Saturday, February 28, 2009

Referential but not reverential

Whole categories of books--encyclopedias, dictionaries--are becoming obsolete because the information they contain can now be found for free on the Internet. So why, then, did I buy a book of opera synopses the other week, when Wikipedia and the Metropolitan Opera website should've sufficed for all my opera-summary needs?

Answer: Because the book in question, A Night at the Opera by Sir Denis Forman, is a lot more than just a collection of summaries, and I wanted to have his distinctive voice in my library. (Indeed, this proves that good writers will become more, not less, valuable as the Internet takes over everything.) It's subtitled "An Irreverent Guide to the Plots, the Singers, the Composers, the Recordings," which is a fairly accurate description of what it contains. However, one should note that this book was first published in 1992, so the mini-biographies of opera singers focus mostly on stars of the '70s and '80s. And the parts of the book that discuss "recordings" are not a recommendation of which CDs to buy, but rather a rundown of the musical highlights of each opera, should you listen to it while reading along with Forman.

For introductory purposes, each opera in the book is given a two-word descriptor of its genre, ranging from the sober (Don Carlos is a "Historical Drama") to the silly (Magic Flute is a "Masonic Extravaganza"). I do think Forman could have paid a bit more attention to these descriptors, however. For instance, both Lucia di Lammermoor and Maria Stuarda are categorized as "Historical Tragedies," but all of the characters in Lucia are fictitious while those in Maria are based, however fancifully, on real persons. That makes a big difference, in my view. Each opera also receives a letter grade, ranging from alpha-plus to gamma. Because the book covers 83 of the world's most popular operas, the vast majority of them rate alpha-plus or alpha, though there are some noteworthy exceptions. Forman thinks that Ariadne auf Naxos has terrific music but is an absolute mess onstage, and that Verdi's Falstaff "has no sex appeal and no heart, and opera demands both those qualities." Disagree? Well, that's what makes horse races.

The operas in this book were chosen because each of them had three or more recordings listed in the Gramophone catologue of 1992; an imperfect standard, but perhaps the only objective way to decide which operas are canonical enough to be included here. Still, there are enough odd choices here to make me think that the British canon, circa 1992, is slightly different than the American canon, circa 2009. For instance, the book includes Attila (never performed at the Metropolitan Opera) and Khovanschina (an opera I had literally never heard of before), while omitting such favorites as Lohengrin (over 600 Met performances), Roméo et Juliette (over 300) and Manon (over 250).

The opera summaries are the most irreverent parts of this book, written in a rushed and slangy style, as if Forman was telling them to you over a couple of beers at the pub. Example from his La Bohème synopsis:
Rodolfo stays behind to meet the deadline for his TV script: he is interrupted by a knock on the door: it's a stranger: a young girl Mimi seeking a light for her candle: she drops her key, and Rodolfo's candle also goes out: both grope on the floor for the key: their hands touch: Mimi's tiny hand is frozen!: Rodolfo seizes it: he gives Mimi an extensive C.V. also some poetic come-on stuff hoping for a closer relationship: Mimi responds with her C.V.: she works in a rag-trade sweatshop, she's fond of flowers, has a small bedsit. The three call outside window--"Hey! Rodolfo!": he shouts "Just coming": he tells Mimi he loves her: mutual says she (seven minutes from their first hand touch).
The joke about Rodolfo's "TV script" is of course a bit too cutesy, but the rest of the way this summary is written makes it very memorable, and proves that you can acknowledge the illogical aspects of an opera's plot while still adoring it for other reasons: Boheme rates an alpha from Forman.

What really makes this book valuable are the aforementioned sections about the musical highlights in each opera. These are almost like a second summary, and are usually longer than the initial description of the plot. Forman goes through each opera scene by scene, briefly notating and analyzing the most memorable bits of music. Here, for instance, is his musical analysis for the La Boheme scene summarized above:
Che gelida manina: One of the most famous tenor pieces in the opera rep.*** Rodolfo fancies Mimi: he tells her a romantic yarn about himself--as young artistic persons are apt to do.
Mi chiamano Mimi: Seamstress Mimi responds:*** her account of her work is more prosaic but nevertheless touching: then her aria flowers and takes wing as she tells Rodolfo how she longs for spring.
O soave fanciulla: The love duet:*** Rodolfo: At last I've found my dream girl; Mimi: I've fallen for him. Snatches from the earlier solos: Puccini at his most intense: a dreamy ending as they drift off arm in arm to the Cafe Momus and their voices fade into the distance.
The three-star ratings here correspond to Forman's assessment of "Stunning, brilliant." This scene is unusual for its succession of three-star arias/duets; scenes less overwhelming than La Boheme's Act One finale mostly get one star ("Worth looking out for") or two ("This is really good"). One thing I especially like is that Forman doesn't just pay attention to the Big Famous Arias that are the first thing that neophytes come to love about opera. He also highlights great choruses, ensembles, and instrumental passages--ensuring that everyone who reads his book will get a well-rounded idea of the potential of this art form.

The musical highlights are followed by a short discussion of the opera's genesis and performance history, and then by Forman's overall opinion of the work, concluding with his letter grade. These sections may contain unorthodox opinions, as I have said, but they lack the jokey tone of the opera summaries, and they serve less as a final judgment than as a jumping-off point for further discussion. Special mention must be given to the 85 pages that Forman devotes to Wagner's Ring Cycle, including a layman's introduction to the musical leitmotifs. I know my own personality, and know that if I am to have any hope of loving Wagner, I need to learn about his music from someone who has a well-developed sense of humor and the absurd, even as he also genuinely recognizes Wagner's greatness. Forman's tone in this section fits the bill.

I'm going to consider this one of the most valuable reference-works on my bookshelf now; and while I wouldn't normally count reference works on my "Books I Read in 2009" list, and though I certainly haven't read every word of A Night at the Opera (it is almost 1000 pages), I have stayed up late with it enough nights, curious to learn Forman's opinions on this or that work, that I think it merits an honorary spot on my list.


L. Strether said...

I agree this is a marvelous book because it fun and informative. I recommend it heartily and have yet to get it back from the last friend I loaned it to over a year ago. I find I keep looking for it from time to time so I may just have to go and buy another copy.

Dr.J said...
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