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Book Review: Opera in the British Isles, 1875 – 1918

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Cosima Wagner — The Lady of Bayreuth

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The Grove Book of Operas, Second Edition
15 Nov 2006

The Grove Book of Operas (2nd ed.)

The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (the “New Grove”) stands as the definitive encyclopedia on music in the English language.1

The Grove Book of Operas, Second Edition

Edited by Stanley Sadie and Laura Macy (Oxford, New York, et al.: Oxford University Press, 2006), 784 pages; 30 color illus., 158 halftones & music examples; 6-1/8 x 9-1/4

ISBN13: 978-0-19-530907-2 | ISBN10: 0-19-530907-3

$39.95 (list)  Click to buy

Now in its second edition, the New Grove and its companion series, The New Grove Dictionary of Operas (1992) and The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz (2nd ed., 2001), collectively form the corpus of Grove Music Online, an online subscription research service. In contrast to this massive collection, the editor of the New Grove, the late Stanley Sadie, published in 1996 The Grove Book of Operas, a single-volume reference that offered “synopses of 264 of the most popular and most commonly performed operas,” arranged alphabetically according to title. This was hardly a new idea. However, with its content being derived from The New Grove Dictionary of Operas, yet written in a style aimed at a wide non-specialist audience, The Grove Book of Operas proved to be an immediate success.

Laura Macy succeeded Sadie as editor of the Grove Music Dictionaries in 2001 and Oxford University Press became their publisher in 2003. Although the focus of attention has been on the development of Grove Music Online, a second edition of The Grove Book of Operas now appears in which Macy acts as revising editor. The new edition, according to Macy, “retains the style and basic layout of the first,” albeit with a “more generous use of space and a more readable font.” Macy therefore limited her editing duties to updating entries, to selecting “the very few operas that we had room to add,” and to making “the tough decisions about which few operas could afford to be deleted.” In addition, she commissioned David J. Levin to write an introductory essay about trends in contemporary opera production.

Any compilation purporting to be a definitive selection of core repertory is bound to engender controversy as to what works are included and what works are excluded. The new edition adds entries on relatively new works, such as The Death of Klinghoffer (première 1991) and Sophie’s Choice (première 2002). Yet, no works by Thomas Adès or Jonathan Dove are included. Similarly, no works by Vaughan Williams, Barber or Copland, established composers appreciated on both sides of the Atlantic, are included; but, Harrison Birtwistle is ostensibly over-represented with three distinct entries (the same number accorded Prokofiev and Stravinsky). Time will tell whether these editorial decisions were made wisely. Thankfully, recommended recordings are not included,2 which would inevitably exacerbate the controversy and, over time, needlessly taint the book as dated. In any event, readers may consult The New Grove Dictionary of Operas for omitted material, although a new print edition is not currently contemplated.

Each entry follows a common format with (1) an opening statement about genre, première, librettist and cast, (2) a cast list, (3) an outline of background information and the synopsis, and (4) an editorial note. The length of the entries varies. Few entries exceed four pages, Orfeo ed Euridice being a notable exception because of its tabular comparison of the Italian and French versions.3 Some entries, such as Lucrezia Borgia, barely take up one complete page. No entry provides a bibliography or references. The book’s back matter, however, includes a glossary, an index of role names, an index of incipits (beginning words) of arias, ensembles, etc. and an index of operas and composers. An index of librettists and a general subject index would be welcome additions.

Where the entries vary the greatest is in the length and quality of the concluding editorial notes. Clive Brown’s note to Der Freischütz, for example, devotes half of a page to the work in its historical context. And Julian Rushton provides even more for Idomeneo. Richard Osborne, on the other hand, provides a short paragraph of commentary on each of Il Barbiere di Siviglia and L’Italiana in Algeri. It could be argued, of course, that the respective sections providing background more than make up for the brief conclusions.

Laura Macy wrote the entries for the newly added works, each of which follows the established format. One of these relates to The Death of Klinghoffer by John Adams that merits some analysis. She makes it plain at the outset that “the story is told both in ‘real time’, with events unfolding on the ship, and in the witness accounts told after the fact.” The synopsis differentiates between these two modes of storytelling, along with a description of the chorus that concludes each scene. In her closing remarks, she helpfully points out that Adams was influenced by Bach’s Passions. Yet the choruses “disrupt the narrative; and their abstract themes have the unsettling effect of distancing the listener from the story.” She rightly states that the “virulent anti-Semitism voiced by ‘Rambo’, and not clearly condemned by Adams, and the composer’s general refusal to draw a clear good/evil dichotomy between the hijackers and their victims, has enraged many critics.” She then concludes that Adams and his artistic collaborators “were prescient in 1989, in realizing that terrorism — its causes and its effects on the survivors — was a reality that Art would ultimately be forced to confront.” Perhaps, but her observation that the choruses tend to “disrupt the narrative” is key to understanding this work. Traditionally, the opera chorus acted as interlocutor or commentator in the manner of Greek drama. Here, the chorus can be seen as representing the outside world — the public sphere in a Habermasian sense4 — where so far “no consensus has developed on how properly to define ‘terrorism’ generally,” as a consequence of which the “dismal truth is that the international community has dealt with terrorism ambivalently and ineffectually.”5 The choruses, then, confound the passing of unalloyed moral judgments upon the actions of the hijackers.

The introductory essay by David J. Levin, “Issues and Trends in Contemporary Opera Production,” provides an overview of the work product of operatic stage directors since Wagner.6 While the contributions of directors such as Robert Wilson, Calixto Bieieto, Peter Sellars and David Alden are discussed, the essay broadly outlines the various techniques and modalities taken in the modern staging of opera without unduly focusing upon any one director’s work. Mention is also made of the emergence of the DVD as the preferred medium to record opera productions, which permits consideration of performers’ dramatic and musical interpretations. According to Levin, “with the shift from LP and CD to DVD comes a shift from the aural to the audio-visual, a shift that stimulates as it reflects the increasing attention accorded opera’s scenic elements.”

As the foregoing may suggest, the subject of opera is so vast that no single-volume work could possibly deal with it in a comprehensive manner. Having said that, The Grove Book of Operas, second edition, should be on every opera-lover’s short list of indispensible reference books. Highly recommended.

Gary Hoffman

1. Only the 27-volume (projected) Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenhart, second edition (Kassel & New York: Bärenreiter; Stuttgart: Metzler, 1994 – ), rivals the New Grove in scope and scholastic quality.

2. One exception is the entry concerning Pfitzner’s Palestrina where reference is made to a “fine recording under Rafael Kubelik . . . with Nicolai Gedda (Palestrina) and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Borromeo).”

3. A similar exercise is undertaken in the entry respecting the various iterations of Boris Godunov.

4. See, e.g., Jurgen Habermas, The Divided West (Cambridge, Oxford & Boston: Polity, 2006).

5. Tel-Oren v. Libyan Arab Republic, 726 F.2d 774, 807 (D.C. Cir. 1984) (Bork, J., concurring) (citations omitted).

6. Readers will have to wait for Levin’s larger study, Unsettling Opera — Staging Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, and Zemlinsky, which is expected to be released by the University of Chicago Press in June 2007.

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