[Marxism] The politics of opera

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Nov 19 09:47:19 MST 2017

NY Review of Books, DECEMBER 7, 2017 ISSUE
All the World’s a Stage
by Larry Wolff

The Politics of Opera: A History from Monteverdi to Mozart
by Mitchell Cohen
Princeton University Press, 477 pp., $39.95

Machiavelli’s The Prince was presented to the Medici family in 1513 with 
a dedication that turned out to be much more than a flattering formality 
since, for the next five centuries, it remained attached to the most 
influential treatise of modern political theory. Machiavelli began by 
observing that “those who strive to obtain the good graces of a prince 
are accustomed to come before him with such things as they hold most 
precious”—horses, arms, jewels—but he offered instead his thoughts on 
the conduct of princes. By the end of the sixteenth century poets and 
musicians would be offering the Medici something new, unprecedented, and 
precious: opera. Machiavelli, in dedicating The Prince, affected 
modesty: “I have not embellished with swelling or magnificent words, nor 
stuffed with rounded periods, nor with any extrinsic allurements or 
adornments.” He claimed to value truth over ornament—but opera would 
become the most magnificently embellished of cultural products, lavishly 
expensive to produce and sensually dazzling to the eye and ear, as it 
remains to this day.

Mitchell Cohen’s The Politics of Opera: A History from Monteverdi to 
Mozart has boldly placed Machiavelli and early modern political theory 
at the center of the early history of opera, reflecting creatively on 
the ways in which the reverberations of the great Florentine realist 
reached even into the musical realm. For just as The Prince was 
presented as a precious gift precisely because it described and 
prescribed the conduct of princes, so the operas of the seventeenth and 
eighteenth centuries placed princes on the stage and let them sing their 
political circumstances.

Cohen focuses on Monteverdi’s Orfeo, one of the founding figures of the 
operatic form in 1607, singing his plea for Eurydice in the underworld 
kingdom of Pluto, and also on Monteverdi’s Nero, an emperor of extreme 
notoriety, working together with his scheming soulmate and eventual 
empress in The Coronation of Poppea (1642–1643). Monteverdi achieved an 
almost perfectly Machiavellian opera with The Coronation of Poppea, 
inasmuch as the two villains, Nero and Poppea, triumph without a moment 
of self-doubt and, after eliminating dissidents and rivals—including the 
philosopher Seneca—sing a rapturously beautiful love duet as they gaze 
upon one another in consummate mutual infatuation. Interestingly, the 
most important part of princely character, which Machiavelli called 
virtù—meaning not moral virtue but something closer to virile prowess 
(colloquially, perhaps, “balls”)—belongs not to the masculine basso 
register of Seneca but rather to the soprano register of a castrato, who 
sings the unscrupulous Nero.

Anyone familiar with the works of Verdi—which lie outside the scope of 
Cohen’s book—would immediately be able to point to his musical gallery 
of Machiavellian princes who use, abuse, and consolidate power, like the 
Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto (set in the century of Machiavelli and the 
city of Orfeo’s premiere) or Philip II, the autocratic sovereign of 
Spain, in Verdi’s Don Carlo. There is perhaps nothing as chilling in 
opera as the scene that Verdi created for two basses, King Philip and 
the Grand Inquisitor, as they trade lines at the bottom of the bass 
clef: the king asks whether it would be acceptable for him to put his 
own son to death for reasons of state, and the inquisitor lowers the 
tessitura but raises the Machiavellian ante by demanding further that 
the king sacrifice Rodrigo, his closest confidant. The heartlessness of 
the sixteenth-century Habsburg king was a theme that was close to 
Verdi’s nationalist heart, since the nineteenth-century Habsburg emperor 
Franz Joseph I was an enemy of Italian unification.

Cohen proposes an immensely valuable extension to opera of the Cambridge 
School of political thought (associated with Quentin Skinner since the 
1970s), by treating operatic compositions partly as political texts that 
are produced by and participate in contemporary political debates. The 
discussion of Machiavelli in relation to Monteverdi is particularly 
successful, though it could be further extended with reference to one of 
the most celebrated works of the Cambridge School, J.G.A. Pocock’s The 
Machiavellian Moment (1975), which explores the broad European 
circulation of Machiavellian ideas, even as far as England.

