Usually, in looking at a book on an opera house, theater, or the history of opera in a given city, I find the appendices (especially the chronology or cast lists) to be the highlight of the book. This is not the case here, mainly because of the unusually high quality of the text, which comprises the greater part of the book, and partly because of the gaps in the chronology. As I started to read the text, I became more and more impressed with the unusual stylishness of the writing and its fascinating subject. It is the sort of writing where every line that you read demands that you keep going, and makes you read on and on. Robert Marsh also draws a wonderful self portrait, including an abiding love for Richard Wagner, apparently his favorite composer.
He later implies that he is an operatic Darwinist and a believer in the survival of the fittest. But, it has been my experience that operatic Darwinists tend to look at operas that were once popular but were eventually forced out of the repertory by newer works, through the prism of their own preferences, and this is what happens here. Marsh expresses no regrets at the fact that Meyerbeer was forced out by Wagner and Verismo, but fails to draw the logical parallel with many of Mozart’s operas having been forced out by Rossini, Donizetti and Verdi 100 years earlier.
Knowing from my own researches that Pacini’s Saffo was widely toured in the U.S. during the 1865-66 season, with performances in New York, Chicago, Cincinnati, Louisville and St. Louis, this is one of the first things I checked. Yet, when Marsh encountered Pacini’s Saffo in the 1865 season, he jumped to the conclusion that it was Gounod’s. He drew the same conclusion for the local premiere of Massenet’s Sapho in 1918, but identifies it correctly when it was given later.
The chronology has no casts, and is also missing a number of professional seasons reported in the local press. These include at least one that I know of by the New Orleans company which made frequent tours of the Northern and Eastern States. There also are several by Emma Abbott, and some by various other touring companies including Antonio Scotti, Fortune Gallo’s San Carlo Opera company, and the Boston National Opera Company. These overlooked seasons also impact the list of operas given in Chicago.
All considered, this title is a fine book as far as the text is concerned, but also one that could have benefited by having more effort spent on the appendices.