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'Opera and the Morbidity of Music',


I have not previously reviewed a book of book reviews. This seems a thoroughly Alexandrian exercise, but it opens up a very enticing vista that might include a future anthology of reviews such as this of mine. Whether that would spell also the death of criticism depends entirely on our literary gifts. Can we produce turns of phrase that are memorable when echoes of the actual music have long since died? Bernard Shaw, whom Kerman may admire almost as much as I do, could do it effortlessly and seemingly ad infinitum. I am also quietly envious of Kerman on Charles Rosen and his 'snowstorm of sonata forms' or Chopin's Op 55 No 2 as 'one truly ripe camembert of a nocturne'.

Kerman is of course a long-established authority on opera. The only diva he writes about here is Callas; but it is Sutherland as Lucia who graces the book's cover, though she gets no mention in the text. What this signifies only Kerman knows. The one opera with a chapter to itself is The Magic Flute, a choice I readily applaud. If Pamina is more fully developed musically than Tamino, she has more to put up with, and will not in the end be rewarded with full membership of Sarastro's essentially male order. If Tamino is silent for much of Act 2, this hardly 'emasculates' him; it just separates him from the irresponsible chatter and fascinating fireworks of the women.

'Opera and the Morbidity of Music' by Joseph Kerman. © 2008 The New York Review of Books

Of the two nineteenth-century operatic giants, Kerman probably prefers Verdi. It is good to be reminded that there were ten Verdi premières between Lohengrin and Tristan, but also how truly pregnant was Wagner's long musical silence. The political threads that run through Verdi's operas are most apparent in Don Carlos, but in no way are they suggestive, pace Kerman, of Shakespeare's history plays. That was the particular achievement of the Russians, as Beecham recognised long ago, in such works as Prince Igor, The Tsar's Bride, A Life for the Tsar, Boris Godunov, Khovanshchina, and War and Peace.

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Copyright © 30 June 2008 Robert Anderson, Cairo, Egypt


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