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The French music critic, linguist and grammarian Jacques Drillon, author of more than 20 publications, is best known in his native land for his treatise on punctuation. In these brief, well-honed musings, he offers thoughts about opera houses and especially the relationship between language, music and meaning in opera.

Drillon approves of surtitles, without which, as he notes, you could see a whole opera by Wagner without understanding a word of it. ‘The memory of the endless monologues of Gurnemanz and Amfortas is still bitter,’ he asserts. Even more frustratingly, the life-denying ‘boredom’ of sitting through Musorgsky’s Khovanshchina without a programme plot summary only increased his delight after walking out to encounter typical Paris street scenes of passers-by, sidewalks, taxis, and customers at bistros that represented real life.

Yet paradoxically, he was never put off watching some operas without understanding the librettos, from Mozart’s Da Ponte settings to Berg’s Lulu and Wozzeck and more recent compositions by Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pascal Dusapin. And Drillon claims to love the music for Lully’s Atys so much that he would have watched it repeatedly ‘even if it were sung in Norwegian rather than French’.

When surtitles finally appeared in France’s opera houses, Drillon was transfixed, finally appreciating Wagner’s acuity in seemingly prefiguring the 1980s financial crisis, like an ‘economist turned philosopher’.

Benjamin Ivry Read the full review on Agora Classica

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