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At first sight nineteenth century Italian opera was less prone to local adaptation and revision, after all Donizetti and Verdi wrote their own revisions for the Paris Opera. But divas and divos routinely substituted arias of their own choosing, and most operas developed 'traditional' cuts and transpositions. One curiosity is Bellini's Capuletti e Montecchi in which the end of the tomb scene was often replaced by a specially composed scene by Vaccai so that contraltos could more easily sing Romeo. But perhaps this could be regarded as a larger scale example of a diva bringing her own arias. In some operas, the tradition of replacing arias survived into the twentieth century. For instance the lesson aria in Rossini's Il Barbieri di Siviglia was often removed in favour of a novelty item suitable for the diva.
By the time we reach the late nineteenth century, the cult of the artist and the tendency to write everything down mean that operas are far less prone to local adaptation and revision; though the issue of cuts, both traditional and non-traditional, could perhaps be regarded as an extension of this.
But some artists have suffered from or benefited from well-meaning adaptation of their work. Mussorgsky's Boris Godounov was performed in Russia in the 1870s during the composer's lifetime. But the work only became well known in the west in a version made by Rimsky-Korsakov after the composer's death in 1881. This version was made to adapt the distinctive genius of Mussorgsky to prevailing taste. In the case of Boris Goudonov, Rimsky-Korsakov was adapting a finished work and we can now perform Mussorgsky's original. But in the case of other operas by Mussorgsky (Khovanschina and Sorochintsy Fair) and Borodin (Prince Igor), the incompleteness of the operas means that we can only ever know them in versions adapted and completed by other hands. Borodin's Prince Igor was completed by a number of his friends and the version of the overture that has come down to us is a result of these friends remembering what Borodin had played to them but failed to write down.
Copyright © 22 January 2004
Robert Hugill, London UK