Leonora's Last Act: Essays in Verdian Discourse

Leonora's Last Act: Essays in Verdian Discourse

by Roger Parker

In these essays, Roger Parker brings a series of valuable insights to bear on Verdian analysis and criticism, and does so in a way that responds both to an opera-goer's love of musical drama and to a scholar's concern for recent critical trends. As he writes at one point: "opera challenges us by means of its brash impurity, its loose ends and excess of meaning,


In these essays, Roger Parker brings a series of valuable insights to bear on Verdian analysis and criticism, and does so in a way that responds both to an opera-goer's love of musical drama and to a scholar's concern for recent critical trends. As he writes at one point: "opera challenges us by means of its brash impurity, its loose ends and excess of meaning, its superfluity of narrative secrets." Verdi's works, many of which underwent drastic revisions over the years and which sometimes bore marks of an unusual collaboration between composer and librettist, illustrate in particular why it can sometimes be misleading to assign fixed meanings to an opera. Parker instead explores works like Rigoletto, Il trovatore, La forza del destino, and Falstaff from a variety of angles, and addresses such contentious topics as the composer's involvement with Italian politics, the possibilities of an "authentic" staging of his work, and the advantages and pitfalls of analyzing his operas according to terms that his contemporaries might have understood.

Parker takes into account many of the interdisciplinary influences currently engaging musicologists, in particular narrative and feminist theory. But he also demonstrates that close attention to the documentary evidence—especially that offered by autograph scores—can stimulate equal interpretive activity. This book serves as a model of research and critical thinking about opera, while nevertheless retaining a deep respect for opera's continuing power to touch generations of listeners.

Editorial Reviews

The depth of thinking, the richness of prose, and the surprising angles of inquiry in these essays make them useful not only for obtaining information about Verdi's life and works, but also for learning meaningful ways to question musicological and historical method, . . . and perhaps above all, for understanding the attitudes and trends of musicology at the end of the twentieth century.
From the Publisher
"The depth of thinking, the richness of prose, and the surprising angles of inquiry in these essays make them useful not only for obtaining information about Verdi's life and works, but also for learning meaningful ways to question musicological and historical method, . . . and perhaps above all, for understanding the attitudes and trends of musicology at the end of the twentieth century."Notes

Product Details

Princeton University Press
Publication date:
Princeton Studies in Opera Series
Product dimensions:
6.42(w) x 9.61(h) x 0.78(d)

Related Subjects

Read an Excerpt

Leonora's Last Act

Essays in Verdian Discourse

By Roger Parker


Copyright © 1997 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-01557-6



The Photograph belongs to that class of laminated objects whose two leaves cannot be separated without destroying them both: the windowpane and the landscape, and why not: Good and Evil, desire and its object: dualities we can conceive but not perceive. —Roland Barthes, Camera lucida

The final stages of this book were completed in a tiny third-floor room on the south coast of England. I look out onto a suburban land-scape, a busy road, a tennis club beyond. As I stare from the window—which I do all too often—my sense of two peripheral objects alters the view. Even though it is just invisible, I know that the sea is very close: its beguiling shore, hesitant and sprawling, begins no more than a mile away, and for me its unseen presence seems often to invite migration, or at least a journey—travel south, travel west. The other object is a photograph of Verdi in old age—the felt hat, frock coat, and cravat (see figure 1.1). I picked it up on one journey south, and now, in suitably severe dark wood frame, it occupies the space between window and ceiling. The sea is invisible and alluring; Verdi, on the other hand, looks out from his frame with a minimum of fuss: unassuming, gently mocking, in certain lights perhaps even slightly sinister. "Your granddad, is it?" asked someone installing my latest electronic gadget. I hesitated for a second; but of course I had to tell the truth, admit that he was a text from History, but that I nevertheless felt his presence, that his views were important to me.

I begin with these two very different images by way of introducing what seems to me a significant connective among essays that, though obviously linked by a common subject, in other ways range rather freely. They were written over a period of about ten years and, placed as they are now in roughly chronological order, show certain progressions, notably a tendency to engage less extensively with analysis as the nineties rolled on. However, all of them are fueled by what may seem to some—has on occasion seemed to me—internal warring factions. On the one hand is

the guiled shore
To a most dangerous sea;
[...] in a word,
The seeming truth which cunning times put on
To entrap the wisest.

On many pages of this book, it will be clear that I have—looking ever westward—willingly succumbed to the traps that today's cunning times put on. A good number of musicology's current interdisciplinary enthusiasms will here make an entrance, and although I've tried to keep the fanfares muted, some in our divided discipline will probably see the muting as merely pusillanimous. On the other hand, though, is that photograph of Verdi, the old man in the felt hat, looking out wisely at the world and its follies. Of course its seeming simplicity and directness of expression mask layers of contradictory meaning, some of which I think I can divine, and some of which I have tried to unravel. But its real and sometimes unsettling presence nevertheless serves as a reminder of the intense pleasures that can come from proximity to historical objects. To put all this another way, what principally connects the manner of these essays may be the way in which fashionable, mostly postmodern approaches " brush history again the grain" (Benjamin's resonant phrase): continually come into contact with details of the Verdian text, whether musical or verbal or scenic, details that commonly give rise to close reading, sometimes from a narrowly philological point of view, sometimes from a stance more obviously analytical.

