SALIERI: Prima la musica e poi le parole

He wanted these pieces to
entertain his guests at a party for the visiting Prince Albert of Sachsen-Teschen and
his wife, Marie Christine (Josephís sister). From stages set up at opposite ends of the
Orangerie at Schˆnbrunn, the Italian troupe performed Salieriís Prima
la musica e poi le parole
, and the German troupe put on Mozartís Der
The evening highlighted Josephís love of competition in
music: between composers, librettists, singers, and languages. Both these pieces
represent what Betzwieser calls ìmetamelodramma,î that is, an opera in which the subject
of the plot is opera itself. (I prefer John Riceís term ìself-parody.î) This is not a
new category of theater, and these are not the last examples. Benedetto Marcello poked
fun at operatic excesses in his satirical tract Teatro alla moda (1720). From
the eighteenth century there are several parody operas: Domenico Scarlattiís La
(1715), Domenico Sarriís Líimpresario delle isole Canarie
(1724), and F. L. Ga?mannís Opera Seria (Calzabigiís libretto La
critica teatrale)
, 1769; more recently, one thinks of Richard Straussís
Capriccio (1942), which was inspired by the Salieri work, and even the
likes of ìChorus Lineî and other Broadway musicals. Moreover, the debate over which
should have primacy, words or music, goes further back into the history of music:
Monteverdi clashed with Artusi over the ìprima pratticaî and ìseconda prattica,î and
Gluck endeavored to reform opera seria.

Salieriís one-act divertimento teatrale has a cast of four characters, each
depicting a player in the creation of an opera: the Maestro (bass), the Poet (bass),
Eleonora (soprano), a prima donna, representing opera seria, and Tonina
(soprano), an opera buffa singer. The plot lampoons everyone and everything in
opera production. The Poet is obliged to write his verses to music already composed by
the Maestro, who cares nothing about expressing the words in the music. Both singers try
to use unfair influence. Seria and buffa elements (normally kept
strictly apart) collide in a duet of two simultaneous arias, in which Eleonora sings
hers in the serious style and Tonina sings hers in the comic style. And so on.

Salieri was fortunate to collaborate with the skilled librettist, Giovanni Battista
Casti, whose dramaturgy easily surpasses that of Mozartís librettist, Johann Gottlieb
Stephanie. The editor observes: ìCastiís and Salieriís opera is incomparably richer in
allusion than its German counterpart.î This very genius, however, contained the seeds of
its own destruction. What was readily apparent to 18th-century Viennese audiences, but
unlikely to be perceived by todayís listeners are the musical references to and
quotations from popular operas of the time. Opera fans will recognize this technique
from the supper scene in Mozartís Don Giovanni, where the composer quotes from
operas by Martin, Sarti, and his own Figaro. In Prima la musica,
Salieri borrowed much more extensively. The editor cites three long ìcomplexes of
quotationsî from Giuseppe Sartiís Giulio Sabino, including a castrato aria
transferred here to female soprano. Thus, laden with allusions to the Viennese operatic
world and bearing myriad quotations, Salieriís opera was not ìviableî beyond the
imperial city, where it received only three more performances. This fate sets it apart
from his many operas that achieved wide-spread popularity, and made him one of the most
celebrated composers in Europe.

Despite its short run, Prima la musica represents Salieri at the height of his
musical and dramatic creativity. The score masterfully entwines the serious and comic,
taking many colorful twists and turns. The action entertains by farce, absurdity, even
slapstick. On the whole, it stands up well against the inevitable comparison with the
Mozart companion piece. (May I suggest that to solve the problem of unrecognizable
quotations we should revive Sartiís Giulio Sabino.)

Prima la musica was published in a vocal score by Schott in 1972, and it has
been revived in performance a number of times since then. Nikolaus Harnoncourt directed
a production in Vienna in 2005. The present publication is the first ìUrtextî and
critical edition. The vocal score, extracted from the critical edition, has the text in
Italian with a good singing German translation. The full score and orchestral parts are
available as rental. According to the preface to the vocal score, Betzwieser examined
all the surviving sources (the composerís autograph score and three manuscript copies),
and it seems evident from the vocal score that the edition has been carefully prepared.
This publication of Salieriís Prima la musica e poi le parole is a welcome
addition to the growing corpus of Salieriís works available in good critical editions.

Jane Schatkin Hettrick

image_description=Antonio Salieri, Prima la musica e poi le parole
product_title=Antonio Salieri, Prima la musica e poi le parole
product_by=Edited by Thomas Betzwieser, vocal score prepared by Karl-Heinz M¸ller (Kassel: B‰renreiter-Verlag, 2007)
product_id=ISBN/ISMN M-006-52155-5
BA7698 90