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Although taking its title from Berlioz’s fictionalised collection of anecdotes by the members of an orchestra obliged to perform bad operas, Jeffrey Langford’s ‘exploration of the basic repertoire’ happily focuses on good operas drawn from the century and a half between Mozart’s Don Giovanni and the operas of Bartók, Berg and Britten.

Assembled from lectures for the Metropolitan Opera and the Manhattan School of Music (where the author has taught for nearly 30 years), the book is arranged into a dozen thematic sections. Written with the general reader in mind, it serves a dual purpose as both a useful introduction to core works – and one, refreshingly, that doesn’t balk at taking issue with the form when it goes awry – and as a précis of its fundamental building blocks, both musical and theatrical.

All but two of the sections compare and contrast two or three operas or composers, the exceptions being the discussions of Puccini’s Turandot – intriguingly enough in the section on ‘Fairy-Tale Opera’ – and Verdi’s Rigoletto, which, Langford argues, not only changed the direction of Italian opera but also sealed ‘the transfer of power from singers to composers’.

Wagner, naturally, looms large, both in the section on ‘Symphonic Opera’, which also takes in the operas of Richard Strauss, and in the chapter dealing with Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, a work that paradoxically seems to emulate the elder iconoclast even as it tries to exorcise his influence.

Berlioz, too, appears twice: in the section on ‘Opera as Autobiography’ – where La damnation de Faust, sitting curiously, but convincingly, alongside Beethoven’s Fidelio – and in the discussion of ‘French Grand Opera’, where Les Troyens is presented as a ‘misjudged masterpiece’ stylistically caught between the past and the future.

Other sections on bel canto, verismo and comic opera, on adaptations from Shakespeare and literature, and approaches to 20th-century opera add their own ballast to a book that makes an attractively intelligent, passionate and often provocative proposition for novices and committed opera buffs alike.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Classical Music, 2011 - ©Rhinegold Publishing