Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.02.11 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.02.11

Gesine Manuwald, Nero in Opera: Librettos as Transformations of Ancient Sources. Transformationen der Antike, Bd. 24.   Berlin; Boston:  De Gruyter, 2013.  Pp. viii, 410.  ISBN 9783110317138.  $140.00.  


Reviewed by Robert C. Ketterer, The University of Iowa (robert-ketterer@uiowa.edu)

This book is a chronologically organized account of all opera librettos and eleven spoken dramas on the subject of Nero in the early modern and modern periods. The operas begin with Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (1643) and end with Targioni-Tozzetti’s Nerone (1935). The spoken dramas date from 1665 to the 1870s. Manuwald’s purpose is to observe “the impact of the Latin Octavia (within the framework of the reception of the figure of Nero) and thus, paradigmatically, into the transformation of classical material in opera…and [to look at] these operatic plots against the background of the treatment of their story in ancient texts, as well as in terms of the influence of operatic themes and set-ups that were initiated by [Monteverdi’s] L’incoronazione di Poppea. This analysis will show how the subject matter from antiquity has been continuously taken up and transformed over the centuries” (3).

Chapter 1 sets out Manuwald’s method and aims, and surveys the ancient sources used in telling Nero’s story. At the center of Manuwald’s interest is the pseudo-Senecan Octavia, which she claims to be “the typological ancestor and starting point for all plays on historical subjects in the tradition of European theater.” (16) There are also brief treatments of the Renaissance and early modern reception of Tacitus, Suetonius, and Dio Cassius, the important main sources for Nero’s life. (Plutarch’s Galba and Otho are not included, though they provide some information about the characters that appear in Nero dramas.) She summarizes also the features of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century opera, since the majority of the librettos under consideration come from that period. The chapter concludes with a concise account of the artistic reception of Nero’s story in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that nicely contextualizes the subject matter of the book for a modern readership (30-35).

Chapter 2, the core of the book, describes in detail each of the opera librettos that Manuwald has identified on the subject of Nero’s reign. These are Italian or German language texts, with the exception of three French pieces from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Sixteen of the twenty-two were produced before 1800. Each sub-section of the chapter treats one libretto and follows a regular pattern of presentation that allows the reader to make comparisons with other librettos. Entries begin with background on the librettist and composer of the first version of the opera. Extremely useful bibliographical information is then provided, which includes the original libretto and subsequent versions where relevant; URLs for online versions and recordings where available; and a list of scholarship on the libretto. There follows a scene-by-scene synopsis of the original libretto and in some cases subsequent librettos that adapted it. Finally, there is an analysis of the opera’s relation to its ancient sources and historical figures, with special concern for any shared features with the Latin Octavia and observations on the presence or absence of political elements and dramatic conventions. There is, by the author’s own design (11), limited analysis of the interplay of contemporary political or artistic conditions and their impact on libretto production, but footnotes and bibliography lead the reader to such discussions elsewhere. In our own time, Monteverdi’s Poppea and Handel’s Agrippina are the only two of these operas performed regularly in opera houses. Manuwald’s discussions demonstrate a much broader range of Nero librettos in the last 350 years and the contemporary popularity of some of these librettos, unknown now except to specialists. As an example, Noris’s Nerone fatto Cesare (1693) and Silvani’s La fortezza al cimento (1699) had more than a dozen revivals each.

Chapter 3 is a similar treatment of a selection of a selection of spoken dramas and ballets on Nero, beginning with Lohenstein’s plays Agrippina and Epicharis, both from 1665, and concluding with two nineteenth-century pieces titled Nerone, a play by Cossa (1871) and a ballet by Pallernini (1877). Chapter 4 summarizes Manuwald’s findings. Appendix 1 is a table of the distribution of key motifs and main characters across the librettos, spoken dramas and ballets in question. Appendix 2 is a chart of all the characters that appear in these works with reference to their historical or fictional background. Appendix 2 is intended to serve as an index to the rest of the book (366), a function also served by the tables in Appendix 1.

This is not a book to read cover to cover. The style of writing is dry, and the plot summaries take up a significant portion of the text, summarizing in one case five alternative librettos of the same opera (Nerone fatto Cesare [101-119]). There is repeated reference in Manuwald’s analytical sections to passages in the ancient sources that lie behind certain types of scenes in the librettos and plays that make it possible to read her treatments of individual works in isolation. Some cross-listing traces the influences between the dramas, though there is less discussion of this than one might have wished in a book that is so meticulous about the details of each work. Nero in Opera is most easily used as an encyclopedia or dictionary, in the style of, for example, Oxford Music Online, to which Manuwald often refers for the background information on the librettists and composers. It focuses on a very thorough setting out of as many facts as can be found to describe each of these works. This is the book’s greatest virtue: anyone wanting to know about one or more of these early modern and modern works on Nero’s story should start here. Manuwald has told us a great deal about each plot, where to find the librettos, what ancient sources lie behind the events in the drama, and what scholarship to read about each one. The Appendices make it further possible to trace characters and themes across multiple dramas and operas.

I will begin with my reservations, and conclude with what I think Manuwald has shown us. First of all, as the introduction says, the returning argument in each analysis is for the place of the pseudo-Senecan Octavia as the Ur-text for these operas. The argument must be made by comparing the Latin play with the content of a given libretto, because no librettist of these Nero operas ever cited Octavia as a source, though they sometimes mention Tacitus, Suetonius and others. The case for the influence of the Octavia on Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, the first opera on the subject, was made by Ellen Rosand in 1985.1 The Octavia certainly helped start something, but very quickly opera librettos went off in their own directions. By the end, I was convinced that I had read a chronicle of the influence of Tacitus and Suetonius more than of the Octavia. Let me add that this is not really a problem. If Manuwald, as I think, puts too much stress on Octavia as an archetype, she has nevertheless given us a thorough account of how the other Latin sources about Nero were used and adapted over time to inform both opera and spoken drama.

More troublesome for me is the absence of music and poetry in Manuwald’s discussions of the librettos. Librettos may certainly be studied on their own as texts to be read; the librettists themselves said so, and Manuwald makes the case for this (10-11). Nor has she intended to produce a musicological study (10). But Octavia was a poem, and opera librettos are poetic dramas. They are not always good poetry, taken as stand-alone compositions, but their verse has its own rules and conventions governed by the fact that they were set to music; their dialogue recitative alternated with lyric passages that became increasingly formalized as the seventeenth century moved into the eighteenth. Manuwald acknowledges that there are scene and character types produced by the genre of opera, but her scene-by-scene summaries are exhaustively about plot as it relates to people and events in the dramas and the ancient sources. They never mention where aria and accompanied recitatives occur in the development of the action. Reading Nero in Opera, one does not get any feel for what a libretto is actually like, or how the music of its words might have reflected the poetry or dramatic rhythms inherited from the Latin Octavia or other dramas that preceded it.

I have already indicated the value of this book as a research tool, but some organizational choices make locating information and comparing texts difficult. The charts in the two appendices do not easily coordinate with one another because the librettos and plays are referred to in different ways. The appendices are helpful in identifying the appearance of individual characters and motifs, but a more traditional index and an Index locorum of ancient sources would help locating other kinds of information. Sequestering the spoken dramas and ballets in Chapter 3 and in a separate table in Appendix 1 makes sense since this is principally a book about opera, but it also hampers study of the history of Nero’s story that Manuwald wants to illustrate. It might have been more helpful to discuss the spoken dramas as they appeared chronologically among the operas, to get a better sense of the interplay between the two kinds of dramas. In this context I missed hearing about Racine’s Britannicus and perhaps also Corneille’s Othon. French drama famously influenced the construction of Italian librettos, especially beginning in the 1690s, and while neither appears overtly to be in the tradition of the Latin Octavia, both deal in the characters that appear in the opera librettos.

While the French influence on Italian opera is marked, it is not exclusive, and Manuwald has demonstrated the German contribution to dramatic retellings of this particular story. This body of works in German theaters has a reciprocal relationship with the northern Italian librettos, in part through the figure of Handel, who set the anonymous 1685 Nero for Hamburg and then came to Italy where he composed for Grimani’s Agrippina (Venice, 1709). Manuwald’s work has also pointed to a gap of eighty years between Francesco Salfi’s libretto La congiura pisoniana (Venice, 1799) that concludes the early modern group of librettos, and the 1879 premiere of Néron by Barbier, a French libretto set to music by Anton Rubenstein and translated into German and Italian. After this, five new Nero librettos appeared between 1888 and 1935. Coincident with this late nineteenth-century re-emergence of interest in the Nero story come treatments of Nero’s persecution of Christians after the great fire of 64 C.E. Early modern librettists did not include the burning of Rome as a plot element (Feustking’s Nero of 1705 is an exception), and ignored Nero’s persecution of the Christians. After the eighty-year hiatus ended by Barbier’s Néron, all the librettos engage with the Christian persecution, often involving a love interest between a pagan Roman, sometimes Nero himself, and a Christian woman.

Manuwald’s decision not to investigate contemporary social and literary contexts of libretto production, in line perhaps with the scholarly series of which it is a part, makes Nero in Opera a rather narrowly focused study. In concentrating determinedly on the repetition of elements found in the Latin Octavia and other ancient sources, it underplays, although it does not entirely ignore, explanations of the appearance of plot details, figures and themes that may owe more to previous librettos on Nero and other subjects, the French connection, and contemporary philosophy or fiction. That said, Manuwald has provided us with a remarkable amount of information, much of it about texts only available in their original language in specialized archives, and there is much here to suggest future areas of research on the relations between the ancient literature and its modern transformations.

Italian, German and French titles and texts are translated into English, making this book a usable tool for the Anglophone audience. The text is quite clean, with only a few scattered typos or misprints, none significant.


Notes:


1.   Ellen Rosand, “Seneca and the Interpretation of L’incoronazione di Poppea.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 38 (1985) 34-71.

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