La Vittoria della Forma sulla Sostanza

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Don Iolio Contrario in a detail from Birgit von Sachsen-Rampton’s portrait

Otto Büchstein’s obscure tragicomic opera La Vittoria della Forma sulla Sostanza[1] is an obscure and now largely forgotten portent of the forthcoming mechanization of the enlightened world. It was hampered on premiere by what theatre-goers found to be a plainly fantastical plot, but more critically was wounded by a brace of especially turgid arias either side of the interval.

It was translated into English by a theatre-loving commercial attorney, Francis Coward-Chance, whose flimsy grasp of Italian metaphor was surpassed only by his hideous English prose.


Argumentative young Venetian fellow-about-town Don Iolio Contrario is employed as an operations manager by his father Don Figaro Contrario in his struggling spice brokerage.

Being obsessed with cost control and anxious to be seen as a great financial innovator, Don Figaro has invested in a “homunculus”, a steam-powered computation machine which will take over the role of the brokers at a fraction of the cost, and with far greater speed and accuracy. But, Don Iolio says, surely you know, spice broking is a complex business, and no mechanical contraption could possibly replace the skill or judgment of an experienced broker? The machine will be hopeless, and a far greater burden on his operation than any benefit it could possibly bring: “Quella macchina parlante ottusa![2]

Don Figaro, a vain and stupid man, is exasperated at his errant son and chides him for his romantic and impractical world-view. By way of punishment he consigns Don Iolio to work in the boiler-room among the brokers. In the rousing[3] aria Niente malattia! Niente vacanze! Niente ora di pranzo![4] Don Figaro, alone on stage, wails, “There you will see how valuable these good-for-nothing spice merchant are! They waste my money! They occupy my valuable resources! My new homunculus will not get sick! It will take no vacations! It will take no lunch-breaks!”

Disregarding Don Iolio’s warnings, Don Figaro rushes in, impulsively, securing the homunculus, so he thinks, before his devious rival Don Inago Montega can get it. But Don Inago has tricked Don Figaro into a buying the machine, for which he takes out a long-term loan, from Don Inago, at usurious prices. Don Inago has configured it to perform badly and to cripple Don Figaro's business.

Don Iolio descends into the brokerage’s dungeon workhouse. There he meets and falls in love with an enchanting brokeress. She tells him her name is Iolande Impulsivia. In fact, Iolande is the wayward daughter of Don Inago, his father’s bitterest enemy. She has run away from her dreadful scheming father and his colossal wife, aspiring opera diva Grünhilde.

With great fanfare Don Figaro takes delivery of the machine, which to everyone’s surprise, works - but only because Iolande and Don Iolio are standing behind the machine ensuring it works and checking everything. It is her brilliant accounting and dextrous handling of exceptions and unexpected use-cases which creates the illusion that machine is a success.

Don Inago sees the machine is working, to his horror, and tries to renege on his loan. Don Figaro orders another machine, but to pay for it, must make Don Iolio and Iolande redundant. I have solved the problem of employees. Little does Don Figaro know!

In a wrenching[5] aria Sono Condannato a Essere un Esperto in Materia [6], Iolande, cast adrift from the firm, drifts aimlessly around the canals of Venice clutching her Iron Mountain box, tearing out hanks of her hair and pondering whether there is any future to her life at all: O, diabolica calamità![7].

At the same time Don Iolio, locked in his father’s operations room, ineffectually rails against the stupidity of his father’s fashionable ideas (his song is Il mondo ha una merda per i cervelli[8]). He can only watch as the homunculus, without Iolande to prop it up, starts writing all kinds of contract notes on spices that don’t even exist. It is a disaster and drives Don Figaro to the brink of ruin. Finally, he comes to understand his folly (O! Consulente di Gestione Scioccca! [9] and realising only Iolande can stop this blessed machine and save his family from total ruin, he sends out Don Figaro to find her.

Find her he does, floating face-down in the Canale Grande at San Marco Basilica.

See also


  1. The Victory of Form over Substance
  2. “That dim-witted chatbot!”
  3. Buchstein meant it to be rousing, but contemporaneous records suggest audiences found it too loud, rather tuneless and a bit repetitive.
  4. “No sickness! No holidays! No lunch-hours!”
  5. Intended to be wrenching, but described as “clanking and discordant, redolent of a fist-fight among ironmonger’s apprentices” by noted critic Ingeborg Von Kleine-Scheidegg.
  6. "I am condemned to be a subject matter expert"
  7. “O! hellish calamity!”
  8. “The world has ordure for brains.”
  9. "Thou foolish management consultant!"