"The pleasure of archive work includes experiences that, we are warned, may enchant us..." - Maggie B. Gale and Anne Featherstone
The archive, as both place and concept, can be difficult to navigate. Even when the collections yield seemingly endless points of access into the past, the researcher inevitably finds the limit of the archive, and must, for better or worse, take a leap of faith into the void where an item's materiality and historicity do not resolve into an easy summation of the conditions of the object’s origin. This is not to detract from the important work which archives and archivists do in the preservation of our material culture - it is only to say that the romance and intrigue that the scholar often attributes to the archive are not implicit parts of the process. The intimacy one feels with the object of scrutiny is the result of study, not its driving force.
The limits of the archive are compounded by the particular difficulties of research in the fields of theatre and performance studies, in which texts, events and documentation coalesce to give insight into past performance events, but do not re-create them. It may even be that the emphasis on the material or textual legacy of culture diminishes the embodied and ephemeral experiences which make these items worth preserving. Diana Taylor, whose oft-cited 2003 book, The Archive and The Repertoire, establishes an interdependent, mutually enriching binary to explore the tension between what she terms the "archive (official, writerly and preserved) and the repertoire (embodied, vernacular and playful)." Even more elusive than Taylor's repertoire is the sentimental character (however abstract) we might attribute to these items. Some libretti bear marks of ownership in the form of stamps, labels, handwritten notes, or the occasional margin doodle. Some have been carefully, perhaps professionally, rebound. That these items were well cared for by the people who kept them tells us something about the place that opera held in their owners’ lives, but not necessarily about the owners themselves.
But, on occasion, the divide between past and present is mitigated and some items reveal the human connection which drove their conservation. One such example presents itself in an 1869 libretto for I Romani nelle Gallie ("The Romans in Gaul"), composed by Enrico Bernardi, with lyrics by Giovanni Inverni. As an object, there is truthfully nothing about the libretto's craftsmanship to distinguish it from many others of the same period, the book being of similar size, shape, binding style and paper quality of contemporary items. Its features are not unlike many standard libretti of the day; for example, the character list also names the performers who sang each role. Even textually, the libretto appears unremarkable. From studying the frontmatter of the libretto itself, we can see that the action is an historical narrative divided into four parts: a prologue which takes place in Britain, and three acts which take place in Orange approximately forty years before l'era volgare – that is the Common Era, distinguished in many texts as A.D. or C.E. From the list of personaggi (characters), it is apparent that some singers doubled roles in the prologue and the three acts, and that the main action concerns the past of some of the characters represented in the prologue. For example, the characters Siomara and Silvesto are siblings who, in the prologue are about seventy years old. But in the main action of the opera, Siomara is described as a beautiful Welsh woman and a freed slave, while her brother is a young Welshman in the service of Diavolo, a roman patrician.
But the feature of this libretto that catches the eyes is nothing that the composer, librettist or publisher could have ever intended. Written from one singer to another, we find on the page facing the list of characters and performers, the following inscription here roughly translated into English (click on the image at left for a larger view):
Oh! Dear Giussepina Levi, how I loved when you tried out for this Opera; don’t you remember how many times we had to make do with M. Bernardi for the sole purpose of seeing each other, and now here we are!
How I hate him. Thank you.
Milan, 7 August 1869, 6:30 PM
This brief, celebratory note, lifts the veil on the past, revealing a friendship forged in the company of a composer who is painted here as perhaps a bit too demanding of the performers interpreting his work. Whether or not Bernardi possessed as trying a personality as Vagner suggests is not for us to decide. Instead, the researcher can revel in his or her insight in to the lives of the singers who handled this libretto, and their roles, with a mutual understanding of the difficulties of their craft, and a shared sense of humor to see them through production process.
Available at the Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/iromaninellegall00bern
The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library is grateful for the funding support of The McLean Foundation which enabled the digitization of our Italian Libretti Collection.
- Laura Lucci