Prima la musica e poi le parole

Synopsis | Historical Context | Origins | Cast | Reception | Metamelodramma and Intertextuality

Metamelodramma and Intertextuality

This one-act work belongs to the genre called metamelodramma,1 in which opera itself is the subject of the action. The genre’s self-reflection has its origins in Italian opera in the early eighteenth century, and it blossomed in the last third of the century. In this meta-theatrical genre, it was mainly the conditions of producing opera seria that were satirized. The ignorance of impresarios, the affectation of prima donnas, or the escapades of castrati could be singled out as targets. The reservoir of dramatic configurations was as inexhaustible as the realities of Italian operatic production. The quasi-realistic direction of these meta-operas was the pre-condition that the persons who were involved in the operatic production would appear as stage characters. At first, these were mainly impresarios and prima donnas. Later, librettists and composers came in for satirical treatment.2
Of course, a special charm, especially for librettists and composers, was that authors as well as actors were reflected in the stage characters of the metamelodramma. The range of possibilities for this self-reflection is great, and it would hardly be appropriate to reduce it primarily to a mirroring of specific individuals. Thus, the literature on Prima la musica has attempted to see in the figure of the Poet first and foremost Casti himself or his Viennese counterpart, Lorenzo da Ponte.
The degree of allusion and quotation is disproportionately higher in Casti and Salieri’s opera than in other metamelodrammi. An excellent example is the problem of the commission, which Casti addressed in his text. Count Opizio gives both of his artists, the Maestro and the Poet, a commission to create a work in four days’ time. The real procurement is thus reflected in Casti’s metamelodramma, even though this ‘schedule’ could hardly have corresponded to reality. However, it is debatable whether Casti’s allusions should be seen as direct reflections on the real person behind the commission, Joseph II; in other words, should the scrittura then be regarded as the key to the interpretation? Both Swenson3 and Rice,4 for example, believe that Joseph II is quite literally hiding behind Count Opizio, and consequently, Casti is connected with the Poet as an ironic representation of himself. Rice was further able to show that the payments received for the opera were directly related to the specific remunerations paid to Casti and Salieri.5
Prima la musica consists of a total of thirteen musical numbers: a quartet, a trio, two duets, and nine solos. Of the solo numbers, five are related to pre-existing context, and all are found in the first half of the opera. Thus, the entire complex from No. 2 to No. 6 is largely determined by music quoted from others. The reference source for this quotation complex, as indicated above, is the opera seria Giulio Sabino by Giuseppe Sarti (with text by Pietro Giovannini). Salieri plays with the pre-existing music in a way that can hardly be called anything other than highly (post)modern, since the question of authorship is encountered at every turn in the musical discourse. The (real) authorship of the opera Giulio Sabino is not revealed – nowhere in the text does the name Sarti appear – yet it is apparent in the mention of the singer Marchesi (“Marchesino”). Salieri and Casti are thus playing with the different authorships of the Sabino score, whose original form was enriched by outside elements, especially in the Viennese performances. Remarkably, both the length as well as the complexity of the quotations increase in the second scene. In the cavatina, No. 2, there are just 18 bars in which Salieri quotes pre-existing material; in the recitative and aria (Nos. 3–4), there are 74 bars of quotations; and in the rondò (Nos. 5–6), there are more than 80 bars. Seen purely from the standpoint of time, the whole complex of quotations from Giulio Sabino (in Scene 2) comprises approximately one-sixth of the entire opera.
Along with the musical layer of quotations from Giulio Sabino, several different intertextual modes of increasing complexity can be distinguished on the purely textual level:

1. Allusions to real places or rather opera houses, as well as to real persons (for example, Cádiz, Marchesi, Salieri).
2. Mentions of titles of real operas, mainly opere serie and opere buffe, from the contemporary repertoire (in No. 8b).
3. Alleged opera titles, such as Annibale sull’Alpi or I vespri siciliani (in No. 8b).
4. Text quotations from real operas, for example, Metastasio’s Alessandro nell’Indie.
5. Text quotations from alleged or fictional operas, such as “Ferma, oh Dio! non son Francese,” “A che proposito / Vuoi tu ammazzarmi?” and “Se questo mio pianto” (in ‘original form’) from the fictional opera I vespri siciliani.
6. Text quotations from the work to be composed by the Maestro and the Poet in the course of the piece, for example, “Se questo mio pianto,” “Per pietà, padrona mia”.
7. Allusions to contemporary opera scenes or scene types, such as the Quaker scene in No. 9 or the aria “Via largo, ragazzi” (No. 10).

Although the editors today are able to use extremely sophisticated research tools to identify the quotations, they are also aware of the possibility that not all of the quotations have been exhaustively explored, nor have all of the contexts been identified. With an inter- or trans-textual permeation of a libretto such as that presented by Prima la musica, there is the inherent risk of not being able to detect all the hypo- and hyper-texts of this metamelodramma, especially at the historical distance of more than 200 years.

1 On the concept, see La cantante e l’impresario e altri metamelodrammi, hrsg. von Francesca Savoia und Roberto De Simone (Genua: Costa & Nolan, 1988), p. 19.
2 Cf. Manuela Hager, “Die Opernprobe als Theateraufführung – eine Studie zum Libretto im Wien des 18. Jahrhunderts,” in Oper als Text: Romanistische Beiträge zur Libretto-Forschung, ed. Albert Gier (Heidelberg: Winter, 1986), pp. 101–124; Jürgen Maehder, “‘A queste piccolezze il pubblico non bada’: Librettisten und Komponisten als Zielscheibe der Opernparodie,” in Die lustige Person auf der Bühne, ed. Peter Csobádi et al. (Anif: Müller-Speiser, 1994), vol. 1, pp. 237–254; and Klaus Pietschmann, “Metatheatralität in der Oper am Beispiel Wiens um 1800,” in Opernwelten: Oper – Raum – Medien. Festschrift für Franz-Josef Albersmeier, ed. Kirsten von Hagen and Martina Grempler (Berlin: Erich Schmidt Verlag, 2012), pp. 91–99.
3 Edward Elmgren Swenson, “Prima la musica e poi le parole: An Eighteenth-Century Satire,” Studien zur italienisch-deutschen Musikgeschichte 7, Analecta Musicologica 9 (Cologne and Vienna: Böhlau, 1970), pp. 112–129.
4 Rice, Antonio Salieri and Viennese Opera, pp. 377–379.
5 Ibid.