24 Jan 2005

LOEWENBERG: Annals of Opera, 1597-1940

This volume has long been regarded as the definitive work on the subject, and has been quoted in countless later works whenever a reference was required to the performance histories of individual operas. Taken as a whole, especially when one considers the state of library science when the book was first written, it is a magnificent piece of work, and belongs on the bookshelf of every researcher in the operatic field.

It will also provide countless hours of browsing pleasure to people who are interested in a given opera and want to learn a little more about its performance history. Unfortunately, these comments do not necessarily apply to nineteenth century Italian opera in general and to the bel canto period in particular.

The basic premise of this book is to give the absolute and country premieres of the 4000 or so operas that the author thought important enough to include. This is followed by "full" performance histories of 17th and 18th century works, and first performances by country (or, rather, "cultural unit") of most nineteenth and twentieth century operas. The book was written at a time when the esteem for nineteenth century Italian opera was at its nadir, and, as a result, many significant Donizetti, Pacini and Mercadante works were omitted. These include Maria Stuarda, Pia de'Tolomei, Il Reggente, Le Due Illustre Rivali, and Caterina Cornaro. All but the last had significantly more impressive performance records in the nineteenth century than many of the German works included. Loewenberg himself admits in his preface that a more complete listing of the operas of Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi would have been tiresome and uninstructive. He cannot be blamed for his preference for classical and German opera, but the result is a seriously unbalanced book.

However, the biggest problem with Loewenberg is the very large incidence of errors, both of omission and of commission. This point may best be illustrated by examining in depth the listings of a typical opera. In line with the decision made to use the treatment given Dom Sebastien as one of the key parameters in judging the volumes listed in this bibliography, this work was selected. Loewenberg himself devotes half a column to Dom Sebastien, and divides his entries into five groups:

Performances in French Two (2) Cities
German Nine (9) Cities
Italian Eight (8)Cities
Czech Prague
20th Century revivals Three (3) Cities

Performances in French: Both entries are in Belgian cities. The French version is also known to have been given in a number of French provincial cities. The listing of these would have been optional according to Loewenberg's modus operandi, but desirable in order to get an accurate picture of the dissemination of the opera. A more significant omission is New Orleans (the U. S. premiere of the original French version), which obviously should have been included.

Performances in German: As can be expected, this is where Loewenberg is most accurate. His entries are all correct, and while there are no entries for Breslau and Munich, these are covered by the etc., and he already lists two cities in Germany. The one missing entry in German that I would have expected him to include is Ljubljana.

Performances in Italian: This is where Loewenberg is weakest, and is also most typical of what can be expected from his listings for other Italian operas of the period. He gives eight entries for the Italian version: Lisbon, Milan, Barcelona, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Malta, New York City and Mexico. He omits at least eight country premieres. I am listing these by city: Havana, Alexandria, Corfu, Bucharest, St. Petersburg, Montevideo, Caracas, and Constantinople, the Madrid premiere, which should have been included since he lists two cities each for Belgium, Germany and Austria, and three entries in bi-cultural towns, which according to his preface, merited special attention. These are Nice, Trieste, and Rijeka (Fiume). Of the eight entries that he does give, three are wrong: Buenos Aires, Malta, and Rio de Janeiro. Thus, of the 20 entries that one would have expected (16 country premieres, one major country capital, and three bi-cultural cities) five are correct, three are in error, and twelve are omitted. Thus, there is an incidence of error for the Italian version of 75% and for the opera as a whole of close to 40%. While such a high incidence of error undoubtedly does not apply to all, or even many of the Italian operas included, even half that figure would be totally unacceptable. A cursory examination of other listings indicates that the actual figure for the ottocento is probably much closer to 15-25% errors of omission and commission. This is still enough to seriously diminish the value of this volume to musicologists interested in the period.

A second volume, which was originally intended to update the listings to 1980, has been promised for years. It is not known whether it will ever materialize, but that seems highly unlikely at this point.

Tom Kaufman