Pocock did not consider the relevance of Handel to the Machiavellian 
moment, and neither does Cohen, but the great German composer, who 
relocated from Italy to England in 1712, intensely pursued Machiavellian 
political themes over the course of decades in both operas and oratorios 
that feature spectacular arias of unscrupulous conquest, brutality, and 
duplicity as well as virtuous political dedication, honor, and glory. If 
ever there was a Machiavellian operatic moment, it was in Handel’s 
London in the 1720s, with Caesar’s conquest of Egypt in Giulio Cesare, 
the usurpation of Bertarido’s Lombard throne by Grimoaldo in Rodelinda, 
and Tamerlane’s triumph over the Ottoman Sultan Bayezet in Tamerlano. 
Handel would later, in the oratorios, go on to dissect the virtues and 
vices of Old Testament leaders and kings such as Jephthah, who is 
supposed to sacrifice his daughter; Saul, who schemes to murder David; 
and Solomon, the model of princely wisdom. Saul orders Jonathan to 
destroy David in basso recitative, and Saul’s daughter Merab then 
evaluates the conduct of the prince in a brilliant soprano aria:

Capricious man, in humour lost,
By ev’ry wind of passion toss’d!
Now sets his vassal on the throne,
Then low as earth he casts him down!

In Solomon it is Zadok the priest, a tenor, who points the political 
moral: Solomon the king of peace can build the temple in Jerusalem that 
David the warrior could not achieve:

Our pious David wish’d in vain,
By this great act to bless his reign;
But Heav’n the monarch’s hopes withstood,
For ah! his hands were stain’d with blood.

Cohen’s Politics of Opera follows a selective path through the early 
modern history of opera, jumping from the Italian Renaissance of 
Monteverdi to the French tradition of Lully and Rameau, analyzed in 
relation to the absolute monarchy of the Bourbons and the emerging 
political criticism of the Enlightenment. The concluding section of the 
book considers Mozart and Habsburg political ideology in 
eighteenth-century Vienna.

Cohen’s approach to baroque opera will seem blunt to some: he interprets 
the emergence of musical monody—the dominance of a solo voice and single 
melody that displaced the multiple voices of Renaissance polyphony—as 
parallel to the development of the centralized princely state:

Consider this irony. The assertion of monody, that crucial ingredient in 
the first operatic experiments, paralleled, as we have seen, the 
development of centralizing authority in an age of rising or 
consolidating princedoms. Politics and music asserted a single rule 

Historians have often found it more fruitful to think of the politics of 
art and entertainment in relation to the rituals of the court rather 
than the mechanics of the state. Peter Burke’s classic study The 
Fabrication of Louis XIV (1992) was fundamental for thinking about the 
politics of the arts; while Georgia Cowart’s Triumph of Pleasure: Louis 
XIV and the Politics of Spectacle (2008) explored both opera and ballet; 
and Jennifer Homans’s Apollo’s Angels (2010) laid out the political 
dimensions of dance at the court of the Sun King. Cohen traces the 
politics of opera from Lully in the age of Louis XIV to Rameau in the 
age of Louis XV, and is particularly interested in the writings of 
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, probably the most important political theorist of 
the Enlightenment and, at the same time, a passionate music critic and a 
moderately talented composer with one successful short opera to his 
name, Le devin du Village (The Village Soothsayer).

First performed for the French court in 1752, Rousseau’s opera was a 
celebration of peasant life and love, and two years later the uncourtly 
Rousseau would inaugurate a new philosophical age with his stunningly 
influential Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. The essay is an 
anthropological thought experiment in which Rousseau imagines his way 
back into the “state of nature”—an earlier stage of human existence when 
men (not women, to be sure) were naturally equal and then, fatefully, 
succumbed to inequality. Cohen makes the connection to the 
anthropological tour of the “Indies” in Rameau’s Les Indes galantes, his 
opera-ballet about love in Turkey, Persia, and Peru, and offers an odd 
flow chart to diagram the parts of the opera.

Les Indes galantes was composed in 1735, but was such a success that it 
was still being staged when Rousseau wrote his essay on inequality in 
1754, and both may be seen as belonging to the same anthropological 
impulse at the heart of the Enlightenment. Opera was capable of 
deploying remote cultures in order to pose questions of broad social and 
political significance, even when the circumstances of elite 
entertainment added an ironic accent to the presentation. For instance, 
in the Persian scenario of Les Indes galantes, two Persian men fall in 
love with two female slaves (the complication is that each falls in love 
with the other’s slave), and one couple ends up pursuing the romance in 
a disarmingly charming rococo duet on the circumstances of slavery. The 
soprano slave sings lightheartedly, almost flirtatiously:

Peut-on aimer dans l’esclavage?
C’est en augmenter la rigueur.
[Can one love in slavery?
It increases the harshness.]

