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The Birth of an Opera: Fifteen Masterpieces from Poppea to Wozzeck by Michael Rose (review)

From: Notes
Volume 70, Number 3, March 2014
pp. 427-429 | 10.1353/not.2014.0002

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
The Birth of an Opera: Fifteen Masterpieces from Poppea to Wozzeck. By Michael Rose. London: W. W. Norton, 2013. [xviii, 441 p. ISBN 9780393060430. $35.] Illustrations, bibliography, index.

In spite of—perhaps because of—the regular heart-searching that accompanies much discussion of opera in financially straitened times, books about it continue to appear. The interested operagoer can read opera guides of many different types, from real nuts-and-bolts guides to subtly subversive histories that have been the subject of some controversy. An especially useful example of the former is Denise Gallo’s Opera: The Basics (New York: Routledge, 2006); in the latter category, Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker’s recent A History of Opera (New York: W. W. Norton, 2012) should stimulate all opera fans, whatever their prior knowledge. Roughly in between comes Michael Rose’s informative and highly readable book. His stated aim is not to present summaries of plots, musical analyses, reception histories, or performance studies (although, in fact, he does do this, to varying degrees). It is, quite simply, to present an account of the genesis of each opera from the first creative stimulus to the premiere. To this end, he primarily uses surviving correspondence between composers, librettists, patrons, friends, and all the operatic hangers-on who combine to produce this most paradoxical of art forms. Surely no other has its feet so deeply in the mire of contracts, agents, singers, and managers, and its head higher in the stars of neoplatonism, moral purposes, the perfect union of words and music, and the total work of art?

Asked to list fifteen operatic masterpieces, I think most operagoers would include most of the operas discussed here, such as Le nozze di Figaro, Tristan und Isolde, Wozzeck, or Pelléas et Mélisande. Individual personal taste might exclude some others. I must admit to finding little masterly in Il barbiere di Siviglia; while I watch Turandot with horrified fascination I would not include it here, and I question the omission of Janáček and Kát’a Kabanová. But such quibbles are inevitable in a work of this type, and are in any case really beside the point—the material Rose presents so clearly is always interesting in itself, masterpiece or no. His choices have been made with the amount of available evidence in mind. Thus he includes both Figaro and Idomeneo, and Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea rather than Orfeo. In the latter case, simply by virtue of its relatively late date in Monteverdi’s output, there is more contextual material to draw upon, although it is still necessarily dependent on theoretical observations from Galilei, a brisk summary of the Artusi controversy, and various relevant contextual sources, rather the sort of detailed discussion that characterizes Mozart’s correspondence with his father or Da Ponte. Handel is absent, because he must have been too busy to write many letters; frustratingly, although Weber was a prolific letter-writer, he wrote little about Der Freischütz; and the substantial Strauss-Rolland correspondence on the French version of Salomé is too technical for a book of this type. While both the last-named works are important for many reasons, they do not quite fit the “masterpiece” category in any case. But one consequence of Rose’s approach is that he is able to include Berlioz’s Les Troyens, described by the composer as “building itself up like a damp stalactite in a damp cave” (p. 160). At one time this opera would not have even been slightly familiar, never mind given central canonic status. It is a happy example of the canon having shifted to include a work which happens also to have been composed by one of the most literary composers of the nineteenth century.

Rose does not fall into the trap of using entertaining sources uncritically. This particularly applies to Stendhal’s Vie de Rossini, a fascinating book for many reasons but not reliable as a biography. He shows this quite directly when quoting Stendhal to the effect that it was the censor who suggested that Rossini should set Il barbiere, countering this with Geltrude Righetti-Giorgi’s own explanation: “Here, Mr. English...