When in Rome do as the Romans do. But what do they listen to?

Roger Hillman   Australian National University

So, imagine you’re Woody Allen, about to make a film about Rome, in the wake of  other takes of an outsider on Barcelona and Paris. The last in particular had lots of music, crucial for the atmosphere and the sense of history. What musical choices do you make for Rome? How much do they overlap with what Woody actually chose, especially with the song that bookends the film? What is the going stereotype of music in Italy? What point has been reached by the reception history of popular song, opera, and especially perhaps of something in between, music of Rota and Morricone? Does Italy still sing?

Another vantage point: next year is the bicentenary of Verdi’s birth. But also of Wagner’s. There’s little available that directly links them these days, but Peter Conrad’s recent book  is a good start. While the conferences devoted to either Wagner or Verdi proliferate, a few weeks ago there seemed to be but one combining them, in Belgium in April… Is it still possible or meaningful to play the two off against each other?

Or does a contemporary globetrotting opera fan go for both Verdi and Wagner, unproblematically? (And maybe not even globetrot, but consume them via Opera from the Met screenings.) Does Verdi, other than with a museum-like sense of nostalgia, retain any of his Risorgimento thrust? Is he (still) regarded more highly than Rossini, Puccini, Donizetti or Bellini? Does Monteverdi sound the most modern of them all?

Beyond screenings from the Met, film is one channel for encountering classical composers, and of course home ground for the Rotas and Morricones. What is/can be achieved by citing Italian music in an Italian film? And in non-Italian film? Has it ceased to be a national marker in any sense? If your answer to that is ‘yes’, what are we to make of the brief but significant excerpts from Aida and Tosca in a very recent film, Bellocchio’s Vincere?

Whatever you do, don’t just scratch your head at all these questions, but go wash your hair under the shower. And don’t give up singing in the shower, to perpetuate the grand narrative…

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2 thoughts on “When in Rome do as the Romans do. But what do they listen to?

  1. DM says:

    By the way, for all those interested in following up some of the background to the issues Roger raises, the Special Issue of the Journal of Modern Italian Studies 17 (4) 2012, ‘Opera and Nation in Nineteenth-Century Italy’ has a mass of interesting material on the political, cultural and economic aspects of music and theatre as well as an interrogation of Verdi’s status as a key inspiration for the Risorgimento.

  2. DM says:

    Is it still meaningful to play off Wagner against Verdi?, Roger asks. Here’s the answer from La Scala where the decision to inaugurate the musical year with Lohengrin by Wagner rather than a work by local hero Verdi has provoked a storm. “This choice is a smack for Italian art, a blow for national pride in a moment of crisis,” Milan’s daily newspaper, Corriere della Sera, declared, claiming there was disquiet in the orchestra at La Scala, where Verdi made his professional debut. “Would the Germans have inaugurated a Wagnerian year with a work by Verdi?” And when Italians feel the austerity they are now enduring as the consequence of policies dictated from Berlin, old cultural oppositions get a renewal of energy.

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