Recently in Books
Opera in the British Isles might seem a rather sparse subject in the period 1875 to 1918. Notoriously described as the land without music, even the revival of the native tradition of composers did not include a strong vein of opera.
Heldentenor Jay Hunter Morris tells us about the lean times when the phone did not ring, as well as those thrilling moments when companies entrusted him with the most important roles in opera.
Commonly viewed as a ‘second-rate’ composer — a European radical persecuted by the Nazis whose trans-Atlantic emigration represented a sell-out to an inferior American popular culture —
Although part of a series entitled Cambridge Introductions to Music, Robert Cannon’s wide-ranging, imaginative and thought-provoking survey of opera is certainly not a ‘beginners’ guide’.
Those of us of a certain age have fond memories of James Melton, who entertained our parents starting in the 1930s and the rest of us in the 1940s and beyond on recordings, the radio, and films.
An important new book on Italo Montemezzi sheds light on his opera Nave. The author/editor is David Chandler whose books on Alfredo Catalani have done so much to restore interest in the genre.
Assumptions about later Italian opera are dominated by Puccini, but Alfredo Catalani, born in the same town and almost at the same time, was highly regarded by their contemporaries. Two new books on Catalani could change our perceptions.
I was feeling cowed by Herr Engels. The four of us had retired from the Stravinsky performance to a Billy Wilder-themed bar in Berlin, the least horrible late-night option in the high end mediocrity of Potsdamer Platz.
This substantial book is one of the latest in the Ashgate series of
collected essays in opera studies and draws together articles from a disparate
group of scholarly journals and collected volumes, some recent, some now
difficult to locate.
Vincent Giroud’s valuable new French Opera, a Short History, is in hand and very welcome it is.
The noted operatic impresario and stage director, Lotfi Mansouri, with the professional help of writer Donald Arthur, has issued his memoirs under the title Lotfi Mansouri: An Operatic Journey.
Originally published in German as Herrin des Hügels, das Leben der Cosima Wagner (Siedler, 2007), this new book by Oliver Hilmes is an engaging portrait of one of the most important women in music during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Robert Stuart Thomson’s Italian language learning text, Operatic Italian, promises to become an invaluable textbook for aspiring operatic singers, voice teachers, coaches and conductors.
Ralph Locke’s recent book on Musical Exoticism is both an historical survey of aspects of the exotic in Western musical culture and a discussion of paradigms of the exotic and their relevance for musicological understanding.
Readers may recognize the author of this book, David J. Buch, a specialist on the origins of the libretto to Mozart’s Magic Flute.
Perhaps it will be enough to tell you that I wasn’t halfway through this book before I searched the web for a copy of Professor Ewans’s study of Wagner and Aeschylus’s Oresteia, and ordered it forthwith: It has to be good.
Chinese bass Hao Jiang Tian was 30, when he enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of Denver 1983.
Two excellent books on opera have come to hand, providing many hours of entertaining reading. I combine notice of them with a few thoughts about composer Paul Moravec’s CDs, and his forthcoming opera premiere at Santa Fe Opera in 2009.
Claudio Monteverdi. Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in patria. Edited by Rinaldo Alessandrini. Urtext. Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2007. BA 8791. A vocal score is available as 8791a.
Published in 2007, Riccardo primo, Re d’Inghilterra (HWV 23) and Tolomeo, Re d’Egitto (HWV 25) mark two of the latest installments of vocal-score editions of Handel’s operas based upon Bärenreiter’s Urtext editions.
20 May 2005
MAY: Decoding Wagner — An Invitation to His World of Music Drama
Thomas May's stated goal in Decoding Wagner is indeed summarized in his subtitle, An Invitation to His Music Dramas. Mr. May offers an introduction to those who may seek a reliable yet succinct guide in their first Wagnerian experience; a further potential readership is seen among those who have attended performances of Wagner but who wish to expand their appreciation of the music dramas. In his chronological overview of Wagner's oeuvre from the mid-1830s until the close of his career May presents an approachable guide to appreciating the composer's operatic genius. As an illustration of May's commentary on the works, a generous selection of Wagner's music is included on two Discs that accompany the volume in a protective sleeve.
After an introductory chapter dealing with the significance of Wagner in political, philosophical, and cultural debates for both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, May begins his analysis of influences on the young composer and those early interests that shaped Wagner's progressive development. The 1830s are depicted as a time of apprenticeship for Wagner, during which he had not yet found "his authentic musical voice." (18) The compositional maturity here suggested starts with Der fliegende Holländer [The Flying Dutchman] (1841), for May the first musical and dramatic work by Wagner that does not rely extensively on convention.