And the tenor master replies with ingratiating reassurance:

On doit aimer dans l’esclavage,
C’est en adoucir la rigueur.
[One must love in slavery,
It softens the harshness.]

Then they harmonize their parts, reconciling musically these 
irreconcilable points of view. Serious political opposition to slavery 
would not emerge until later in the eighteenth century, but already in 
the 1730s opera, in the guise of romantic interplay and under the 
influence of the early Enlightenment, could pose questions about the 
deformation of the human sentiments under brutal social conditions. 
Rousseau, avid music lover that he was, would certainly have been 
familiar with this duet, which in all its loveliness echoes so 
disturbingly for us across the centuries.

We do not definitively know whether Mozart read Rousseau, but it is hard 
not to feel that, given Mozart’s all-consuming intellectual curiosity 
and Rousseau’s pervasive presence in eighteenth-century culture, the 
composer must have known the philosopher’s ideas, even if only by 
intellectual osmosis. Of course, Pierre Beaumarchais read Rousseau, and 
Beaumarchais’s The Marriage of Figaro was the inspiration for Mozart’s 
opera. Cohen notes the presence of François Fénelon’s The Adventures of 
Telemachus in Mozart’s life and library: Mozart at the age of fourteen 
recorded in a letter to his sister, “I am just now reading Telemachus.” 
The novel was already old by that time: first published in 1699 as an 
anonymous assault on the absolute government of Louis XIV, it gives an 
imaginary account of the education of the son of Ulysses. Fénelon, 
archbishop of Cambrai, offered instruction on politics, including the 
recommendation of a limited monarchy tempered by patrician republicanism 
and respect for some individual rights. Cohen is thus able to use 
Fénelon to pivot from the culture of royal absolutism at Versailles in 
the late seventeenth century to the Viennese culture of enlightened 
absolutism in the age of Mozart in the late eighteenth century.

Discussing the political implications of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, 
Cohen emphasizes the theme of servants “calling the tune,” as in 
Figaro’s aria of defiance:

Se vuol ballare, signor contino,
Il chitarrino le suonerò.
[If you want to dance, little count,
I’ll play my little guitar.]

While for Beaumarchais, Figaro’s insubordination would have resonated 
with the writings of Rousseau on inequality, the background for Mozart’s 
opera was subtly different: the enlightened absolutism of Emperor Joseph 
II, who struck down the privileges of the nobles in order to affirm the 
absolute authority of the sovereign. Joseph’s revolutionary program of 
enlightenment, as enacted from above, included not only the partial 
emancipation of serfs but also religious toleration, state control of 
the church, the abolition of censorship, and even micromanaged burial 
reform—cloth sacks instead of wooden coffins, deposited outside the city 
center in collective graves. This was not only hugely controversial in 
its own time but leaves us today without a specific gravesite for 
revering Mozart.

While it is clear that Mozart relished Figaro’s taunting of Count 
Almaviva, and liked the idea of humbling the privileged nobility in 
Josephine Vienna—which he would have surely associated with his own 
struggle for independence from the patronage of the archbishop of 
Salzburg—any attempt to find a strong political point of view in 
Mozart’s operas is inevitably complicated by his marvelous affinity for 
multiple perspectives. Don Giovanni, for instance—a nobleman who 
recognizes no limitations on his doings and desires, and must be finally 
punished with fire and brimstone at the end of the opera, dragged down 
to hell by the statue of the man he has murdered—would seem to 
illustrate perfectly the perspective of Emperor Joseph on nobles who 
thought themselves above the law. According to Cohen, “Don Giovanni is 
the aristocracy’s unrepressed id siphoned through egotism.” Yet even as 
the opera seems to be clear on this political point about the 
aristocracy, Mozart’s music makes Don Giovanni so irresistibly 
attractive that we come back to it over and over again with 
life-affirming relish at his resistance to laws and limits—a spiritual 
response that runs entirely counter to the apparent political message.

In The Marriage of Figaro, though Count Almaviva appears as an 
oppressive figure, engaged in the bullying and sexual harassment of his 
servants—a Josephine examplar of bad aristocracy—the noble class itself 
is endowed with the most moving musical sympathy in the figure of 
Countess Almaviva, the count’s distressed and neglected wife. For Mozart 
she represents the aristocracy with a musical glamour that engaged his 
genius in its fullest glory.

