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This masterly opera guide is aimed at ‘two complementary readerships – the student who needs a basis for approaching this very particular and complex musical application, and the person who is already familiar with opera and wants to know more than is provided by a history or synopses’. The second category is addressed with the help of numerous tables, many providing structural analysis of acts or scenes, or detailed analysis of a selected passage (without music examples). These passages are taken from L’incoronazione di Poppea, Così fan tutte, Der Freischütz, Otello, Die Walküre, Tosca, Wozzeck, Peter Grimes, The Mask of Orpheus and many others. A score would be beneficial for full understanding of some charts.

Although the book’s three main parts are divided by centuries – the 17th and 18th; 19th; 20th and 21st – there are also four excellent generic chapters on aspects common to opera across the centuries: Authentic performance; The role of the singer; The dramaturgy of opera: libretto – words and structures; Directors and the direction of opera.

In Chapter 9 the author explains the essence of grand opera, with its spectacular effects. An extreme example is the eruption of Vesuvius at the end of Auber’s La Muette de Portici. The generic chapter The Role of the Singer includes topics such as ‘Dramatic ability’, ‘Physical attraction’, etc, and in the sub-section ‘Operas requiring additional skills’ we find this gem: ‘…in Le Prophète the chorus was taught to use newly invented roller-skates for the ice skating scene.’

As Cannon observes, certain key issues have persisted from the earliest operas through to the present day – ‘the value and function of opera as an art form in society; the actual function of music, in particular lyrical music, in opera; and, finally, the relationship between dramaturgy, words, music and meaning.’

Debussy first heard gamelan at the Paris Exposition of 1889, not 1900; ‘begs the question’ (p1) should be ‘raises the question’; and the index is short of a few entries. Nevertheless, this is a highly recommendable guide to the history of opera.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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