In a period when competing musicological camps regularly issue separatist or hegemonic claims, some of them quite strident, it would be impressive to claim that this attempt to display an unlikely cohabitation, a melding of the "old" and the "new," is itself a manifesto. Alas, I had little choice: the balance of issues merely reflects the fact that I grew up musicologically in the heyday of modernist analysis; that I have spent a great deal of the last decade on editing and archival research in an institutional environment increasingly dismissive of such activities; but that I am also deeply in sympathy with many of the aims (perhaps fewer of the methods) of the "new" musicology. Divided aims become perilous; one is vulnerable to snipers from two directions. Far from some latter-day colossus, bestriding the two sides of a mighty divide, I have often felt myself one of those too-loquacious Metastasian characters, adrift on a hermeneutic sea, with only metaphor to help make sense of the world:

Qual nave smarrita
Tra sirti e tempesta,
Né luce, né porto
Gli toglie il timor;

Of course, the abrupt juxtaposition of two modes that are often thought antithetical has not been without its ironic possibilities, and can sometimes even end in humor (the complete absence of which improves few types of human communication). But are there more substantial mutual benefits? Unless one wishes to profess a distrust of knowledge, it is hard to see how, to take the first of my "close reading" modes, text-critical activity cannot enrich postmodern theory of many persuasions. Of course, accommodations will be necessary, not least an acceptance on the part of text critics that their decisions are historically contingent, thus betraying ideological assumptions about the object under scrutiny. Even supposing this level of agreement, my suggestion of possible rapprochement might nevertheless seem blithely utopian. After all, recent cultural criticism, particularly in the field of literary theory, has seen a general shift of emphasis from historical concerns (in particular those of the "author") to contemporary ones (in particular those of the "reader"), and with it a tendency (some would say a do-it-yourself license) to ignore the work of text critics. But it is, I think, becoming more generally recognized that some level of text criticism inevitably occurs whenever we read, and that critics who uncritically choose to deal with whichever text comes to hand run the risk of linking themselves unknowingly to an accident of history. It hardly needs stressing that nowhere is this more flamboyantly true than for students of nineteenth-century Italian opera, a genre in which one trips over the accidents of history almost as often as one confronts a text.

More than this, at least in my experience, is that when looked at closely, texts tend to become spiky; they present all kinds of anomalies that will resist too easy assimilation into this or that orthodoxy. One of my greatest difficulties in using a range of contemporary approaches is not that they are too complex (a frequent complaint, after all), but rather that—despite the promise of liberation from orthodoxy—when applied to the musical object they can too easily collapse into a set of simple and familiar oppositions—equations that, in part through the alluring power of their newness, seem to resist elaboration, admit only of restatement. Theory can then become merely another way of domesticating texts, whether arriving at the umpteenth critical aporia, or by revealing yet again the inevitable silencing or empowerment of the umpteenth prima donna, or by laying bare the covert imperialism or homophobia of the composer. Such difficulties are for the most part inevitable, and should not be used too enthusiastically as a stick with which to beat those who essay "new" musicological approaches. And they are inevitable because our academic discipline is, like all others, essentially reactive: we write about writing far more than we write about music. New methodologies thus need to acquire a body of literature, a discursive environment in which to live and breathe, in order to realize their full potential as ways of reading; and one of the main ways they acquire this environment is through an interaction with, or confrontation with, other, older ways of reading.

But what interests me at least as much, so far as this book is concerned, is the opposite flow of influence: the extent to which the various approaches essayed in this book can serve to question (or at least enrich) a rhetorical fabric basic to the philological enterprise. Central to this fabric is of course the notion of authorial intention, which contentious topic snakes its way through my text, assuming various guises en route. It is, I think, much easier today than it was, say, thirty years ago to call into question the whole idea of a "definitive" version of an opera, one that approaches as nearly as possible the "creator's" (read: "composer's") intentions for the work. Perhaps we now have readier models for dealing with the idea of opera as a multiple text not just with competing "systems" but, more challenging still, with competing and often destabilizing authorial intentions: between librettist and composer, composer and impresario, even composer and his younger self; the oppositions could continue by allowing into the lists those figures who stand tantalizingly on the margins of creation and reception, in particular the set designers, régisseurs, and, perhaps most important, the principal singers (often with good reason called the "creators" of their roles). Once all these various creators are given their due, the operatic text is bound to have enfolded within it insoluble textual problems.

Need this be merely a matter for lamentation? Even on the strictly text-critical level it may not be damaging occasionally to measure the aesthetic distance between our present condition and that which obtained when most modern-day critical editions were set up. Such ruminations might, for example, lead us to question why critical editions of operas routinely ignore aspects of the work that betray little or no trace of composerly control (most often the visual element), essential though those aspects might be for performance; they might also encourage us to take a more liberal attitude to including as "text" aspects belonging to a work's reception history, of what it has become as well as what it was. This is not to deny that we will of course continue to need to fix texts as a basis for performance; but the manner, both physical and rhetorical, in which we present them may alter considerably if we agree that they cannot be definitive and that we will always have to ignore certain bodies of evidence in order to accommodate others.

