JACQUES OFFENBACH: A Biography by James Harding


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This is the second biography of Offenbach to arrive from Britain during this centennial year (100 years after his death and the premiere of Contes d'Hoffmann). And while Alexander Faris' Jacques Offenbach (p. 26) offered a dry, spare life history with rich musical analysis and piquant inquiry into Offenbach's creative conflicts, Harding's journeyman study concentrates on atmosphere, backstage anecdotes, and the purely dramatic values in the operettas. The essential story is the same in both books: German/Jewish childhood; prodigy on the cello; frustrating early years in Paris; conversion to Catholicism; solid family life (despite casual infidelities); and the huge theatrical success that began with tiny mini-operettas (a necessity due to theater licensing) and then grew and grew, despite occasional failures, poor health, and disdain from serious music critics. Harding has nothing much to add to this highly undramatic scenario--but he works hard to liven things up with colorful details, socio-historical backgrounds, digressions into side personalities (the actress Hortense Schneider; Offenbach's rival Lecocq), and summaries of some of the silly operetta plotlines. As for the political element in Offenbach's work, Harding agrees with Faris that ""he was no more a subversive than Noel Coward."" But Harding's treatment of the music will disappoint even slightly sophisticated listeners: he avers that ""beneath the carefree surface there lurks a tinge of pessimism,"" yet never backs this up; the discussion of Contes d'Hoffmann is skimpy and unconvincing; and throughout there's a lazy reliance on the all-too-familiar descriptive clichÉs (""The frenzied rhythms pound out with untiring zest"") which Faris eschewed. For music-lovers, then, Faris is the preferable reference. But for those more interested in the period and its theatre, Harding will serve quite well.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1981
Publisher: Riverrun (175 Fifth Ave., N.Y., N.Y. 10010)