Favorite Operas by Italian and French Composers
by Paul England
This book reproduces a portion of the 1929 book Fifty Favorite Operas
, the other part of which was reprinted as Favorite Operas by German and Russian Composers
. And although it is no more visually attractive or attuned to contemporary culture than the average facsimile edition of a pre-World-War-II book about opera, I cannot recommended it highly enough. In fact, reading this book filled my head with thrilling ideas about how it could be updated, or at least expanded to include operas that have emerged as popular favorites and revered art-works since 1929. Or maybe a children's edition could be published, featuring pictures from great productions, sound samples of musical highlights, and a more storybook-like synopsis.
But for now, all that is small potatoes. As it stands, this is the book you have always needed in order to understand opera—even if you were afraid to start experiencing it because of all the barriers of technical, historical, and linguistic knowledge you must first surmount. This is the book that makes 29 operatic masterpieces make sense to a musical layman, with just enough non-technical description to help you understand why they are masterpieces, how to assess their strengths and weaknesses, and what to look for in a great performance. This is the book that demystifies a cultural tradition that, for far too many people, has been enshrined in a remote realm of impenetrable mystery; that explains the stories and the characters in dramas and comedies that always used to come across as so much foreign caterwauling; that could make a form of entertainment that is now 400 years old come alive in your imagination as movingly, as romantically, as hilariously, and at times as horrifyingly as what you experience in the film and broadcast media of today—with the added attraction of a piece of musical genius as long as a regulation baseball game. This is the book that could prevent your first night at the opera from being confusing, agonizing, and your last; that could make it, rather, the beginning of a lifetime of pleasure that will fill your heart and stimulate your brain. In short, this is the book you were afraid did not exist (especially if you were in danger of having to go to an opera at some point); or that, if it did exist, would be too hard to read. But it does, and it isn't, and here it is!
Music critic Paul England is not always on target. To start with, some of the synopses aren't even by him. At times (particularly when writing on Bellini and Donizetti), he may seem to judge an opera unfairly, his hindsight colored by the later phenomena of Verdi and Wagner. And his opinion, like anyone's, is open to debate. After more than 80 years, it is very likely that some of the weaknesses he finds in the works of great composers like Verdi and Puccini are now accepted as beauty spots on their own terms. Perhaps some works that England dismisses as being of light interest, unlikely to survive in the repertoire, still remain perennial favorites, while others are staging a comeback. Perhaps England was too optimistic about an opera's chances for remaining a hot item, such the works by Meyerbeer and Charpentier represented in this book. But often, his assessment of an opera's greatness seems to steal the words out of the pen of today's program-notes writers. Or to put it the right way around, maybe they're stealing from him.
I am grateful to Paul England for crystallizing some of my own thoughts, and clarifying others, on such opera favorites as The Barber of Seville (Rossini), Rigoletto (Verdi), Carmen (Bizet), and La bohème (Puccini), among others. Thanks to recordings, I have heard many of the operas discussed in this book, in some cases many times over. Even so, I think I will appreciate them better the next time I hear them; and I plan to keep this book as a handy reference when a night at the theater beckons, or even a night by the hi-fi. I also look forward to reading what England and his contributors have to say about Mozart, Beethoven, and Wagner in the volume on German and Russian composers. Bottom line: GET THIS BOOK, and claim your share in the fabulous cultural wealth in which opera is among the brightest jewels.
Saint Louis USA
Recommended Age: 12+
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