Operas performed at the Teatro 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 upon a stage that, at the time, was the largest in Europe. Evidence shows how colossal and ubiquitous such features had become during a century that, paradoxically, saw fifty-five years of uninterrupted peace between the Treaty of Vienna in 1738 and the adhesion of the Kingdom of Naples to the First Coalition in 1793. Against this background, it will come as no surprise that military bands made continuous appearances on the San Carlo 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. It was, however, after the building of the new Theatre Royal in 1737, with its 33 metre wide, 24.7 metre deep stage, that the display of regimental bands, troops of the Royal Guard, and not infrequently cavalry units as well, became an essential ingredient of opera seria performances.
The research project aims at a better understanding of the performance as a text—in De Marinis’ words, the macrotext: a multilayer sign system, as defined by a multiplicity of semiotic codes acting concurrently. Previous attempts to study this phenomenon failed at two critical points. Firstly, they employed a text-centered approach, either literary or musical, focusing only on the stage directions of the libretto or 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. For this aim, a variety of evidence from a diversity of sources will be used: 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 will also be given of the military music in the Kingdom of Naples, as well as a description of the formations and manoeuvres used in battle and on the march, and replayed on stage for the audience’s pleasure.
Apart from the grandeur and realism so praised by foreign visitors, accustomed to mock battles all too often made ridiculous by their theatrical representations, 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 a new path was opened to warlike scenes. For the next and final step in this development, one must wait for Rossini’s Ricciardo e Zoraide, first performed at the San Carlo in 1818 and built on a centennial local tradition.