02 Mar 2005

TOMMASINI: The New York Times Essential Library: Opera — A Critic’s Guide to the 100 Most Important Works and the Best Recordings

"I particularly want to reach newcomers" writes Anthony Tommasini, Times chief classical music critic, in his preface. I do not think they will be helped very much by this book. A rookie who picks it up and reads the subtitle may expect something more than two operas by Bellini, two by Donizetti, one Gounod (not Faust), one Massenet (not Manon) and no Lohengrin.

On the other hand I wonder if he/she will start out with six operas by Britten, four by Prokofiev or some masterpieces by Ruders, Weir or Weisgall. Therefore Mr. Tommasini had better called this selection : "My own subjective choice of 100 operas I like best at this moment; lots of unfamiliar and very modern stuff included ". Now such a very idiosyncratic choice may be interesting to widen the horizon of the experienced opera buff but then we could easily have done without Puccini, Verdi, Mozart, Wagner.

Each opera is discussed "in depth" if I may say so on one page, sometimes even on two. On that page Mr. Tommasini crams in the contents of each opera, a discussion of the music and his reasoned choice of the best recordings on CD (he admits not liking DVD's). Now that's what I'd call a classic example of being all and everything to everybody and not succeeding in anything at all. One or two paragraphs on each opera's story make for the briefest outline and even the newcomer will barely know what the opera is all about: he/she still has to read in extenso the liners or the libretto. The musical discussion (can it be otherwise?) barely skims the surface; "Rossini folds the sensational arias, mellifluous duets, and gripping choral scenes into musical and dramatic structure of architectonic genius" writes Mr. Tommasini on Semiramide. Now, tell me how much more you understand Rossini's music after this batch of clichés ? As to the last part of each article, the discussion of "the best recordings," Mr. Tommasini especially (like most of us) prefers recordings with which he learned his trade many decades ago or recordings which are easily to grab up at the nearest Tower Records. He has to restrict himself to two or maximum three recordings at most at a rate of five lines per recording. Therefore don't expect any original thought, anything profound. On the contrary when Mr. Tommasini doesn't know the actual year of recording he simply jots down the re-issue date he found on his CD's: e.g. he dates Pavarotti's first Elisir from 1985 instead of the original 1971.

In short somebody at the Times looked at the list of subjects covered by their "Essential Library", saw Opera was still missing and said: "Ask Tony to write a few pages between the acts of one or another performance. The gap in our collection is closed and he can earn a few bucks extra." A pity, as Mr. Tommasini is an elegant writer with sometimes outspoken opinions who can explain them in clear simple language. If he had restricted himself to lesser known operas from all ages (especially concentrating on the 20th century) we would have had a very useful addition to those many reference works which already discuss stories, discography and music in detail of "the iron repertoire" but then it couldn't be published in "The Times Essential Library".

Jan Neckers