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Seventeenth-Century Opera and the Sound of the Commedia dell’Arte

In this book, Emily Wilbourne boldly traces the roots of early opera back to the sounds of the commedia dell’arte. Along the way, she forges a new history of Italian opera, from the court pieces of the early seventeenth century to the public stages of Venice more than fifty years later.

Wilbourne considers a series of case studies structured around the most important and widely explored operas of the period: Monteverdi’s lost L’Arianna, as well as his Il Ritorno d’Ulisse and L’incoronazione di Poppea; Mazzochi and Marazzoli’s L’Egisto, ovvero Chi soffre speri; and Cavalli’s L’Ormindo and L’Artemisia. As she demonstrates, the sound-in-performance aspect of commedia dell’arte theater—specifically, the use of dialect and verbal play—produced an audience that was accustomed to listening to sonic content rather than simply the literal meaning of spoken words. This, Wilbourne suggests, shaped the musical vocabularies of early opera and facilitated a musicalization of Italian theater.

Highlighting productive ties between the two worlds, from the audiences and venues to the actors and singers, this work brilliantly shows how the sound of commedia performance ultimately underwrote the success of opera as a genre.

256 pages | 5 halftones, 37 line drawings, 4 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Music: General Music


“This book smartly inserts the commedia dell’arte into scholarly conversations about drama, opera, and early modern musical practice. Wilbourne makes important claims for commedia dell’arte that bring the genre into the center of late Renaissance and early Baroque creative practices. Ultimately, her work represents the best of what musicology has come to be in recent years.”

Bonnie Gordon, University of Virginia

“With extraordinary historical imagination and meticulous attention to the lived sonic experience of theater that is recorded in musical and literary sources, Wilbourne finally confirms a long-lived scholarly intuition that opera’s aesthetic roots lay in the improvised theatrical genre commonly known as commedia dell’arte. This brilliant book is a landmark contribution to opera studies, theater studies, and those who hope for dialogue between music scholarship and sound studies.”

Suzanne G. Cusick, New York University

“In this marvelous book, Wilbourne traces a new ‘sonic epistemology’ of opera, showing how performers of commedia dell’arte taught its practitioners and audiences how to decode sound, interpreting aurality in volume, gestures, vowels, voices, articulations, and accents. Opera emerges here in an improvisatory, polyglottal riot of sounds and meanings. Rethinking opera’s beginnings, Wilbourne dispenses once and for all with a pre-Foucauldian musicology wedded to origins, principles, causes, lineages, genres, texts, and authors, replacing it with exciting new epistemologies of the body and ear.”

Martha Feldman, University of Chicago

“The affinities that existed in the course of the seventeenth century between the spoken theater of the commedia dell’arte and the sung theater of opera have hitherto been studied primarily with an eye to the overlapping story lines, character types, and working models employed by the acting or singing companies. Here, Wilbourne explores such affinities at a level that is both more intimate and more elusive, that of the multifarious auditory dimension of the theatrical experience, where spectators were first and foremost listeners. As a result, this book is simultaneously a brilliant exercise in sound archaeology and one in cultural anthropology.”

Lorenzo Bianconi, University of Bologna



Table of Contents

Note to the Reader 

“The Tragedies and Comedies Recited by the Zanni”

Chapter One
The Commedia dell’Arte as Theater

Chapter Two
“Ma meglio di tutti Arianna comediante”

Chapter Three
The Serious Elements of Early Comic Opera

Chapter Four
Penelope and Poppea as Stock Figures of the Commedia dell’Arte

Seventeenth- Century Opera and the Sound of the Commedia dell’Arte

Selected Bibliography

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