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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

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Volume 21 (2015) No. 1

Published 2017

From Madrigal to Opera: Monteverdi’s Staging of the Self. By Mauro Calcagno. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015. [334 pp. ISBN: 978-0-5202-6768-8. $63.]

Reviewed by Andrew Eggert*

1. Introduction

2. A Multiplicity of Narrative Perspectives

3. Conclusions

1. Introduction

1.1 In From Madrigal to Opera: Monteverdi’s Staging of the Self, Mauro Calcagno examines some of the most familiar vocal literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries from new critical perspectives that deepen our understanding of these works, both in their historical context and in contemporary performance practice. By organizing his study around the interrelationship of two genres, madrigal and opera, Calcagno reconsiders the cultural forces at play in the transition from polyphony to monody that have long been a part of the musical-historical narrative of this period. Monteverdi’s vocal music makes up the core of the study (and indeed Monteverdi is the only opera composer discussed in detail in the volume), but ample examples are drawn from the long history of the madrigal leading up to the early seventeenth century. This book repositions this repertoire within a new conceptual framework that simultaneously illuminates the intellectual milieu in which it was created and challenges the reader to rethink the experience of studying, performing, and listening to this music today. By enriching our understanding of the origins of this repertoire in the context of sixteenth-century Petrarchism and its concept of the dialogic self, Calcagno demonstrates ways in which opera’s discursive aspects are in fact similar to, not distinct from, the narrative strategies of madrigal composition.

1.2 The close analyses of both madrigal and opera examples contained in this volume are indebted to methodologies that move beyond traditional text-music relationships and into the fields of linguistics, narratology, phenomenology, and performance studies. Through these historical and theoretical reexaminations of the literature, Calcagno demonstrates the ways that today’s sophisticated performances capitalize upon these inherently discursive features. This study does not treat staging as an element independent of performance as in standard reception histories, which tend to annex the study of stage production to a separate chapter. Rather, Calcagno examines entire productions and draws out several crucial ways that staging intersects with both text and music. Calcagno’s concept of the “staging of the self” involves many agents essential to performance: the composer, the poet/librettist, the singer, the character, and the listener/viewer. Ultimately, the reader comes to understand that a twenty-first-century staging, such as a Regietheater production of an opera by Monteverdi by an auteur director, merely adds to the chain of agents enacting a complex sense of the self that is already inscribed in these works.

2. A Multiplicity of Narrative Perspectives

2.1 Calcagno organizes his study in three parts, a tripartite structure that shifts our focus from opera to madrigal and back to opera again. Part One, “La Musica and Orfeo,” functions as an intellectual prologue to Calcagno’s entire project and provides context for the idea of the dialogic self both historically and theoretically. Throughout this section, the prologue of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo is repeatedly examined in its function of establishing the dramatic coordinates of the action of the opera that follows. We witness and hear La Musica at the beginning of any performance of the opera as both commentator and narrator, reaching across the liminal gap between stage and audience and providing diegetic orientation by pointing our attention both temporally and spatially. Calcagno extends his discussion of La Musica into the realm of a specific performance by illustrating his points with details of Luca Ronconi’s staging of L’Orfeo at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in 1998. Many of the dramaturgical concepts discussed in the production are supported with still images from a television broadcast of the opera. By analyzing these images, Calcagno draws out aspects of Ronconi’s staging that dramatize the concept of dialogic subjectivity and the complex sense of self that is established in the prologue to the opera.

2.2 In the second part of the book, “Constructing the Narrator,” Calcagno moves from the genre of opera to madrigal, where he traces the roots of these narrative modes of the dialogic self prior to the seventeenth century. This section opens with a chapter that provides the cultural context of Petrarchism and the rhetoric of voice established in the Canzoniere as they influenced the composition and performance practices of sixteenth-century madrigalists. In the following chapter, “In Search of Voice: Musical Petrarchism in the Sixteenth-Century Madrigal,” the most extensive of the book, Calcagno provides a thorough musical-historical overview of the genre, providing new insights on some of the most widely studied madrigals by Verdelot, Arcadelt, Willaert, Rore, Wert, and Marenzio. Calcagno’s aim in revisiting this familiar repertoire is to approach these canonical works with new methodologies that focus our attention on crucial aspects of voice, address, and narration in both madrigal composition and performance.

2.3 Part Three, “Staging the Self,” returns to Monteverdi and eventually to opera. After in-depth discussions of the cultural context of Marinism and several of Monteverdi’s madrigal settings of sonnets by Giovan Battista Marino in Books VI and VII, Calcagno turns his attention to a crucial work, Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, a setting of Tasso that blurs familiar genre labels as a madrigale con gesto (madrigal with gesture), a semi-staged piece that embodies a multiplicity of narrative perspectives and voices. Here, again, Calcagno gives us illustrative examples from a specific staging as a means to draw out his interpretation, in this case a video production by Pierre Audi. The second chapter of this section, “The Possibility of Opera,” uses details of a production of L’incoronazione di Poppea by Michael Hampe for the 1993 Schwetzinger Festspiele as a way to demonstrate that work’s discursive strategies, including the focalizing role of certain characters (and performers), who provide a specific, directed narrative perspective on the stage action to follow.

3. Conclusions

3.1 Throughout this entire study, Calcagno is himself both narrator and focalizer, in that he provides welcome new critical perspectives on musico-dramatic works. He wisely limits this study to well-known repertoire (madrigals and operas that will be familiar to most readers of the volume) so that the originality and importance of his observations are readily apparent. At the same time, the conclusions reached here will help to provide needed cultural and theoretical context for lesser-known works from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as they are increasingly studied and performed today. One can hope that the interdisciplinary methodologies utilized throughout the entire book will serve as a model for scholars to integrate meaningfully the specifics of dramaturgy and stage production, as well as the work of today’s stage directors, conductors, designers, and performers, into serious discussions of music history. For Calcagno, as indeed for Monteverdi, staging is an essential aspect that cannot be separated from other elements of these endlessly fascinating multimedia artworks.


*Andrew Eggert (aeggert@roosevelt.edu) is Head of Opera at the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. He has directed La Descente d’Orphée aux enfers at Gotham Chamber Opera in New York and Death and the Powers at the Dallas Opera, as well as the U.S. premiere of Clemency by James MacMillan for Boston Lyric Opera and Così fan tutte and Bluebeard’s Castle for Opera Omaha. He has enjoyed a longstanding relationship with Chicago Opera Theater where he directed Mosè in Egitto and La Tragédie de Carmen and served eight seasons as an assistant director. He is a regular collaborator of stage director Diane Paulus, having served as associate director on a number of projects, including the world premiere of Death and the Powers in Monaco, as well as U.S. performances at the American Repertory Theater and Chicago Opera Theater; Die Zauberflöte at Canadian Opera Company; Gotham Chamber Opera’s production of Il mondo della luna; and the world premiere of Matthew Aucoin’s Crossing. He has been a guest director at Princeton University and the Yale Baroque Opera Project and has worked with the young artist programs of Glimmerglass Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Wolf Trap Opera, and NAPA Music Festival. His new production of Mourning Becomes Electra was selected as a winner of Opera America’s Director-Designer Showcase. As a dramaturg, he worked with Rebecca Taichman on Telemann’s Orpheus and Michael Counts on Mosè in Egitto, both for New York City Opera. He is a graduate of Yale University and earned his Ph.D. in Historical Musicology at Columbia University. His dissertation is entitled “Staging the Operas of Francesco Cavalli: Dramaturgy in Performance, 1651–1652.”

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