Naughty Words

Naughty Words

By Paul Dorgan

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Tee-hee!   Busted!     I figured a catchy title would lure you here!!   I am indebted to the great Charles Dickens for his invention, in Little Dorrit, of an office that represented the worst of governmental bureaucracy.

Among my essays on Rigoletto last season was one which discussed censorship in mid-nineteenth-century Italian opera houses.     Until unified under the monarchy of King Vittorio Emmanuele in 1861, the peninsula we now know as Italy was a collection of separate kingdoms, duchies and states ruled, directly or indirectly, by foreign powers, mostly French and Austrian, with the Papal States ruled by the Pope.    Some of these political entities were more liberal than others, but all of them controlled what could be read in newspapers, and what could be seen and heard in the theatre.  

In nineteenth-century Italy the principal source of entertainment was the theatre, especially the Opera House, where evenings were as much social occasions as artistic ones.   No wonder the authorities were hawk-eyed, always on the look-out for any hint of restless "natives" conducting secret meetings during performances, or using performances to stage some kind of political protest.   (Both are perfectly portrayed in Luchino Visconti's movie Senso)     One way to lower the risk of such protests was to keep tight control over the content and the words of an opera.     Censors in the Un-unified Italy named three principal areas of possible offence: political, religious and moral.   Censorship Central distributed these rules to each sub-office, which conducted its own examinations and reported objections and proposed changes back to CC which then communicated its decision to the unfortunate librettist whose job it was to pass on that decision to the composer.     There were three steps on the path to approval.   The initial proposal to adapt a play or a novel needed a nod; some suggestions were immediately rejected.   If the subject was accepted, the librettist had to submit a scenario - a programma.       If that passed muster, the completed libretto was subjected to a scrupulous examination.

After the revolutions that swept Europe in 1848 the Austrian rulers of Venice were particularly sensitive when a libretto - Rigoletto -  included a plot to murder a king.   They also objected to the physical deformity of the title character.    Verdi compromised by demoting the King to a Duke, but refused to budge on Rigoletto's hunchback.  He won.   This was a huge triumph for a composer who opposed any kind of censorship and who fought against it as if he were a soldier in the army of liberation!   And I like to think he considered his artistic battles against Censorship as equal to the physical battles that were being fought by the troops of the Risorgimento.

Salvadore Cammarano was the resident librettist at the San Carlo theatre in Naples, a notoriously conservative kingdom .     Cammarano had a knack for neutering any subject in order to meet the approval of his censors. His first collaboration with Verdi, Alzira, - adapted from a play in which Voltaire rails against the hypocrisy of Catholicism - had had a respectable reception in Naples in 1845; La Battaglia di Legnano, with a plot that hinted at the defeat of a foreign invader, had a political success in Rome in 1849; while Luisa Miller proved a mixed bag at its premiere in Naples later the same year.   Il Trovatore was their fourth, and final, collaboration.   In a rather unusual arrangement for that time, Verdi's publisher, Ricordi, arranged for the first performance at the Teatro Apollo in Rome: it was customary for a theatre's manager to negotiate directly with the composer.   Read all about it in the Background chapter!

Rome was the capital of the Papal States, ruled by the Pope, who was not just a religious leader, but a political one as well.  No wonder the Roman censors were even pickier than their Neapolitan counterpoints.   At one point forty-one copies of a libretto had to be submitted to Censorship Central, which also vetted designs for scenery and costumes:   Heaven forfend that a combination of greens, whites and reds might suggest the colors of the flag of a united Italy!

Thanks to the custom of selling opera texts in the lobby before a performance, we know what words were deemed inappropriate for Roman ears.   Here, in all their convoluted glory, they are!

1)            Ferrando, in his story of Garcia, tells us that the gypsy-woman was wearing her magic charms as she stood over the cradle.   Rome said she "showed her evil soul."   None of this "magic" talk!!