Mozart, who sought to earn his living independently by using his own 
talent, surely resented the aristocratic privilege of birth, and tried 
to evade the sort of patronage position held by Joseph Haydn, who put on 
a uniform in the morning to receive his musical orders for the day from 
his master, the Esterházy prince. Yet Mozart’s life was full of 
appreciative aristocrats, and while he did not want to wear livery like 
Haydn, he wrote almost flirtatiously to the Baroness von Waldstätten in 
Vienna in 1782 about “the beautiful jacket that is tickling my heart so 
mercilessly, please let me know where it can be bought…. I simply must 
have such a jacket.” One week later he was writing to thank her for the 
jacket. Countesses and baronesses all played their part in Mozart’s 
life, and it would be false to represent him as an enemy of the ancien 
régime in which he himself was so thoroughly embedded.

Cohen insightfully introduces the philosophy of Edmund Burke into his 
discussion of opera and political theory, and when thinking about 
Mozart’s countess, I have sometimes found myself rereading the passage 
in Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France in which he 
remembered his visit to Versailles in the 1770s and his glimpse of the 
young Marie Antoinette:

It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the Queen of France, 
then the Dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this 
orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw 
her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere 
she just began to move in—glittering like the morning-star, full of life 
and splendor and joy. Oh! what a revolution! and what an heart must I 
have, to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall!

The passage builds to the famous lament of chivalry desecrated: “I 
thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to 
avenge even a look that threatened her with insult.” Burke was a 
generation older than Mozart and much more deeply embedded in the ancien 
régime that he evoked with such nostalgia. Yet Mozart, creating The 
Marriage of Figaro in 1786 in Josephine Vienna, three years before the 
fall of the Bastille and four years before Burke’s Reflections, already 
understood that his world was precarious, riven with tensions that he 
could barely resolve musically at the end of the opera as the characters 
step forward to sing together: “Ah, tutti contenti saremo così” (“We 
will all be content like this”).

Did Mozart really believe it? His musical attentions to Countess 
Almaviva suggest that he was already nostalgic for the world that she 
would soon lose, as Burke would be for the lost world of the young Marie 
Antoinette (who was almost exactly Mozart’s age). In one of Mozart’s 
longest and most stunning melodic lines, echoed by a plaintive oboe, the 
countess sings: “Dove sono i bei momenti di dolcezza e di piacer?” 
(“Where have they gone, the beautiful moments of sweetness and 
pleasure?”). She is remembering her once-happy marriage, but the lyric 
equally suggests a broader nostalgia for the ancien régime that was 
already passing in Josephine Vienna and Mozartean Europe, a nostalgia so 
exquisite that it gives the lie to any simple association between Mozart 
and revolutionary class politics. After losing her vocal thread in her 
emotional turmoil, the countess, without help from the orchestra, must 
pick out of the air the single note, a C-natural, that will allow her to 
rediscover her melody and regain her equilibrium—the righting of a 
disordered world that could be achieved only in the musical dimension.

Operas change their political meaning as they are performed in different 
political settings. In 1776, when Christoph Willibald Gluck revised his 
Italian opera Alceste with a French libretto for presentation in Paris, 
the virtuous Queen Alceste, who offers to sacrifice her own life to save 
her husband, would have been seen as a countermodel to Marie Antoinette, 
who was already being caricatured in public for her frivolousness and 
supposed depravity. In 1952, when the great Norwegian soprano Kirsten 
Flagstad sang her farewell Metropolitan Opera performance as Alceste, 
the public would have remembered that she had sacrificed her 
international career to return to Nazi-occupied Norway in 1941 and join 
her husband, who was collaborating with the occupation. The very 
different circumstances of 1776 in Paris and 1952 in New York would have 
offered completely different political associations for Gluck’s 
virtuously noble opera.

When Alban Berg’s masterpiece Wozzeck was first performed in Berlin in 
1925 it caused a sensation with its uncompromising modernism—the atonal 
musical setting of its fiercely alienating assault on provincial German 
military life. When Wozzeck was presented in September 2001 during the 
opening week of the Metropolitan Opera season, two weeks after the 
September 11 attacks, James Levine conducted the work with such stunning 
intensity that the audience could participate in Wozzeck’s psychic agony 
in a way that was entirely conditioned by the traumatic moment in New 
York City. And when the Metropolitan Opera performed Rossini’s Guillaume 
Tell on November 9, 2016, the evening after the American presidential 
election, the harmonies of Swiss republican fervor sounded unexpectedly 
relevant to our own sense of the fragility of democratic institutions in 
the face of tyrannical temperaments. Cohen has demonstrated that the 
history of opera is connected to the history of political theory, but 
operatic masterpieces also acquire new layers of political meaning as 
they encounter new generations and newly fraught political circumstances.

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