Monday, October 08, 2007


Bel paese (dove il sì non suona)

As reported in a recent post, it appears the British are now the cooks of Europe so in terms of the old joke we must have died and gone to hell. Here in hell, it seems, Italian opera is not sung in Italian:
To celebrate the 300th anniversary of the homegrown playwright Carlo Goldoni's birth, La Fenice opera house decided to throw a very lavish birthday celebration: it commissioned an opera ...

One controversy surrounding the new opera: the libretto, oddly, is in English, a choice that irritated some critics. "Here we are at the Fenice reliving Goldoni's theater with subtitles," sniffed one snide review in the daily Il Giornale
Here is that snide review:
Carlo Goldoni compie trecent'anni, e nella sua Venezia si rappresenta una nuova opera per lui. In inglese: il musicista Luca Mosca e il librettista Gian Luigi Melega ritengono che sia la lingua più musicale. Ostrega (non so come si dica in inglese). E così eccoci alla Fenice a rivivere il teatro di Goldoni con sopratitoli
So surtitles of course and not subtitles (sniff). What is striking though is the assertion by the composer and the librettist - Italians both - that English is the more musical language (as if that were the reason they had chosen it!), an idea even more repugnant to tradition than the idea that cooking is best done by the British.

The great Mozart-Da Ponte collaborations - Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte - were written and performed in Italian for what were presumably German-speaking audiences (in Vienna and Prague). And no sub-, sur- or inter-titles back then. I wonder if Da Ponte, who ended up spending the latter part of his life in 'Anglo-Saxon countries', was also impressed by the greater musicality of English and came to regret having written his masterpieces in Italian.

The IHT article continues:
"I know, I know, so what," said Melega, who said that English is more rhythmic than Italian and so more appropriate for Mosca's intricate music ... Today's lingua franca is English, noted Melega adding that he hoped his choice would "help the opera travel outside of Italy, to Anglo-Saxon countries."
Which makes you wonder why he didn't write the thing in Anglo-Saxon. In any case, opera audiences in English-speaking countries have never been allergic to foreign language productions (unlike anglophone cinema-goers, say) and the advent of surtitles has more or less put the kibosh on the cause of the vernacular. An Italian audience, on the other hand (and the opera in question was commissioned for such an audience - and may never have any other), is accustomed to hearing Italian opera in Italian and would therefore be far more likely to be alienated by an English text than an anglophone audience by an Italian one. And so it proved in the event, going by the Il Giornale reviewer at least.

On the subject of hell (and what is eaten there), mention should be made of Canto XXXIII of Dante's Inferno, and the grisly tale of Count Ugolino. It includes the famous line in which Italy is for the first time referred to as the bel paese:
Ahi Pisa, vituperio de le genti
del bel paese là dove 'l sì suona,
poi che i vicini a te punir son lenti,
muovasi la Capraia e la Gorgona,
e faccian siepe ad Arno in su la foce,
sì ch'elli annieghi in te ogni persona.
For which I have found the following translation:
Oh Pisa, shame of those who live in the beautiful land where «yes» is sì, since your neighbors are slow in punishing you, may (the isles of) Capraia and Gorgona move to bar the Arno at its mouth so that it drowns everyone within you.
It is also the first time, according to this page, that Romance languages were distinguished according to their words for 'yes':
Au Moyen Âge, Dante est le premier à avoir employé le terme de lingua d’oco. Il opposait l’appellation langue d’oc (occitan) à langue d'oïl (le français et ses dialectes) et à la langue de si (l’italien, sa langue maternelle). Il se basait sur la particule servant à l’affirmation : dans la première, oui se dit òc, mais oïl dans la seconde, et si dans les dialectes italiens. Les trois termes viennent du latin : hoc pour le premier, hoc ille pour le second et sic pour le troisième.
The same source notes that Dante includes a passage of original Occitan in Canto XXVI of the Purgatorio:
'Tan m' abellis vostre cortes deman,
Que jeu nom' puesc ni vueill a vos cobrire;

Jeu sui Arnaut, que plor e vai chantan;
Consiros vei la passada folor,
E vei jauzen lo jorn qu' esper denan.

Ara vus prec per aquella valor,
Que vus condus al som de la scalina,
Sovenga vus a temprar ma dolor.

In Longfellow's translation:
So pleases me your courteous demand,
I cannot and I will not hide me from you.
I am Arnaut, who weep and singing go;
Contrite I see the folly of the past,
And joyous see the hoped-for day before me.
Therefore do I implore you, by that power
Which guides you to the summit of the stairs,
Be mindful to assuage my suffering!
The Ugolino story is also told (more musically no doubt) in The Monk's Tale, although Chaucer refers to Dante for a fuller account:

Of this tragedy it ought enough suffice
Whoso will hear it in a longer wise,
Reade the greate poet of ltale,
That Dante hight, for he can it devise
From point to point, not one word will he fail.

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