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Interesting and useful facts are highlighted by placing them in boxes; Gluck's Orfeo includes a short discussion on Orpheus in opera, touching on Gluck, Offenbach and Philip Glass, with a copy of the poster from Cocteau's film.
The images are well chosen, both for bringing visual variety and for the different production styles and historical perspectives that they add. The chapter on The Ring mixes historical images of Wagner's original production with pre-war realistic stagings, Wieland Wagner's significant post-war production, Patrice Chereau's 1976 Bayreuth Festival staging, plus the New York Met in 1990, the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, in 2005, and Robert Wilson's 2006 production at the Chatelet.
So, does it succeed in its intentions? By and large it does, but there are numerous small details which are a cause for concern.
The four full page illustrations which open the book are uncaptioned, and though the captioning is generally excellent, there are other places in the book where captions are omitted. The text is peppered with small mistakes and omissions. When initially introduced in the French opera discussion, Lully's nationality is not clear. Strictly Dido and Aeneas is not the first opera in English, though it is the first one of any importance. Meyerbeer did not create 19th century French Grand Opera. I find the statement 'Berlioz turned away from Grand Opera for his lyrical works' rather puzzling and not very helpful. Discussion of German opera in the 'What is Opera?' chapter misses out Weber. Surely Schoenberg rejected harmony in favour of serialism, not atonality as the book states. The chapter on librettos and librettists fails to make it clear that King Arthur is a semi-opera (though this is stated elsewhere). Goldoni is mentioned as a librettist but not his ground breaking collaboration with Galuppi. The dialogue from the Fairy Queen is credited to Shakespeare.
I could go on. No single point is a terrible error, and some of my points are perhaps more personal opinions than errors of fact. But reading through the book you feel that it lacked good knowledgeable sub-editing. In some cases clarification is lacking on points which would be extremely helpful to the newcomer.
Surely any discussion on Dido and Aeneas should mention 'Venus and Adonis' and the links with court performances. Gluck's operatic reforms are initially introduced without mentioning his librettist Calzabigi. In the discussion of voice types in the opening chapters, the haut-contre is not mentioned (though castrati are). This has to wait until page 101.
Copyright © 12 April 2007
Robert Hugill, London UK