Prima la musica e poi le parole

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


There is scarcely another work of music theatre in which the inherent production-historical content, to wit, its dramaturgy and action, is reflected as it is in Giambattista Casti and Antonio Salieri’s Prima la musica e poi le parole. Chronologically, the first source in the genesis of Prima la musica was conveyed by the librettist, Casti. In a letter to Paolo Greppi, dated January 24, 1786, Casti told his friend about a commission to compose a small opera:

È qua, come sapete, l’archiduchessa Cristina col duca Alberto. V. M. pensa darle una festa a Scenbrun [sic] ed ha incaricato me di fare uno spettacoletto d’un’ora. Io già l’ho fatto, e la musica sta sul punto d’esser ancora essa terminata da questo maestro di Cappella Salieri. E spero che dovrà riuscire una cosa graziosa sì per le parole, che per la musica, e per l’eccelenza degli attori, e cantanti. La compagnia sarà composta da una trentina almeno di coppie […]1

Casti reports – less than two weeks before the premiere at Schönbrunn – that he had already finished the play, but that Salieri, on the other hand, was not quite ready with the music. To be sure, this situation corresponds to the contemporary conditions for producing Italian opera. At the same time, it should not be overlooked that Casti here declares himself to be the principal author: The Emperor had given him the commission to prepare an hour-long work.

However the imperial commission might ultimately have been worded, the theme of the “theatre in the theatre” with regard to the use of pre-existing music was likely to have been a substantial part of the scrittura. While this subject represented rather new territory for the German Singspiel, for an Italian opera buffa there was a clear link to the tradition of metamelodramma, a genre that from the beginning of the eighteenth century satirized the artistic conventions of opera seria.
An occasion in the life of Viennese theatre played a central role in the genesis as well as in the dramaturgical direction of this meta-opera: the performance of Giuseppe Sarti’s opera seria Giulio Sabino in August of 1785. This performance may claim an ‘event character’ similar to the spectacle in the Viennese Orangery because Giulio Sabino belonged to the few opere serie presented in Vienna in the 1780s.2 It is known that the genre of opera seria did not suit the Emperor’s theatrical tastes; he wanted to see Italian operatic life devoted completely to opera buffa. For the authors of Prima la musica, Giulio Sabino thus became the crucial reference point, at least for the first half of their divertimento teatrale. Casti and Salieri fought their way through Sarti’s opera or rather through its overall successful performances. In this way Prima la musica also ‘functioned’ as a significant place of musical reception for Sarti’s opera, with regard to opera seria in Vienna. That Salieri had conducted these performances and was thus responsible for the drastic interventions in the original form of Giulio Sabino may be pointed out as essential music-dramaturgical background for interpreting the meta-character of Prima la musica.

1 Quoted from Antonio Fallico, „Giambattista Casti: il teatro musicale in berlina“, in Prima la musica e poi le parole [...], Il ritratto di Manon, Una domanda di matrimonio: Tre opere: linguaggio di tre secoli, ed. Ufficio stampa dell’Ente lirico Arena di Verona, I quaderni dell’Arena (Verona: Cortella industria poligrafica, 1977),
[pp. 2–3].

2 On this entire complex, see especially Richard Armbruster, “Salieri, Mozart und die Wiener Fassung des Giulio Sabino von Giuseppe Sarti: Opera Seria und ‘Rondò-Mode’ an der italienischen Oper Josephs II.,” Studien zur Musikwissenschaft 45 (1996), pp. 133–166, as well as the same author’s Das Opernzitat bei Mozart, Schriftenreihe der Internationalen Stiftung Mozarteum Salzburg 13 (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2001), pp. 37–62.