneid haunts T.S. Eliot’s 1922 The Waste Land, with Dido’s abandonment and suicide, and the subsequent razing of Carthage, figuring in imagistic fragments of archaic language (pointed up by footnotes) in the poem’s desolate modern landscape. And yet in Eliot’s apocalyptic imagining, this ancient story, along with the rest of the Western literary heritage, has become “‘jug jug’ to dirty ears”: the song of the nightingale, beautiful but uninterpretable, bereft of subjectivity. For musicologists, there could scarcely be a more fitting image of the decline of this character within opera: preeminent on opera stages until the 1780s, she was virtually absent after that, the kind of cardboard opera-seria character (so the story goes), devoid of inner life, that was displaced by the “real humans” of the bourgeois and sentimental opera reforms. For proponents of Metastasian opera in the eighteenth century, though, as for readers of Virgil and Ovid in the preceding centuries, Dido was understood to have amongst the richest inner lives of all fictional heroines.

The difference, of course, is in how interiority is understood to manifest, and the hermeneutic gestures readers and listeners employ to identify it. I suggest here that our conversations may have much to gain by looking at how other disciplines locate what we uneasily call “inner lives” within fictional personages. Historians of opera, I argue, have been too inclined to accept that recognizable and predictable behaviors — like the often-cited marital discord in Le nozze di Figaro — are indices that we are dealing with “real people”. For Chaucerians (for example), by contrast, characters become persons precisely by behaving in ways that cannot be immediately understood. This paper looks at readings of Dido’s personhood by Metastasian opera composers, and critics of the second half of the eighteenth century, situating their “representations of consciousness” and interpretive gestures within a longer history of using the Queen of Carthage as a test case and pedagogical tool of early modern human subjectivity.


Session 4: Friday 9.30 – 10.45

Suzanne Aspden, University of Oxford, ‘The Sublime, the ombra scene, and the troubled mind’

John Locke’s definition of ‘Self’ in the second edition of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding was central to the explorations of consciousness that took place in the following century: ‘Self is that conscious thinking thing . . . which is sensible, or conscious of Pleasure and Pain, capable of Happiness or Misery, and so is concern’d for it self, as far as that consciousness extends’.  The temporal extension of consciousness, so crucial to debates about the self, would have posed particular challenges for music, itself a temporal art: how, in particular, might a composer depict the workings of the mind in a mode whose temporal flow was already occupied with playing out its own formal unity?  Not surprisingly, perhaps, it was moments of mental disruption or turmoil that were most readily expressed in dramatic music, where that formal unity could be fruitfully challenged.  Here, one of opera’s stock traditions, that of the ombra scene, could come together with the language of the sublime – itself a locus of philosophical interest in the eighteenth century –in ways that were particularly fruitful in musico-dramatic terms for the opportunity they offered to explore mental turmoil.  Turning to Handelian repertoire, in particular, I will consider how composers could use disruptions to music’s temporal flow to investigate the troubled mind.

Jessica Gabriel Peritz, The University of Chicago,  ‘Lyric effusions: Breaking form and staging immediacy in Calzabigi and Bertoni’s Orfeo (Venice, 1776)’

In an essay on dramatic music, the Mantuan professor Matteo Borsa declared the characters in Metastasian opera seria ‘voiceless’ [afoni] because their arias neither aroused nor expressed authentic emotion (La musica imitativa, 1781). He (predictably) praised the emotional authenticity of opera buffa, but for Borsa there was also one non-comedic opera that had successfully envoiced the interiority of its characters: Orfeo (Venice, 1776), Ferdinando Bertoni’s Italianized remake of Calzabigi and Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (Vienna, 1762). Through the role of Orfeo, composer Bertoni and star singer Gaetano Guadagni had experimented with representing verisimilar emotion within the formal constraints of Italian operatic convention—rendering the originary singer-poet anything but ‘voiceless’.