Holländer is then used as a musical springboard into Wagner's oeuvre: the chapter devoted to this work is entitled "Navigating a Way into Wagner," and the first recorded example on the Discs presents the overture to this work. Although one may argue convincingly for an artistic "leap" (24) achieved in the composition of Holländer, those works completed by Wagner in the previous decade could profit from a more balanced treatment. Since May points out that Rienzi enjoyed remarkable popularity, starting with its 1842 premiere and continuing to the close of the nineteenth century, it would be appropriate to offer a sample of its music or a selection from the earlier Die Feen. In this way the audience of the book could appreciate — or assess — more readily the thesis put forth by May that Wagner's work starting first with Holländer shows a clear sense of individual style. In his comments on Holländer the author demonstrates the method or focus taken in each of the subsequent chapters of his handbook. The experience or literary model which first drew Wagner to an individual topic is complemented by reference to Wagner's own comments or theoretical writings. A discussion of individual character types in each opera and their major arias or musical numbers shows May providing both dramatic and musical insights. Finally, May integrates into his commentary musical references from the discs, so that readers might follow a recorded example while following the specific analysis for each opera.
The author's segments on Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, both operas rooted in medieval legendary material, attempt to draw parallels in theme and character to later works of the composer's maturity. May credits Samuel Lehrs, a friend of Wagner during his Paris years, with sparking the young composer's interest in medieval lore and myth. Already here we can appreciate — as May points out with sufficient example — Wagner's approach to using various strands of myth and weaving these into a new creation that would be guided by his musical vision. For Tannhäuser this "motley collection of sources" (40) contains the story of the German crusader who forsakes his goal to spend time in the realm of Venus; the contest of Minnesänger in the Wartburg palace; and lastly, the idealization of the heroine Elisabeth, representing both love and self-sacrifice in her attempts to redeem the goals of her knight-suitor. The mixture of both themes and figures from medieval legend are examined by May in his explication of the lengthy overture as well as individual scenes in the opera. He demonstrates how Wagner worked to intermingle his various sources while maintaining a personal vision of the hero as "outsider." In his chapter on Lohengrin May again treats Wagner's transformation of a medieval story and argues in this example for both greater consistency and success. May points to the popularity of Lohengrin during the nineteenth century and to its satisfaction of the Romantic imagination for the medieval period. At the same time, it is argued that Wagner's depiction of featured characters is here raised to a more sophisticated level than in earlier works. In both the dramatic presentation of characters and their musical delineation — as well as Wagner's ability to synthesize the two — May sees a decided "artistic advance." (57) When discussing the point of view accorded to Ortrud in Act II and her portrayal as a force of negation, May focuses justifiably on Wagner's creative depiction. These scenes from Act II could, however, be examined further as an extension of archetypes of evil already present in those medieval sources which May shows to have been transformed by Wagner. The discussion of musical excerpts from Lohengrin included on the first Disc, especially here May's analysis of "In fernem Lande," is effective in guiding both first and return listeners through the significant moments of this piece.
It is hardly a coincidence that Wagner's earliest inspirations and sketches for his Ring derive from the period toward the close of his work on Lohengrin in the late 1840s. This continued reading of medieval texts and artistic extrapolation from topics in Germanic mythology is underscored by May in his essay on the gestation of Wagner's Ring. May devotes five chapters, an "Overview" on beginnings and one for each of the operas, to the cycle which he defines as the "turning point in [Wagner's] artistic development." (116). In each of these segments May begins his musical analysis early, and he refers consistently to the examples on disc 2 in order to highlight a significant instrumental and vocal confluence with its corresponding dramatic action. He cites regularly both noted scholars and critics of the Ring, among these Dahlhaus, Donington, and George Bernard Shaw. In this way, May grounds his own remarks on leitmotif and musical narrative in those of previous commentators who have attempted overall assessments of this extended compositional achievement. May wisely chooses his recorded examples from one series of Ring performances, those featuring the Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Marek Janowski. Providing examples from one such larger undertaking yields an overall consistency for the listener/reader who wishes to consider the Ring -- both opera and commentary -- as a multi-faceted whole.
In his additional chapters on Tristan und Isolde, Meistersinger, and Parsifal May follows his established method for "decoding" the music drama. Since May quotes intermittently from other writers on Wagner, it would be helpful to be given specific references — even to the translations here used — for those who would like to read further background and interpretive possibilities. These might then offer complementary approaches to the biographical and political/philosophical emphases which surface, at times, in May's discussion of Wagner's inspiration and its guiding forces.