The Institute of Musicology

Dissertationsprojekt von Alessandro Lattanzi

Staging the War: Music, Drama, and the Representations of War at the Royal Theatre in Naples, 1737–1818

Operas performed at the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples in the eighteenth century famously included elaborate battle scenes, variously called ‘battimento’, ‘abbattimento’, or ‘zuffa’, which had the double advantage of being performed by professional soldiers on a stage that, at the time, was the largest in Europe. Archival evidence shows how colossal and ubiquitous such features had become during a century that, paradoxically, saw fifty years of uninterrupted peace between the Battle of Velletri in 1744 and the adhesion of the Kingdom of Naples to the First Coalition in 1793. In fact, military bands appeared on the San Carlo operatic stage throughout the century. The earliest examples date back to the old San Bartolomeo theatre, where onstage bands consisting of oboes, horns, and bassoon were used as early as the 1710s. After the opening of the new Theatre Royal in 1737, with a stage that was 33 metres wide and 24.7 metres deep, the display of regimental bands, troops of the Royal Guard, and sometimes even real cavalry units, became an essential ingredient of opera seria performances.

The research project aims at a better understanding of the performance as a text or macrotext (M. De Marinis): a multilayer sign system which is defined by a multiplicity of semiotic codes that function concurrently. This approach takes improves on previous attempts to study this phenomenon in two critical ways. Earlier studies employ a text-centered approach, either literary or musical, focusing only on stage directions in the libretto or on the music for marches and abbattimenti in the score. Secondly, they made no serious effort to identify the specific code in use, that is, a set of military conventions we have no more familiarity with, and without which no communication of meaning would be possible. To explore these meanings, I use a variety of evidence from diverse sources: scores, librettos, archival documents, and contemporary accounts such as descriptions by travellers, contracts requiring the players to perform music on stage if requested, and records of payment to swordmasters, regimental bands, and extras. A historical survey of military music in the Kingdom of Naples will be added as well as a description of the formations and manoeuvres used in battle and on the march, and deployed on stage for the audience’s pleasure.

Apart from the grandeur and realism frequently praised by foreign visitors who were accustomed to inept and ridiculous stage battles, most of those scenes did not differ dramaturgically from earlier examples of onstage music, which was already a favourite device of Baroque theatre. It was only with a new dramaturgy of theatrical space, emerging from around the 1780s and moving towards an increased integration between music, action, and mise-en-scène, that war scenes took new paths. The final step in this development came with Rossini’s Ricciardo e Zoraide, first performed at the San Carlo in 1818 and building on a centennial local tradition.