Full-scale portrait of an art form compiled from thumbnail sketches across four centuries.
This close-up approach turns out to be an excellent way to spotlight key moments in the history of opera, although music writer Rose (Berlioz Remembered, 2001, etc.) modestly aspires only “to re-create as nearly as possible the circumstances in which fifteen individual masterpieces have been put together.” Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, created in the early days of a new genre, “achieved for the first time in history the fusion of drama, text and music that was always to be at the heart of opera.” Gluck’s Alceste restored the balance in that fusion by taming the vocal excesses of Italian opera, paving the way for later masterpieces like Berlioz’s Les Troyens. The radical harmonic and thematic structure of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde “led progressively but inexorably” to Schoenberg’s atonalism and to challenging 20th-century works like Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. The personal stories are marvelous: music publisher Giulio Ricordi scheming to put together an aging, cranky Verdi with Young Turk Arrigo Boito to create Otello; the horrified manager in Paris, confronted with Bizet’s groundbreaking Carmen, declaring, “Death at the Opéra-Comique!...such a thing has never happened…do you hear, never!” When Rose writes, “There is no more human opera than The Marriage of Figaro,” he is identifying the characteristic that for him defines opera even more than great orchestrations or spectacular vocalizing: the creation of great characters whose inner lives and connections to our common emotions are made palpable in music. Based on a series of radio programs that originally aired on the BBC, these renderings let us hear the unmediated voices of the composers, librettists and others by drawing on letters, memoirs and other primary documents to bring to vivid life the process of making art.
Intelligent and entertaining—a treat for opera aficionados and newcomers alike.