Most significant in the present context, however, are the interpretive possibilities that such an attitude can stimulate. As I've tried to suggest in several of the chapters that follow, awareness of a multiple operatic text, one that continually escapes a single, controlling authorial hand, can indeed be critically productive, in some way releasing us from having to demonstrate a compatibility between an author's vision of the work and ours. Of course, this is an unsteady path to tread, one that can encourage interpretive capriciousness or act as a smoke screen behind which to hide sheer ignorance. More serious still, though, it can undermine the basis we need in order—as we must—to argue about and discriminate between various interpretations, to be able to declare and defend the fact that (at least within the academy) one interpretation is more firmly based in knowledge than another. It is also true, though, that our immediate musicological past has often tended to be rather narrow in what it will admit as legitimate "knowledge," and has in extreme cases—one thinks of certain calls to arms made from the ramparts of "Music Theory"—defined the word as virtually synonymous with The Music Itself. What is more, it is at least arguable that we continue to be concerned with Verdi's (or anyone else's) operas precisely because they continue to be, in Frank Kermode's words, "patient of interpretation." Far from granting access only in measure to the extent that readers or listeners strive to understand the intention of the author, such works have survived in part through their power to communicate in wildly different ways to different groups.

I have so far been silent about the second of my "close reading" modes, which might broadly be called that of "analysis." Had I published a collection such as this only a few years ago, it might well have boasted its modernity, and probably its attempt to bring Verdi into the musicological "main- stream," by being decked with voice-leading graphs and other illustrative bibelots. Some of the earlier essays still show traces of these operations, though they have gradually fallen away in the process of revision, to be replaced for the most part by simple, unadorned musical examples. Even so, there is probably enough "close reading" of the vaguely analytical kind to sound warning bells for some. For example, in a much-discussed and—given the relative closeness of their positions—surprisingly boisterous exchange with Lawrence Kramer, Gary Tomlinson has come straight out against such activities:

We need to move away from the whole constraining notion that close reading of works of music, of whatever sort, is the sine qua non of musicological practice.... It is not enough to cast our close readings in the light of new methods—narratological, feminist, phenomenological, anthropological, whatever. For it is the act of close reading itself that carries with it the ideological charge of modernism. These new methods, instead, need to be linked to new approaches to music that have distanced themselves from such analytically oriented reading. They need, indeed, to be allowed to engender such new approaches.

This is a bold program for the new millennium, but I'm not convinced that it is entirely workable as an immediate way forward. For one thing, Pm suspicious of purges, of imagining that there can ever be such a thing as a clean slate: if we learn anything from history, it is that radical change seems the more surely and swiftly to lead to new orthodoxies. But mostly I come back to a point made a little earlier: that the surest way for "new methods" to prosper is if they strive to establish an elaborate discursive space, marshaling to their cause the greatest number of skills that the academy can command. One way this space might emerge is when the "new" comes into contact with methods that the institution has trained us over generations to use with (we hope) discrimination and sensitivity. As for carrying "the ideological charge of modernism," perhaps that is a charge that can be borne with some patience, at least if there is room on the lapel for other badges. The moral high ground of musicology is an obscure rocky space, and although we should never deny its existence, we will do well to lay claim to it only in exceptional circumstances.

But I should like to follow the lead of Joseph Kerman, certainly the gentlest and most stylish of Tomlinson's interlocutors, in pausing for a moment over one of the methods Tomlinson suggests for evading the sinister pull of "close reading." Tomlinson asks that "we might begin to interrogate our love for the music we study ... dredge up our usual impassioned musical involvements from the hidden realm of untouchable premise they tend to inhabit, and ... make them a dynamic force—to be reckoned with, challenged, rejected, indulged in, whatever—within our study." This project appeals to me; so much so that I'd like to try it here and now. Let me for a moment, then, interrogate my love for Don Carlos, an opera hardly mentioned in the main body of this book, but closer to me at present than any other. Of course, part of the reason for the closeness—in all likelihood the greatest part—is too personal to be of much general interest: in the month before writing this, I have seen two extremely good performances of the opera, one in French, one in Italian, both in the best of company. But there are other factors, ones more conducive to public examination.


Excerpted from Leonora's Last Act by Roger Parker. Copyright © 1997 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are saying about this

James Hepokoski
Parker's wit and high irony pervade every page. In a sense, his central aim (though never self-identified as such) is to brandish a new 'tone' or attitude toward scholarship—and toward Verdi—in the postmodern 1990s. The book is immensely engaging throughout: verbal surprises and astonishing suggestions lurk around every corner. Leonora's Last Act is a joy to read even as it seeks mischievously to unsettle our views of this composer.
James Hepokoski, University of Minnesota

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >