THE RISE OF OPERA by Robert Donington


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Most students and listeners will find enough about the earliest stages of opera in studies of Monteverdi and Lully, or in wider-focused histories of opera. But, for the specializing scholar or the dedicated early-opera buff, Donington has fashioned an exhaustive, somewhat pedantic chronicle of the developments which led to the first great music-drama works in Italy and France. ""I think there could have been no opera prior to the very end of the sixteenth century at Florence,"" says Donington, arguing that the premises of Renaissance Neoplatonism (archetypes, myth, ""essential inwardness"") were as vital to the genesis of opera as were the key musical developments of modulation and ""monody"" (flexible, expressive vocal melody). He traces the rise of the ""reciting style"" in the 1580s Camerata. He analyzes the Neoplatonic themes in the texts of the first operas by Peri, Caccini, and Cavalieri, seeing Monteverdi (whose Orfeo receives a 50-page close study) as ""not so much an originator as. . . a fulfiller."" And he more briefly sketches in the subsequent operatic trends in Venice and Rome (""ever more flamboyant scene changes and machinery, ever more perfunctory scenarios, ever more disconnected scores"") before turning to France--where Monteverdi's successor Cavalli would be the primary link to Lully, whose work combined the Italian form with the French traditions of court ballet and stylized spoken declamation. Donington's treatment throughout is generally more hard-working than eloquent, though some of his detailed musico-dramatic analysis does become evocative in the William Mann/Julian Budden manner. (""It must be admitted that the music sounds less like love than like compulsion. . . her answer gives a still crueller wrench by jerking it through C minor and E fiat major violently into E major."") And, with generous music examples and illustrations, this is a stolid gathering of research--many of the operas are unavailable outside European archives--as well as a painstaking, if uninspired, work of musical scholarship.

Pub Date: Oct. 29th, 1981
Publisher: Scribners