THE SPLENDID ART OF OPERA: A Concise History by Ethan Mordden


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Concise it is--and Mordden (That Jazz!) probably deserves some sort of award for cramming so many names, dates, plot synopses, and connective comments into 448 pages. Unfortunately, however, the result is an unreliable mishmash rife with oversimplifications and unhelpful labels, larded with dubious opinions and petty digressions. . .and delivered in a patronizingly colloquial, sometimes campy spiel that reduces most everything to Broadway-show-biz terms. Mordden jogs from the very beginnings (circa 1600) with the Camerata composers (and ""their fear of musical flying"") through opera seria (which, exhibiting a very limited range of esthetic response, he largely dismisses) to influential Gluck and one-of-a-kind Mozart (""Figaro is farce made socio-psycho-sensual"") to Rossini and Donizetti (""the rhythmic pulse of his confrontations screams with theatre"") to unorthodox Berlioz (""to dish a phrase, would it play in Paris?""), etc., etc., right up to Einstein on the Beach. And, throughout, he discusses the growth of opera in terms of a simpleminded framework (""libretto versus music and the comic versus the serious""), along with heavy doses of pigeonholing: ""Early, Middle, and Late Nationalism""; ""Late Romantic Fantasy""; ""Late Romantic Versus Neo-Classicism."" A hard-working stab at synthesis--but, as in Opera in the Twentieth Century, Mordden's essentially non-musical approach (opera is just ""good theatre"") simply doesn't hold up beyond the barest opera-by-opera appreciation. And the grand-scale format here exposes dozens of inconsistencies--like Mordden's erratic sense of ""musical comedy"" as opera. Lots and lots of content, some of it solid--but overall this ambitious volume is too dense for casual reading, too idiosyncratic for reference; opera fans will be much better off drawing on the gamut of less all-inclusive guides and studies.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1980
Publisher: Methuen