John A. Rice
Antonio Salieri and Viennese Opera
The University of Chicago Press, 1998
The first thing to notice about John A. Rice’s richly detailed, well informed book Antonio Salieri and Viennese Opera to avoid disappointment is that this is not a biography in the strict sense of the word. Even though the name of Salieri is highlighted even in the title font in comparison to what seems merely a thing of secondary importance (Viennese Opera), actually composer and environment are two equally significant elements of the book as the life of the former is merely the thread through which the latter is developed.
Antonio Salieri and Viennese Opera does not offer a detailed account of the composer’s life. Few pieces of information are given to the reader and they are treated essentially even though not superficially: Salieri’s birth in Legnano (a small town in Northern Italy), the “adoption” on the part of composer and then Hofkappellmeister Gaussmann who was to become his teacher, his marriage, the possible affair with celebrated soprano Caterina Cavalieri.
The little concern about these aspects is due to the fact that Antonio Salieri and Viennese Opera focuses mainly on Salieri’s career and to its development in the last three decades of the 18th century, when Vienna was enthusiastic about Italian opera buffa and its protagonists.
The first chapters in particular outline the musical personality and skill of the most important singers of the time, the management of the imperial theatres and the features that differentiate Viennese opera in comparison to the executive practice of other cities and countries and, in the remainder of the book, Rice points out how things changed with each of the three Emperors for whom Salieri worked: Joseph II, who undertook the important reform of the theatre and under whose reign Salieri wrote the most substantial part of his production; Leopold II and Franz I (Franz II after the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire), who operated two reforms in contrast with that of their predecessor, causing a state of uncertainty and the change of musical tastes, influenced also by French music after Napoleon’s victories, that led to the temporary retirement and finally the departure from the scene of our composer.
Under this background, Rice analyzes Salieri’s most important operas in a specialized but not difficult way, adding several musical examples. Apart from the operas, ample space is given to Salieri’s personal relationship and musical dependence on librettists, towards whom he has always been kind even to detriment of the plot of the librettos, and on other composers, especially Gluck and Mozart.
Gluck becomes deuteragonist for Les Danaides, Salieri’s first French opera which was originally attributed to the elder composer. An entire chapter is rightly devoted to Mozart, who moreover is mentioned in several other passages where the rivalry and – more surprisingly – the musical dependence between him and Salieri is accurately discussed. The analisys of the arias that both wrote for Adriana Ferrarese, best known as the creator of the role of Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte, is extremely interesting to understand the grade of (indirect) interaction between the two composers.
Antonio Salieri and Viennese Opera is a complete, well researched book about the flourishing age of music which is known now as “the Classical period” and explores it from many perspectives, beginning with the life of one of its representative composers to widen the horizon to executive practice, audience’s tastes and interrelation between the protagonists of the time, offering a comprehensive and fascinating account.