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Ancient Rome in Early Opera. By ROBERT C. KETTERER. Urbana and Chicago: 
University of Illinois Press, 2009. Pp. 253. Cloth, $40.00. ISBN 
978–0–252–03378–0.

Order this text for $32.58 from Amazon.com 
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Previously published CJ Online reviews are at 
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CJ Online 2009.12.02

We now live in a world of academic “interdisciplinarity,” in which 
scholars bring materials or methodologies from other fields to enrich their 
own. But it remains rare for a classicist to become so deeply learned in a 
remote discipline that his or her work is taken seriously by scholars of 
that discipline. Robert Ketterer (K.), both in his earlier papers and in 
this remarkable book, has shown himself such a scholar. I have been a 
regular, even obsessive, opera-goer for the last half-century and have 
attended more than a dozen pre-Mozart operas—often in multiple 
productions—but I am in awe of K.’s vast knowledge of obscure works and 
his sensible judgments on more familiar operas. This book will be of great 
interest both to musicologists and to historians of early modern European 
history interested in the subtleties of artistic patronage and imperial 
ideology.

Perhaps fewer classicists will find Ancient Rome in Early Opera immediately 
appealing; it does not so much shed light on antiquity as demonstrate the 
enduring importance of antiquity in the cultural and political 
conversations of Europe between the Renaissance and the Age of Revolutions. 
But many classicists in recent decades have turned to Nachleben to make our 
knowledge of ancient poetry and drama, mythology and religion, sculpture 
and architecture, philosophy and political thought available to modern 
historians and literary critics. K.’s book is a splendid example of that 
worthy enterprise.

Even classicists need to know how succeeding centuries used, transformed 
and sometimes abused ancient material. Before we bluster about the 
fictional characters of Ben Hur or Maximus in Gladiator, or the inventions 
in I, Claudius or HBO Rome, it is useful to see how the librettists 
invented characters or devised happy endings (Cato spared by Julius Caesar 
in Vivaldi’s 1724 Catone in Utica) much as English actor-directors in the 
18th century tacked happy endings onto Hamlet and King Lear. Hollywood is 
certainly “inaccurate,” but it is no more disreputable than centuries 
of French tragedians, Italian librettists, English actors and Austrian 
composers who rewrote history to serve their own purposes. We should ask 
ourselves how and why this material inspired both imitation and innovation 
through the centuries.

In this book, K. examines Italian opera during the two centuries from its 
origins in Florence about 1600 until the end of the 18th century. (The 
quadricentenary of opera was celebrated at the Getty Center in Los Angeles 
in October, 2000, with a performance of the first surviving opera, Peri’s 
Euridice.) Though those Tuscan intellectuals claimed to be recreating the 
declamation and music of Greek tragedy, K. argues (as he has earlier) that 
it was ancient Rome that more truly inspired the great majority of 
librettists and composers. Not only were most of the subjects Roman, but 
the central themes of the clement prince and the quest for liberty are more 
dependent on Roman historians and Stoic philosophy than on Athenian drama. 
K. rightly identifies the Stoic themes of constancy, clemency and 
friendship as “the moral basis for eighteenth-century serious opera.” 
Even when the characters are Greeks, these and other Roman values and 
attitudes—Romanitas—inform the operas.

To most classicists, early Italian opera is (relatively) terra 
incognita—and with good reason. These works were almost universally 
ignored between 1800 and the middle of the 20th century. New York’s 
Metropolitan Opera’s excellent on-line archives reveal that in 125 years 
it has offered a single performance of Monteverdi—a concert Orfeo in 1912 
with a New York Times headline: “Primitive Opera Heard” and a review 
that mentions the audience’s bewilderment. The Met has offered no 
Cavalli, and presented no Handel operas until its 1983–1984 centennial 
season; it has since offered four. Even the revered Mozart’s opere serie 
were ignored until Idomeneo was offered (for Luciano Pavarotti) in 1982 and 
La Clemenza di Tito in 1984. Other groups, such as the Handel festival in 
Halle, Drottingham, and the Glyndebourne festival, did much to bring 
Baroque opera to wider attention. as have the recording industry and 
diligent scholars such as Winton Dean (Handel) and Ellen Rosand (Monteverdi 
and Cavalli). (Rosand, with funding from the Mellon Foundation, now directs 
the Yale Baroque Opera Project, which recently presented several evenings 
of Cavalli excerpts.) My aim in recounting this operatic history is to 
demonstrate that K. is truly at the cutting edge of research, and I hope 
that his work will inspire even more attention and even performances.