2)            After hearing the awful story of the murder of the infant Garcia the men comment that the woman should be sent to hell.   Rome thought she should be killed without mercy.     No talk of "Hell" either!

3)            Ferrando tells his men the superstition that the condemned soul of the witch haunts the palace.   No haunting for Rome!   Instead, "the evil watcher" was "captured at the stake".   Which means, you may well ask, what!?

4)            When the men, at the end of the scene, are truly frightened by the chiming of midnight they curse the witch.  No witches in Rome!   She became a "wicked woman" , a "horrible human being", and remained un-cursed.

5)            Leonora, in her aria, was not allowed to feel a joy that only angels feels; instead she felt a joy not granted to every heart.   (Though you have to wonder how she would know that!)

6)            Manrico, in his off-stage serenade, sings that if he is loved by his love then he is greater than any king.   Rome could not allow a commoner to trump a king, so he simply became greater than any man.

7)            In Part 2, the ray of sun was not allowed to shine more brilliantly through the gypsies' wine - it merely hit it more brilliantly.   Maybe Rome was afraid the sun would become intoxicated after its passage through the alcohol!

8)            At the start of Azucena's Narration she tells Manrico that the Count accused her mother of witchcraft.   Again, no witches in Rome! So the accusation was changed to generic evilness.   And while kidnapping a child was, apparently, forbidden, it was OK for the child to die.   Rome recoiled at the statement that the campfire the audience sees is on the very spot where Mama Gypsy burned to death: the location of the "infamous stake" is un-specified.

9)            In the following duet Manrico tells of the strange voice he heard telling him to spare the Count's life.     Azucena advises him to ignore such voices in the future and to heed her words as those of a god.   Even a lower-case g was a no-no. The new text fits awkwardly on Verdi's vocal line: "Against such evil in a suspicious situation, heed my words and get rid of such evil."

10)          I'm not sure why Rome changed the letter the Messenger brings to Manrico.     The original says We have taken Castellor; by order of the Prince, you will defend it.  It became We have taken Castellor; since Urgel has not returned, you will defend it.   Perhaps they objected to a Prince leading a rebellion against a King?    They were far more concerned by the news that Leonora was planning to enter a convent to become a nun.     Rome had her flee to an impenetrably deserted place!     In the lead-up to the final section of the duet Manrico could not describe his love as "an angel" - that exclamation became "No!   It's impossible!"

11)          The second scene of Part 2 takes place, Cammarano tells us, in the cloister of a convent near Castellor.     No convents on a Roman stage!    "An ancient building near Castellor."

12)          Not content with changing the location of the scene, Rome objected to the following stage direction: odesi il rintocco de' sacri bronzi (literally: the sound of sacred bronzes [standard opera-speak for "church bells"] is heard) - "sacred" was erased!     Ferrando points out that the ceremony is about to begin; Rome said "it is time to begin."   The Count says they will abduct Leonora before she reaches the altar; Rome ordered that the abduction take place before she crosses the threshold.

13)          In his triumphant cabaletta the Count swears that no rival god can oppose him now and prevent him from abducting Leonora.     Rome's Count swore that no rival heart could oppose him, and that even the entire world could not prevent him, etc.

14)          The appearance of nuns (even if initially off-stage) caused much distress: impossible to eliminate them, or even change them into some vague non-religious sister-hood!     Cammarano had them sing vague platitudes about the world's vanity and that whoever turns to Heaven will be welcomed there.     Way too Catholically specific for Rome.   Come, they had to sing, your fate calls you to a peaceful room;   Peace, which every heart seeks, rests here at your feet.   Come now; Hope, which had died in you, will return.   Sounds like the girls are inviting her to spend a week in some New-Age-y Retreat Center in New Mexico!

15)          Leonora explains to her companions that, since her beloved is dead, she has determined to turn to God and will dedicate the rest of her life to prayer and repentance, in the hope that, when she dies, she will be reunited with her lover; so dry your tears and lead me to the altar.  Again, too specific for Rome.  I must, in this remote asylum, hide myself from any imprudent gaze; my sad days will be devoted to my lost love;   dry your tears...may my fate be accomplished.

