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Whose politics matter?
Examining the past in Music in Fascist Italy 1922-1943, we find that the Mussolini-supporting poet Gabriele D’Annunzio’s boosting of Claudio Monteverdi in the early 1900s was rather better than the specious claim, long disproven, that the Italian dictator made trains run on time in his country. Of course, Monteverdi was indeed worthy of his revival during the Fascist era and since.

Another, potentially more perplexing, implication is that opera composers who collaborate with evil empires suffer more, in posterity’s view, than singers. Music in Fascist Italy 1922-1943, by two musicologists teaching in France, follows up on Harvey Sachs’s Music in Fascist Italy (Norton, 1988) and Fiamma Nicolodi’s Music and Musicians in the Fascist Era (Musica e musicisti nel ventennio fascista, in Italian, Discanto, 1984) to explore this paradox. Composers such as Pietro Mascagni (Cavalleria Rusticana) and Umberto Giordano (Andrea Chenier) are still linked in the popular press with their kowtowing to Mussolini, even if the choral odes they wrote to glorify Il Duce gather dust.

Italian Fascist composers less solidly anchored in international theatre schedules remain in a kind of purgatory. La fiamma (1934), the most celebrated of Ottorino Respighi’s many operas, is largely forgotten, while other composers whose fame never extended beyond Italy, such as Giuseppe Mulè (1885-1951), are condemned to obscurity. Some of Mulè’s chamber works, showing interesting sound textures and musical astuteness, have attracted performers in recent years, but his seven operas remain overlooked.

Possibly because Mulè actively served Mussolini as national secretary of the musician’s union, which he represented in parliament from 1929 until the fall of Fascism, he is considered persona non grata. Like Mulè and serving alongside him in the Fascist parliament, Adriano Lualdi (1885-1971), who wrote several operas, has also not been a priority for revivals.

The public and corporate funding required for staging operas today may add a certain inadvertent politically conscious vetting to the process of repertory choice. Still, overall, operas survive if their music is good, not because of good intentions. So Luigi Dallapiccola's Il prigioniero (The Prisoner) which he began writing before the war was over, is admired for its intrinsic qualities, not its anti-Fascist stance. And the chamber opera Satyricon (1973) by Bruno Maderna, an anti-Nazi partisan who survived a concentration camp, has been rediscovered because of its composer’s talent, not his wartime heroism.

Yet listeners who relish historical recordings of singers manifestly care little that the lyric tenor Beniamino Gigli curried favour with Mussolini and Hitler as well. While the baritone Titta Ruffo, a vocal anti-Fascist who was arrested in 1937 for his opposition to Mussolini, is remembered, insofar as he is, quite apart from his heroism. Perhaps less is expected of singers as mere temporal performers, unlike composers who supposedly write for future audiences? Unlike opera singers or conductors, who require employment by ensembles for basic survival, composers may be expected to carry on exercising their art in garrets, as indeed several of them did, until the horrors of contemporary history pass by. Ginot-Slacik and Niccolai implicitly remind us that even now, opera world professionals may be confronted with parallel choices. How personal morality mixes with music remains an open question for operaphiles.

Benjamin Ivry Read the full review on Agora Classica

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