12 Dec 2004

OSBORNE: The Opera Lover's Companion

Every CD collector faces the day (or days, in the case of the truly dedicated collector) when denial no longer suffices — the shelves are sagging and overflowing, and the time has come to purchase yet another storage unit. Perhaps others have done what I did once to forestall that day — I removed all the booklets from my opera sets (and cover boxes as well, of course) and stored them on that increasingly archaic furniture item, a bookshelf.

As a space-saving maneuver, this worked; as a time-saver, the effort proved questionable. All too often, when I want to check a libretto, I find my poor organizational skills make the desired one difficult to locate. If found, I have a tendency to fail to replace it or to toss it on top of the shortest pile, insuring further frustration on my next visit.

This is where a volume such as Charles Osborne's The Opera-Lover's Companion might have great usefulness. Promoted on the front cover as "an informal and indispensable guide to the most frequently performed operas," the book in its essence contains the sort of short essay on the opera's history found in many a libretto, along with the requisite act/scene summary, followed by a brief critique. The only feature of Osborne's book not common to librettos is a single recommendation for the "best available" recording. I can think of many an opera recording where the consumer would appreciate the favor of having a better set suggested in the libretto of the disappointing one purchased; it seems unlikely that the CD companies will adopt the idea. 175 operas receive this treatment, covering operas from Monteverdi and Gluck up to those of Dallapiccola and Tippett.

However, there may not be many other collectors as foolish as I am. If one has a large CD collection and the librettos are easily retrievable, the need for this book becomes doubtful. Osborne's plumbs no analytical depths nor offers any fresh insights. Mozart's Nozze di Figaro earns almost 7 pages; the opera's place in the composer's career gets detailed elaboration. Da Ponte's work is called less complex than Beaumarchais's play but also praised for being "more tightly knit, and less rambling" - an unfortunate redundancy, but not untypical of Osborne's style. Then after almost three pages of plot summary, four paragraphs cover Mozart's music. Here's a typical example of Osborne as analyst: "the duets and ensembles move the plot along confidently, while contriving to present themselves as highly mellifluous musical entities." Those are some brazen, scheming duets and ensembles, offering all that confident contrivance. The recommended set, by the way, is the Erich Kleiber.

Here the contrast with the essays of an adequate libretto becomes clear: with the libretto comes a recording! If one doesn't know the music, one can trace the musical examples to the track listing and hear what Osborne's attempts to describe. Surely a listener familiar with the score does not need to be told that Dove sono is "full of a tender regret." The more passionate listener may, in fact, wonder if "tender regret" comes close to capturing the whole emotional range of the aria.

Since the vast majority of the entries are much briefer than this one for Nozze, it seems fair to conclude that the typical opera fan with even a modest acquaintance with the standard repertory will find Osborne's book of limited value. Without a strong personality, entrancing style, or some other compelling ingredient, reading the book becomes as attractive a proposition as piling one's lap with a 175 CD set of booklets and reading the main essay and summary one after another. If that sounds like a delightful afternoon to anyone, this book will spare one's lap a great deal of discomfort.

Perhaps then, the book is for the less initiated listener. From a personal perspective, I can only say that in my most green years of incoherent exploration of the art form, I never once thought, "I'd like to have the best of CD booklet essays all bound together!" Plot summaries often present an impediment to appreciating the drama of an opera, in my opinion; as a rule they make for unusually dull and confusing reading. The essays can be of greater interest, but a variety of styles and viewpoints has more appeal. The sameness of Osborne's style, with its heavy reliance on superlative synonyms, and his rather anodyne critical judgments make the 604-page book a hard slog; reading a few entries randomly lessens the tedium, but not by much. The helpful volumes in my opera-loving infancy were the then-current Gramophone Good CD Guide and Penguin Guide. With a number of writers offering more detailed responses to a much wider range of recordings, those volumes served me very well. After Osborne has praised the conductor of one of his chosen sets as "stylish" for the umpteenth time, I would no longer know what the term meant and seek more expansive remarks elsewhere.

The selection of the 175 operas raises other questions. First, the issue of the omitted operas that can hardly be called obscure or truly rare: Massenet's Thais has had successful stagings in recent years and a major label CD set featuring Fleming and Hampson. Fleming also brought Bellini's initial success Il Pirata to the Metropolitan not so long ago; it is absent. Puccini's La Rondine? Flying too low for Osborne's radar, I suppose. The upsurge in late classical and early romantic opera might have meant a mention of Spontini's Vestale or Cherubini's Medea — might have, but doesn't. I'm glad that seven of Donizetti's operas rate inclusion, but the absence of La Favorite and Roberto Devereaux still puzzles, as both have had some presence internationally of late.

Of the compelling 20th century operas brought to San Francisco Opera by Pamela Rosenberg, only Busoni's Doctor Faustus gets coverage. No Ligeti Le Grand Macabre, or Messiaen's St. Francis, or Thompson's Mother of Us All. In fact, of American opera, only Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, Barber's Vanessa, and Moore's Ballad of Baby Doe rate inclusion by Osborne. None of Floyd's does, and most regrettably, neither Nixon in China nor Death of Klinghoffer from John Adams is present.

British composers, perhaps unsurprisingly, receive a warmer welcome. No major Britten work is excluded. Two of Tippett's appear, and if The Beggar's Opera gets an entry, why can't Bernstein's Candide? Others may question other inclusions, from Hindemith's Cardillac (one of several included operas that have no available recording to recommend) to Verdi's very early Oberto. Verdi gets ample space, as does Rossini, and deservingly so.

Many may find Osborne's selections for recommended recordings fine starters for interesting debate. The Barenboim Ring gets his nod, as does the Malfitano/Terfel/Dohnanyi Salome. I have heard a highlights CD of Marton/Carreras/Maazel's Turandot — that would not be my recommendation. Is the Domingo/Sutherland/Bonynge Tales of Hoffman easily available? Somehow it has escaped my notice. Perhaps Osborne has overlooked the Rattle recording of Szymanowski's King Roger, or he doesn't think it deserves recommendation. A note perhaps might helpfully explain why not.

I would also be very curious as to where I can find the Donna del Lago conducted by Maurizio Pollini! An editing mistake, I suppose. But what a fascinating document that would be: an especially dry and analytical pianist leading Rossini's over-the-top bel canto masterpiece. Other than that accidental slip, not much humor lightens the book1.

Ultimately, the value of this book as "companion," therefore, depends on one's taste in friends. If a rather dull but reliably informed chum appeals, then Osborne's book will indeed be an amiable partner. For this opera-lover, there can be no single essential companion. If the opera is beloved, I need a range of recordings, and a DVD or two, and programs and ticket stubs as evidence of live encounters. Osborne's book would be one lonely, forgotten acquaintance in my home.

Chris Mullins

1 A recording of La donna del lago was made under the Sony label in conjunction with performances at the Rossini Opera Festival of 1983. Maurizio Pollini, the pianist, conducted. The recording appears to be out of print at this time.