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Gothic Imaginations in Primo Ottocento Opera

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posted on 2021-11-12, 00:33 authored by Chesney, Sarah

Connections between the Gothic and opera remain a subsidiary concern to most writers on the Gothic and on opera, if they are even addressed at all. In this study I wish to illuminate how the Gothic is presented both musically and visually on stage through the setting and thematic traits in select nineteenth-century Italian operas. A number of ideas are central to this aim. Firstly, that the ‘Gothic’ dimension of ‘Gothic opera’ is overtly represented through staging. The settings of many ‘Gothic operas’ in Scotland and England reveal the continental European fascination with northern Europe and its history. This stemmed from the influx of English and Scottish literature, most prominently the Ossian poems and the works of Walter Scott and Shakespeare. Consequently, Gothic scenes such as ruined medieval castles and rugged cliffs, masked by darkness or mist are enmeshed with a northern landscape. Tartan costuming also visually situates the Gothic scenes in Northern Europe. Furthermore, the use of musical mannerisms of Scotland and England, particularly in chorus scenes, reinforces this parallel between the Gothic and the north, linking music to the visible Gothic setting. Secondly, I will explore the way in which Gothic imaginings of both immaterial and physical incarnations of the supernatural move between the latent subconscious and conscious realisation. This is evident through the interplay between voice, orchestra and the singer’s corporeality and draws upon recent operatic studies concerning representation of ‘others’, dramatisation, and theatrical spaces. This second section positions women at the heart of the Gothic in opera, as the soprano is most often the character susceptible to other-worldly encounters and madness. The fundamental figure in this study is Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848). A number of his operas from the 1830s, especially Lucia di Lammermoor, emphasise how the Gothic may be revealed in opera. However, I conclude with a chapter on Macbeth, the ‘Gothic opera’ of Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), for this work demonstrates how the configuration of the Gothic is developed in musical and dramatic terms and presents a case where the supernatural influence becomes all-empowered.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Name

Master of Music

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

New Zealand School of Music


van Rij, Inge; Hudson, Elizabeth