Comala and Nina: Operatic Performance in the Age of Sensibility

This scholarly symposium, which takes place in Vadstena on 6 August, is organised by the research group Performing Premodernity on the occasion of the Vadstena Academy’s double-bill production of two little known Italian operas: Pietro Morandi’s Comala (Naples? 1780) and the one-act version of Giovanni Paisiello’s Nina o sia La pazza per amore (Naples 1789). The symposium centres on the issues of sentimental dramaturgy and vocal-dramatic performance practice in Italian opera in the decades up to the French Revolution. Comala and Nina can both be described as ‘avant-garde’ works in this regard. With a shared focus on the two works, a number of international scholars will explore the relationship between cultural and aesthetic theory, dramaturgy and audience involvement from the perspectives of different disciplines (comparative literature, theatre studies and musicology), examining such questions as: how can we describe and understand the aesthetic effect of these operas? How do the dramaturgical innovations affect performance practice? How are the artistic developments related to tendencies within the aesthetic, psychological and social theories of the Late Enlightenment? How may the operas throw light on the cultural climate of the 1770s and 80s?


Vadstena Klosterhotel, Saturday, 6 August 2016, 9:30-17:30, in the “Konvent” room. Free entrance.


9:30. Welcome.
9:45. Lucio Tufano: “Tears for Nina: Emotion and Compassion, from the Stage to the Audience”.
10:45. Tea and coffee.
11:00. Carola Bebermeier: ““Pazza per amore”: Connections between Madness and Sensibility in the Eighteenth Century and in Giovanni Paisiello’s Nina”.
12:00. Lunch
13:30. Howard Gaskill: “Why Ossian? Why Comala?”
14:30. Break.
14:45. Magnus Tessing Schneider: “Staging Obscurity: The Transformation of Ossian in Ranieri de’ Calzabigi’s Comala”.
15:45. Tea, coffee and cake.
16:15. Panel debate. Moderator: Mark Tatlow.
17:30. Conclusion.

For further details, please write to Magnus Tessing Schneider

Speakers and abstracts:

1. LUCIO TUFANO – PhD, musicologist, independent scholar, Naples (Italy)

Tears for Nina: Emotion and Compassion, from the Stage to the Audience

A recurrent feature in the reception of Giovanni Paisiello’s Nina o sia La pazza per amore (1789) is the strong empathic involvement of the audience. The masterpiece of the Italian composer seems to have the power to move male and (mainly) female listeners, producing reactions such as tears and emotionality. The paper will try to isolate and discuss the different elements that contribute to this effect (from the simplicity of the plot to the musical delineation of the different characters), in the light of the most recent acquisitions in the field of neuroscience.

2. CAROLA BEBERMEIER – PhD, research assistant, Musikwissenschaftliches Institut, Universität zu Köln (Germany)

“Pazza per amore”: Connections between Madness and Sensibility in the Eighteenth Century and in Giovanni Paisiello’s Nina

The eighteenth century was not only the century of reason, but also of a heightened subjectivity and individuality. Seemingly in opposition — but in fact closely related — to the Enlightenment, the ‘sensibility’ movement influenced the scientific and artistic innovations of the late eighteenth century. The emphasis on introspection and self-reflection led to an increasing interest in the inner life of the soul, which motivated research into mental conditions and diseases. This process ended in a wave of psychiatric reforms and in the improvement of the nurturing and medical care of the mentally ill. The paper will situate Paisiello’s opera Nina o sia La pazza per amore in this cultural context, and analyse the translation of Nina’s madness into music in her grand aria.

3. HOWARD GASKILL – PhD, Honorary Fellow, School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, University of Edinburgh (UK)

Why Ossian? Why Comala?

The publication of James Macpherson’s Ossianic poetry in the 1760s proved to be a sensation of the first order, exerting an extraordinary (and by no means short-lived) impact all over Europe and beyond. This paper will look at some of the reasons for Ossian’s near-universal appeal, not the least of it being its intrinsic literary qualities. A purportedly ancient work, it served to promote innovation, particularly in Germany, the true home of Romanticism, but also in Italy where Melchiorre Cesarotti’s celebrated translation (1763) provided a shot in the arm for Italian poetic diction. However, Macpherson’s protean creation also appealed, in Italy as elsewhere, to those of a more conservative bent. Comala, the first of the shorter poems in the original English editions, came to be particularly popular in various incarnations, including the musical stage.

4. MAGNUS TESSING SCHNEIDER – PhD, postdoctoral fellow, Performing Premodernity (Denmark/Sweden)

Staging Obscurity: The Transformation of Ossian in Ranieri de’ Calzabigi’s Comala

One of the most radical theatre makers of his century, Calzabigi is primarily known for his collaboration with Christoph Willibald Gluck. In 1774, he turned from the Greek and Roman classics to Ossian, however, converting the ‘dramatic poem’ Comala into an opera libretto, which was set to music in 1780 by Pietro Morandi, in strict accordance with the principles of the Gluck-Calzabigi reform. Unlike many contemporaries, the poet seems to have regarded the Ossianic Comala as essentially a closet drama, unfit for theatrical representation, seeing it as necessary to rethink the work fundamentally to make it stageworthy while preserving what he called the “sublime but savage” quality of Ossian’s poetry. The latter is reflected in a manifest sense of non-communication and psychological obscurity, which was hardly compatible with the operatic conventions of the time.

11th June 2016