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Subject: Prim'uomo and masculinity displays on the operatic stage (by non-trouser roles)
From: J L Speranza <[log in to unmask]>
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Date:Mon, 24 Oct 2011 11:25:46 -0400
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I have NOT been following this thread on the 'assoluto'/'assoluta', as I  
should.

But I'll quote from Isaac Alan in his post "primo uomo":  

"The terms Prima Donna and 'Primo Uomo', are old theatrical terms for  the 
leading female and the leading male respectively."

I would NOT be  surprised if back in London at the Haymarket (Mercato di 
Fieno) there was the  extra category: 'first castrato'. 

"Prima Donna Asolutta, was the title  given to the Prima Donna who was 
considered the best of the best. This was not  restricted to her ability to sing 
any given role, or indeed an ability to sing  well at all! The Prima Donna 
Asolutta had merely to be the companies biggest  draw card to earn the 
title. My guess is that these categories of supposed  ability to sing specific or 
both dramatic and lyric/comic roles, were imposed  much later in theatrical 
history. Dame Nellie Melba was considered Prima Donna  Asolutta at Covent 
Garden, where a sign used to hang back stage reading  "Silence!" when ever 
she was in the cast, and the township of Ballarat,  Victoria, had the town 
hall bell stopped by Mayoral decree, so as not to disturb  her sleep.  I 
imagine her echoing the words of  Othello "Silence that  dreadful bell.""

I agree. Of course 'absolute' is too philosophical a  term to be allowed 
theatrical (less so, operatic) usage! I think it is KANT, who  refers to 
things as being either 'absolute' (i.e. disoluted from everything) or  
'relative'. Surely to call someone a 'relative soprano' would be offensive --  but 
cfr. Woody Allen's current hit at Broadway, "Relatively Speaking".  

Then there's the confusion with the 'prima assoluta', which is just a  
premiere. I never liked the term. I can stage an opera, and call it "Prima  
assoluta", meaning, the first ever. And then, it happens to be a 'one-night  
stand'. So, the idea that something which is 'prima assoluta' will have other  
'prima's which won't be assolute is ridiculous (etymologically: risible).  

------ First man (primo uomo), with the introduction of the castrato,  
makes it for further confusion. I've been studying the role of Ippolito in early 
 opera. This is a MASCULINE lead, of course. Yet, surely in the earliest 
operas  on this, he was played by either a soprano or a castrato (alto). 

On top  of that, I follow the Handelian later practice (by Handelians, 
rather than  Handel his-self) to reset all parts which were sung by castrati or 
sopranos to  tenor. 

But I agree with I. Alan that a theatrical company needs  ordering, and by 
having people named, "first", "second" (cfr. primary,  co-primary, 
secondary), absolute, and relative, allows for budget considerations  ("He treated me 
like a 'primary', while my wife thinks I'm secondary', and so  on).
 
There are many references to 'prim'uomo' in the literature, but alas, they  
refer to Adam. By the same token, the prima donna assoluta must have been 
Eva.  

Cheers,

Speranza

Refs:

The Letters of Wolfgang  Amadeus Mozart Vol.1. - Page 14
books.google.comWolfgang Amadeus Mozart  - 2004 - 192 pages - Preview
She does not sing as well as she acts, and is  the wife of a violin−player 
at the opera. Her name is Masci. The opera was the  "Clemenza di Tito." 
Seconda donna not ugly on the stage, young, but nothing  superior. Primo uomo, 
un musico, ...

More editions

Mozart's operas  - Page 306
books.google.comDaniel Heartz, Thomas Bauman - 1992 - 363  pages - Preview
Only the prima donna and the primo uomo are allowed to sing  rondos, a type 
of piece that had quite clearly become the favorite showpiece of  Italian 
opera. Manfredini, in his Difesa della musica moderna (1785), gives an  apt 
definition of ...

More editions

The life of Mozart: including  his correspondence - Page 63
books.google.comEdward Holmes - 1854 - 379  pages - Full view
The opera is ' La Clemenza di Tito.'* Seconda donna, young  and pretty on 
the stage, but nothing out of the way. Primo uomo, musico,  Cicognani, pretty 
voice, and beautiful cantabile. The other two musici, young  and passable. 
...

More editions

Arias for Nancy Storace: - Page  xi
books.google.comDorothea Link, Anna Selina Storace - 2002 - 122  pages - 
Preview
23 She was obviously on friendly terms with the castrato, for  she 
participated in a concert for him at the Hanover Square Rooms on 1 June  1789.24 
This piece is a large-scale bravura aria in white-note style for the  primo 
uomo in opera ...



The operas of Leonardo Vinci, Napoletano  - Page 165
books.google.comKurt Sven Markstrom - 2007 - 394 pages -  Preview
... is deliberating whether "1 In Porpora's Ezio, all of Grimaldi 's  
arias, with one exception, are conceived in a concise declamatory manner without  
coloratura or opening ritornellos quite unexpected for the primo uomo role 
in an  opera ...

More editions

The new Grove dictionary of music and  musicians: Volume 19 
books.google.comStanley Sadie, John Tyrrell -  2001 - 942 pages - No preview

More editions

The opera industry in  Italy from Cimarosa to Verdi: the role of ... - Page 
 62
books.google.comJohn Rosselli - 1984 - 214 pages - Preview
...  Naples (San Carlo and Fondo) monthly monthly annual annual (ducats) 
(francs)  (ducats) (francs) pet perform - (francs) 2.886 2.340 1.638 12.265 
9.945 6.962  70.000 36.000 424 pd = prima donna : pu = primo uomo (castrato) : 
t = tenor:  ...

More editions

The opera
books.google.comJoseph  Wechsberg - 1972 - 312 pages - Snippet view
Front and centre was reserved for  the primo uomo and the prima donna. The 
left side was considered superior to the  right side. Metastasio sometimes 
wrote exactly where and how the singers should  be placed. Opera ...



Stories by Foreign Authors - Page  145
books.google.com - Preview
He lived alternately in Italy and  Portugal, and wrote several operas. X 
Literally, " The slave of a primo uomo"  primo uomo being the masculine form 
corresponding to prima donna, that is, a  singer of hero's parts in operatic 
music. ...

More editions

The  Oxford illustrated history of opera
books.google.comRoger Parker - 1994  - 541 pages - Snippet view
Leopold reinstated both opera seria and ballet at  the Burg- theater as he 
had known and cultivated them while Grand Duke ... the  number of exit arias 
has dwindled and in the penultimate scenes the primo uomo  and prima donna 
each sings a ...

More editions
 

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