Musicologists and scholars of Italian literature will doubtless focus on 
K.’s discussions of the scores and librettos of these operas, but for 
classicists the primary interest remains how these works make use of 
ancient literary models and, indeed, ancient history. We are well aware of 
the dangerous erotic power of Dido and Cleopatra in Roman literature, but 
the other North African femme fatale and suicide, Sophonisba, wife of King 
Masinissa, features in spoken tragedies in English, French and Italian as 
well as a number of operas. This shows how the early modern dramatists 
might prefer relatively minor figues from Roman history—Otho, Berenice, 
Britannicus, Octavia—to create powerful protagonists.

K. argues well that Ovid’s image of love as a battle pervades 
Monteverdi’s treatment of Nero and Poppaea in his 1636 L’incoronazione 
di Poppea, though his claim of a Stoic program in that seemingly amoral 
opera was not entirely convincing for me. Yet one of K.’s interesting 
threads is the initial appearance of comic, even Plautine elements in 
17th-century Venetian public opera, before such elements were reduced in 
the operas for the Hapsburg court of the Holy Roman Empire, which preferred 
to see its “forbears” as moral and clement rulers. Still later, in 
Handel’s Italian operas for the London stage, comedy returns, with 
Claudius depicted in Agrippina as the stereotypical foolish Roman senex.

Since the librettists were regarded as dramatists, K. reasonably links the 
spoken plays with libretti on the same topics. An enormously popular Roman 
on the 18th-century stage was Cato the Younger. Joseph Addison’s 1713 
Cato divided the Whigs and Tories at the London performances—each 
regarded Cato as reflecting their views and the tyrannical Caesarians as 
their opponents. The Whig interpretation prevailed, and the play became 
popular among revolutionaries in Europe and America; Washington’s 
officers even performed it at Valley Forge. Metastasio’s 1723 libretto 
Catone in Utica was set by more than a half-dozen composers, including J.C. 
Bach, and played in dozens of opera houses. The temper of the time can be 
gauged by which Romans became popular on the stage.

I can hardly correct K.’s impressive knowledge of the libretti and 
operas, though I might have liked more discussion of the music. (His most 
extended musical discussion—of Handel’s Giulio Cesare—is excellent.) 
There are also occasional slips. The defeat of Hannibal at Zama is twice 
given as 203 BCE (p. 42) instead of 202 BCE, while the suicide of Cleopatra 
and the end of her reign is placed in 31 BCE (p. 43) instead of 30 BCE. 
K.’s desire to differentiate between the historical figure (“Nero” 
and “Poppaea”) and the operatic role (“Nerone” and “Poppea”) 
can be confusing. On pp. 74–5, he refers to “Claudio,” 
“Claudius,” and (twice) “Claudios”—I take these last to be typos. 
When writing for two groups of readers, it might have been clearer to 
regularize the nomenclature.

In an Epilogue, K. offers some testy comments about the 2005 Salzburg 
production of Mozart’s Lucio Silla. It is in the grand tradition of 
operaphiles to complain about unconventional stagings. I did not see Silla, 
but at the same Festival I was revolted by a production of The Magic Flute 
in which the Queen of the Night was good, and Sarastro seemed to be 
presiding over an old age home for former Nazis. So much for Mozart’s 
devotion to freemasonry. I only wish K. had told us more about other 
contemporary productions, especially those available on DVD. He briefly 
mentions Peter Sellars’ Giulio Cesare, but several other excellent 
directors (Hytner, Negrin) have updated that work to the 19th (Napoleon) or 
20th centuries. The themes of European imperialism, orientalism and racism 
certainly merit this sort of reexamination, and I imagine that K. would 
have interesting things to say.

In conclusion, this is a marvelous book and by no means a simple survey of 
obscure material. I have mentioned K.’s arguments about the effect of 
Stoicism. Particularly interesting is his discussion of how two popular 
themes—the myth of the clement prince and the myth of liberty—both 
contradict and reinforce each other. This dramatic conflict was often 
reconciled by imperial generosity. Dramatists and composers moved between 
tragedy and happy endings as changing aesthetics and political developments 
challenged the older conventions of opera seria. K. shows how the rise of 
the chorus is an indication of democratic stirrings as the Age of 
Revolutions approached. K. has performed a signal service in bringing his 
classical knowledge to the attention of musicologists, and his musical 
perceptiveness to the community of classicists.

RONALD MELLOR
University of California, Los Angeles
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