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University of Maryland

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Romanticism and Opera

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This essay will examine how sentimentality and its valorization of virtue spread through one particular intersection of opera and literature; that is, the seduced maiden narrative is enacted in these operas, once as a comedy of sorts, once as a tragedy. Giovanni Paisiello's "Nina" (1789) was clearly influenced by the works of Samuel Richardson and Laurence Sterne, while Fernando Paër's "Agnese" (1809) is a direct adaptation of Amelia Opie's popular novella "The Father and Daughter" (1801). Furthermore, both of the operas spin in and out of ideological orbit with Richardson's novel Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded (1740-41), which in turn was rewritten by the Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni in his dramatic adaptation Le Pamela Nubile (1753), the Irish playwright Isaac Bickerstaffe as the comic opera The Maid of the Mill (1765), and which then was later adapted and transformed by François de Neufchâteau into the opera Paméla (1793). And certainly we can detect sentimental familial concerns in Denis Diderot's dramas, particularly "Le Fils Naturel ou les épreuves de la vertu" ("The Natural Son; or, The Trials of Virtue," 1757). What I hope to suggest is that music and literature have collaborated in constructing a few fairly basic cultural scripts (domestic, familial, painful, and cathartic: recall Oedipus or Demeter/Persephone) that are then retold endlessly, continually readjusting the particulars to accommodate changing social and political conditions. Sentimentality as a value system, a potent ideology, almost a secularization of religion was spread throughout eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century European culture not simply through novels and dramas, but also by being performed in opera houses from London to Rome and Naples.


Published version. Romanticism and Opera, Praxis Series (May, 2005). Permalink. © 2005 University of Maryland. Used with permission.