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Faculty of Music


Prof. Emanuele Senici (La Sapienza)

Leverhulme Lecture

Dancing Divas: La Sonnambula on Video in 1950s Italy

1950s Italy was an extraordinarily fertile ground for opera on video. The first half of the decade saw the release of several films of repertory works, while in 1954 Italian state television began studio broadcasts of up to a dozen operas a year. Television also ventured into theaters for live relays: the first time it ‘conquered the bastion’ of La Scala – to echo the media discourse on the event – was in May 1955 for a new production of La Sonnambula staged by Luchino Visconti, conducted by Leonard Bernstein and starring Maria Callas. Significantly, La Sonnambula was also one of the very few operas to have been both filmed (in 1952, featuring Paola Bertini lip-synching to the voice of Fiorella Ortis) and broadcast from TV studios (in 1956, with Anna Moffo). These three Sonnambulas, differently re-mediated, together afford a prime opportunity to observe opera on video from a perspective both historical and comparative – still an unusual conjunction for this kind of study.

Taking my cue from recent work concerning opera on film and television (Esse, Morris, Ward-Griffin, Will), I will focus on a particular issue of remediation: the widely different ways in which these videos acknowledge or disavow the theatrical origins of the opera. Most curious in this sense yet common to these three Sonnambulas is their significant interpolation of dances, often involving the prima donna. I will consider the function of new ‘dance numbers’ within the dramaturgy of the videos to reveal them as both marks and means of the processes of remediation. Placing these numbers in the context of dance in Italian film and television of the 1950s will then facilitate exploration of their cultural resonances with other screen genres, particularly the television variety show. This recontextualization will prompt wider reflections on the new kind of physical demands placed on singers, especially female singers, by the incorporation of dance, and, more broadly, on the social and cultural reconfiguration of their bodies promoted by the ever more widespread videoing of opera in the postwar period, both in Italy and beyond.

Emanuele Senici is Professor of Music History at the University of Rome La Sapienza and Leverhulme Visiting Professor in the Cambridge Music Faculty between January and May 2023. His research centres on Italian opera of the long nineteenth century, on the theory and historiography of opera (especially issues of genre and gender), and on opera on video. His recent publications include the monograph Music in the Present Tense: Rossini's Italian Operas in Their Time (University of Chicago Press, 2019). A co-edited collection entitled Vincenzo Bellini on Stage and Screen, 1935–2020 is forthcoming from Bloomsbury.

Wednesday, 25 January, 2023 - 17:00 to 18:30
Event location: 
Recital Room, Faculty of Music