Books on Opera

Omnia Opera




Human veins notoriously bulge with vio­lence and evil, fury and mire; banality and bathos may be in even more constant circulation. Enthusiasts feel that opera deals with such base currency by converting it all into gold; thus Wagner's Ring has been claimed as a shining example, even by those who find the man himself odiously tar­nished. According to Charles Osborne in Wagner and his World (Thames and Hodson £3.95) he was not merely amoral but plain wicked. A heavily-stressed keynote is Wagner's inveterate anti-Semitism, with its monstrously Hitlerite overtones. But this presents no aesthetic problem, because art and morality are really not on speaking terms. Anyone who finds that dictum both inartistic and immoral should steer well clear of this book. For others, here is an inexpensive and well-written pictorial introduction, even though the main portrait is so unflattering. Parsifal for example is presented as “atrocious dramatic verse”. This would have upset such native German speakers as Thomas Mann, and such noted Germanists as the late Dr. H. F. Garten, whose Wagner the Dramatist (John Calder £5.95) provides a timely antidote.

   John Deathridge's Rienzi monograph (Oxford £12) is for those devotees who venerate every scrap (literally, including sketches) of the master's music or text. This early opera has long been excluded from the main Wagner canon, on the ground that it lacks comparable power and range; its full restoration seems an over­ambitious aim. But this handsomely produced book at least demonstrates that Rienzi had a premonitory spark of future genius, and is hence well worth the attention of scholars. They can probably get along well enough without The Wagner Companion (W. H. Allen £.7.50) compiled by Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson, although some specialists may welcome the original cast-lists of the operas, and all Shavians will surely relish the possibly un­familiar 'Wagner in Bayreuth' essay of 1889. But that still accounts for only 60 pages out of 245. The rest is padded out with fustian reprints, mainly from The Era, of what is rightly called “contemporary reaction”. These homely old pieces have now lost their one modest virtue, namely being generally unavailable. Apart from some nugatory notes and pedestrian plot-synopses, that leaves two essays by Barry Millington, an appraisal of Wagner, and an account of Bayreuth 1976. These would have served their purpose even more fitly if trimmed of some flabby phrases and lax assertions. On what evidence, for example, is Wagner’s putative father, Ludwig Geyer, said to be Jewish?

   On abundant evidence, Wagner studies have long been a branch of theology. No wonder that mystics have compared Eternity to an endless Ring. Such a vision might have inspired Hamish Swanston, who has a chair of theology as well as a scat at the opera. Miraculously, he has conjured 300 pages of sermonising, In Defence of Opera (Penguin £1.25), from almost no text at all. There is hardly even a footnote of actual music, scarcely even a syllable of actual libretto. Instead, we are offered generalised reflections on significance, reality, historical exegesis, and so on, under such simplified chapter headings (presumably designed to encourage the lay reader) as What does it mean? and Is it for real? These varying viewpoints describe a great circle round a central assumption which it­self remains largely indescribable. But we are permitted the occasional glimpse: Ariadne auf Naxos for example “persuades us that love may be stronger than death and may reveal the eternally divine within us”. Predictably, the tone modulates rather readily from preachment to pontification; thus poor Hugo Wolf has his Corregidor denounced as hopelessly undramatic on p.18, and again on p.58, and yet again on p. 105. Peter Cook's privately-printed monograph on that topic (£3.90 from 8 Upper Wimpole Street, W1) is prescribed as an appropriate penance. Further, the Swanston hwyl has its own howlers; thus Gilda is not dying in the famous Rigoletto quartet; nor is Genoveva by Schubert. Yet this book is surely well worth its modest price. It deploys an impressive range of human and operatic awareness, from conception in Florence to Death In Venice and even beyond. Its approach is intelligent, cogent, stimulating; its oratory and advocacy are alike powerful, and finally not un­persuasive.

   Such a defence of opera carries conviction, whereas Gary Schmidgall's Literature as Opera (Oxford f6.95) is all evidence and no verdict. Its nine essays on opera‑composers from Handel to Britten, mostly represented by one work each, are a Niagara of name-dropping which book-lovers will find wearily familiar and opera-lovers dubiously relevant. A’s literary an­cestor, B, was translated by C, whom D compared to E, who was strongly influenced by F; and so forth, for innumerable citings. Thus the 40 pages ostensibly devoted to the opera Salome are in fact mainly about Oscar Wilde and decadence. The truncated and translated text that Strauss actually composed is hardly mentioned at all, Wilde and his work are condemned in unctuous tones of moral disapprobation, while other more restrained commentators are chided for their “silly moralizing”. Any readers who persevere will eventually be rewarded by a few well-exemplified and perceptive pages about Strauss's music and its relation to verbal ideas; but such telling details are lost in the welter of self-conscious literary allusion and cross-reference.

   For a clear picture, the flat wash and the broad brush are less effective than the sharp point; and the mind at work in Jane Glover's 200-page Cavalli (Batsford £8.50) is engagingly nimble and incisive. This is the first book in English on a composer of opera and church music whose revival here in, recent years has owed much to Raymond Leppard's editions and realisations, as well as his performing musicianship. This work is not evaluated or even mentioned, except perhaps by implication. The blurb seems to throw down the gauntlet on behalf of Dr Glover, who “has a more profound familiarity with Cavalli's work than any other scholar”. So there. The criteria of textual emendation in her own performing editions also remain unmentioned. But no doubt such matters are rightly rated too technical; it would take a Leppard to spot the changes. As it is, this book is accessible to any general musician with some knowledge of Italian. The abun­dant examples notably assist the task of relating music to words, which is often illuminatingly discharged.

   So it is in Vincent Godefroy's 350-page The Dramatic Genius of Verdi, Vol. II (Gollancz £7.50) which resumes its studies of selected operas at I vespri siciliani, and includes essays on Aida, Otello, Falstaff, and the projected King Lear. As before, the music is described rather than analysed, with a modicum of examples. The writing is admirably elegant; but Vincent Godefroy's strengths as a commentator lie in his stance, not his style. His long and loving devotion to these operas, their music, libretti, sources and background, have earned him incontestable rights of stewardship in the Verdian property and estates. With urbane and uncondescending hospitality, we are invited in, shown round, and urged to stay. A similar essential service is offered by Michael Ewans in the 300 pages of his Janacek's Tragic Operas (Faber and Faber £7.95) complete with music example and plot synopses. Some readers might guess unprompted that “he studied tragic drama with George Steiner”; they both seem oddly susceptible to sudden attacks from fierce ironies and cruel paradoxes. But such vulnerability gives Dr. Ewans an especially sensitive feeling for Janacek's thin-skinned opera music, in which the topic of wounds and healing is often touched upon. This book's skilful treat­ment goes far to justify its largish claim that these six operas “make sense of our existence”.


© the new statesman, 1978