16)          Interrupting the ceremony the Count swears he will marry her.   Rome's substitution - The only destiny for you is marriage - is actually more violent that Cammarano's original!

17)          When Azucena is captured in Part 3 she is called a witch.   At this stage of the game we know there were no witches in Rome. So she became "an evil woman".   Which, if you think about it, has been used as a euphemism for a prostitute; obviously witches rated higher on the Abomination Scale than mere whores!   Later in the scene she warns the Count that he should fear the god who protects the unfortunate.     Here lower-case g becomes a generic "heaven".   But at least the unfortunate stay protected!

18)          In the ensemble that follows the revelation that Azucena is not only the mother of Manrico, the Count's enemy, but also the daughter of the witch/evil/wicked woman who killed the Count's brother, the soldiers menacingly tell her that the flames of Hell will be her eternal funeral pyre.     Which makes sense.   Rome opted to foretell the future (which has to be a Catholic no-no):   You will see a bloody head, and your heart will be horrified by your son.   If the words hadn't been buried under the vocal lines of the Count and Azucena, the early Roman audiences would, understandably, have been mystified.   But they are, so they weren't!

19)          Yet another change of stage direction!   Cammarano sets the second scene of Part 3 in a room in the castle of Castellor, near a chapel.    No chapels on a Roman stage.   Nor no off-stage organs neither!    An alternative scoring for wind ensemble had been provided should a theatre not have an organ on hand.   Rome opted for the winds, and, just to reinforce their directive, changed the stage direction from the sound of an organ is heard from the adjacent chapel, to an offstage sound is heard.

20)          At the start of Part 4 Ruiz shows Leonora the tower where Manrico, as a prisoner of the state, must be held.   No "state prisoners" in Rome, so the unhappy prisoner was brought here; all hope has been taken from him.

21)          After Leonora's aria La Campana dei morti is heard off-stage.  No "death-knells" in Rome: a bell is heard.

22)          The offstage monks' prayer that divine mercy might save the prisoner from hell was too Catholic.    Pity, prayed the Roman monks, for him who approaches the glory of eternity.

23)          Rome didn't like the Count's admission that perhaps he abused his Prince's orders, so he justifies himself:   My severity is right...his family is evil, given to every pleasure...She loves him!...Woman, you are my misfortune!...

24)          In the following duet Leonora, desperate to save her almost-husband, offers herself to the Count:   Me stessa!   E compiere sapro la mia promessa!   ("I give myself to you!   And I know how to fulfill my promise." )   In other words, I will have sex with you.     Roman horrors at that immorality!   Take my hand (i.e. "Marry me"); I do not make vain promises.

25)          Rome did not like Leonora swearing an oath to God who sees her innermost soul, so she swore by Heaven.

26)          In the moving duet between Azucena and Manrico, he has to substitute "Heaven" for "God".   No surprise there!

27)          Leonora could not admit to taking poison.   No suicides in Rome!    Rather incoherently (which could be justified by the effect of the poison) she says It was faster than I thought it would be...I am close to death.  

28)          The Count, of course, may not refer to Leonora as an angel: here she is a beautiful soul.


So there He is - the Roman Censor in full flower!     My first reaction was disbelief that He would change some words and not others; that He would change some phrases so that they would actually be more sexually suggestive, or more violent, than either Verdi or Cammarano had intended; that He would think the audience would be so buried in their librettos reading the chorus lines of a particular scene; that they would care whether a scene is set "near a chapel", or that they're hearing an off-stage wind-band rather than an organ.     Italian audiences went to the theatre to be moved by glorious music sung well, with, maybe, a bit of political plotting thrown in at intermissions!   Reading the silliness of many of CC's objections and suggestions, one can only think that the Emperor was, to put it mildly, very short of clothes! 

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