In this paper, I consider how the Venetian Orfeo dramatized tensions between the immediacy of feeling and its aesthetic representation. Diderot, in his Paradox of the Actor (1773), famously argued that spontaneous outbursts of authentic emotion would undermine an actor’s performance, and had to be convincingly feigned rather than truly felt. Italian intellectuals such as Saverio Bettinelli and Melchiorre Cesarotti argued that art could appear to convey genuine emotion so long as the form followed, rather than limited, its affective content. In Orfeo, musical and dramaturgical expectations are repeatedly broken in what I call ‘lyric effusions’, giving the sense that verisimilar emotion is overflowing the bounds of lyric form. I focus on the opera’s contrast between such hybrid aria forms and diegetic song, arguing that, heard together, they sketch an overarching narrative about the genesis of lyric. This paper ultimately suggests that, in seeking to represent the immediacy of emotion, late-eighteenth-century reformers generated an operatic formula for aestheticizing subjectivity.


Session 5: Friday 11.15 – 1.00

Michael Spitzer, University of Liverpool, ‘Analysing the Passions’

I’ll be analysing bits from a Bach cantata (No. 32) and two arias from Vivaldi’s La Griselda, contrasting interiority and exteriority, with reference to Spinoza’s theory of affect.

Keith Chapin, Cardiff University, ‘Pictures of the Self: Monologue Scenes’

Philosophers, whether musical or not, and philosophically inclined writers on music have often emphasized different aspects of personhood in their ruminations. As I discussed at this conference last year, North German philosophers were most concerned with issues of constancy. How did individual states of mind connect to create continuity of consciousness? By contrast, writers on music focussed on the singular intensity of musical moments. Might the affective power of individual tones indicate the particular power of music and its relationship to a person’s ‘innermost’ self?

Monologues were one site for the musical elaboration of this play of moment and continuity. They might show a character internally divided as to a course of action, with shifts of mind laying bare issues divisions that might even threaten integrity of mind. On the other hand, they might also show singular resolve and constancy, demonstrating strength of character. This paper will discuss eighteenth-century monologue scenes as position points in North-German discussions on the relationship between music, temporality, and consciousness.

Estelle Joubert, Dalhousie University, ‘Melodramatic Workings of the Mind in Lenardo und Blandine (1779)’

First performed in Munich on 25 June 1779, Josef F. von Göz and Peter Winter’s Lenardo und Blandine (1779) boasts an unexpected distinction: the melodrama is widely known as the first graphic novel.  Unusually, the work is accompanied by 160 engravings of gestures––effectively a play-by-play illustration of a startling range of emotions exhibited on stage as the narrative unfolds.  Moreover, the gestures and stage directions in the libretto display medically informed descriptions of Blandine’s ever-changing psychological and physiological responses, an aesthetic that Germanist Simon Richter has argued is closely aligned with the neuroscientific discoveries of Göttingen experimental scientist Albrecht von Haller. This convergence of psychological expression with early neuroscience is further complicated by the music-aesthetic context from which Winter emerged: the so-called Gerstenberg circle, a group of composers and music theorists devoted to developing new theories of musical expression.

In this paper, I examine German melodrama’s developmental path in representations of the mind using Lenardo und Blandine as paradigmatic example.  I argue that German melodrama was a reaction to Stoic conceptions of the passions in Baroque drama, and that it became an ideal arena for experimenting with musico-dramatic portrayals of psychology and selfhood.  Drawing on contemporary writings concerning melodrama by Johann Jakob Engel, Johann Friedrich Schink and Johann Gottfried von Herder, I uncover the sensualist philosophical underpinnings of the genre.  As it turns out, Lenardo und Blandine is an ideal entry point into the history of psychology as the female protagonist suffers severe psychological distress following the murder of her lover.  The second half of the melodrama showcases her gradual mental deterioration before she finally falls dead in the last scene.

I conclude by situating both the melodrama and Göz’s analysis thereof in the broader history of psychology during the Enlightenment.  As scholars such as Anthony Pagden has recently pointed out, eighteenth-century thinkers such as Hume, Shaftesbury, D’Alembert, Rousseau and Herder, among others, all believed that studies of human beings constituted a glaring lacuna in human knowledge.  As such, understanding the human subject – its morality, agency, psychology and behavior – moved to the forefront of numerous philosophical, aesthetic and theatrical writings. Ultimately, investigating melodrama’s exchange with the development of psychology offers fresh insight into forging ideals of selfhood during the Enlightenment.