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Those of us of a certain age remember with affection the John Calder/English National Opera Guides; trips to the bookshop up from the London Coliseum in the 1980s enhanced many of my experiences in the opera house itself. The format became a cherished one: essays by respected writers; grainy black-and-white photos; a thematic guide; and a discography and bibliography following the libretto (English on the left-hand page, original language on the right, following ENO’s devotion to singing in English).

In 2010, Overture Publishing, an imprint of Alma Books, took on the task of bringing these gems to a new public in association with ENO under the watchful eye of series editor, Gary Kahn.Eighteen titles are currently available.

Larger font size, new essays and substantial pages dedicated to relevant photos (both black-and-white and colour, production images chronologically presented) enable the Overture Guides to feel like substantial tomes. How welcome to see them again, reformatted and expanded with fresh essays in addition to revised, familiar ones. A sign of the times is the addition of website listings. The translations are now literal, as opposed to the previous singing translations; original languages are now on the left.

The three most recent in the series – Zauberflöte, Carmen and Eugene Onegin – form the focus here. Translations are expert: literal may be the intention, but they also read naturally. The Zauberflöte was published in 2019; Carmen (originally 2013) and the Onegin (2011) have both been republished in 2020 with substantially new material.

For Zauberflöte, the Overture edition offers all-new essays: Rodney Milnes, David Cairns and Nicholas John are replaced by Nicholas Till, Julian Rushton and Hugo Shirley. Till’s ‘Die Zauberflöte and the Enlightenment’ is immensely knowledgeable, cramming a huge amount of information into a mere sixteen pages: Freemasonry via Newton and Descartes, including specifics as to why Mozart opted for a particular lodge. Perhaps modern Rosicrucians might take issue with the description of Rosicrucianism as ‘a strain of esoteric Christian Freemasonry’ (in fairness, it does directly influence Freemasonry’s 18th degree, but it also exists as a free- standing system); but Till’s essay remains masterly. The opera authority Julian Rushton writes on the music itself; again, in incredibly wide- ranging fashion, including paper type analysis. There is real scholarship behind the accessible language (a common trait in this series), while Hugo Shirley’s Selective Performance History brings in reception theory taking in geographical, Freemasonic, gender and race aspects.

Coming in at nearly 400 pages, the Carmen guide retains one author from the Calder/ ENO Guide, Lesley Wright. He moves from synopsis to a fascinating examination of ‘Carmen and the Opéra- Comique’, now offering great context and detail; George Hall takes up the baton in his excellent ‘Selective Performance History’; * while Kahn himself surveys early reactions from the likes of Tchaikovsky, Nietzsche and Puccini in ‘Carmen’s Early Lovers’ Richard Langham Smith offers two essays, the first tracing the journey to Carmen and a detailed examination of the libretto, the second a valuable ‘Sources and Editions’, including highlighting his own ‘Performance Urtext’ (Peters, 2013); the libretto translation is also his.

Finally, Onegin. Lovely to see Roland Wiley’s excellent article and synopsis back (with its philosophical consideration of fate-driven versus empiricist ideas), while now Caryl Emerson traces ‘Pushkin into Tchaikovsky’. Both Natalia Challis’ ‘Appreciation’ and Marina Frolova-Walker’s ‘A Domestic Love’ are packed with insight, while John Allison’s performance history takes in Stanislavsky and a simply hilarious description of Konwitschny’s alcohol- fuelled production. The libretto translation is credited as ‘Opernführer, Bern’.

Long may this superbly produced series last. There is a subliminal message as the Guides moved from the original pamphlets to substantial books, that they have grown up. They are certainly as valuable as ever.

Colin Clarke Read the full review on Agora Classica


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