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Commentary

The Opera Companion
27 May 2008

Books 'n Things

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.

George Martin: The Opera Companion

Amadeus Press, 2008

ISBN-13: 978-1574671681

$15.56  Click to buy

Opera guide books tend to be a bit stuffy and boring, if indispensable. One of the best, first issued in 1961, has just been updated and reissued in a handsome softback from Amadeus Press.

It is “The Opera Companion,” a 693-page, good-quality paperback by the noted writer George Martin (a great bargain at $19.95). I cannot recommend this engaging book too highly; in fact, if my library had to be restricted to one book on opera, this would likely be it. Martin’s edition is of singular design and organization. It consists of three major sections, The Casual Operagoer’s Guide, a discursive consideration of many topics in opera – pitch, the opera orchestra, history of the art form, the nature of melody – and numerous others in a short, intelligent and pithy mode.

The second section is a dictionary-glossary of operatic and musical terms, while the third section of Martin’s “Opera Companion” is a quite detailed discussion of all aspects of forty-seven popular operas, from plot to musical analysis. Martin’s accounts are so reasonable and well-informed, I wish the number of operas treated were much larger. But he has chosen those most often heard by today’s audiences, and in spite of my own sixty-years of attending opera, I actually learned some new things about Gounod’s Faust, for example, and Mozart’s Così fan tutte from Martin.

In a time when that Mozart opera is foolishly treated by musicologists, who find in Così deep and dark contradictions or profound psychological themes, Martin’s clear-headed intelligent exposition of the music and text is exactly what’s called for; he understands the opera and its style and how it should be played. After reading Martin, you will too! His treatment of Faust as a melodic operetta rather than deep grand opera is exactly right; I recommend it and the entire book without reservation.

* * * * *

Put your hand up if you want to read a new tenor biography! Ummm....not very many hands. I don’t blame you, they can be a self-aggrandizing bore; most singer bios are. An exception was the Jussi Bjoerling book of a few years ago, in which his truthful wife spoke out with refreshing candor. Another exception is the new (2008) Amadeus Press biography of the greatest Italian tenor of my lifetime, the golden Franco Corelli. In terms of vocal power, color, quality and effectiveness, the Corelli tenor voice eclipsed all others; in terms of a balanced lifestyle, the poor man suffered greatly from all kinds of personal demons, stage fright and tenor-mania.

Holland-based René Seghers has written “Franco Corelli: Prince of Tenors,” a beautifully printed and illustrated book, that thrives because of excellent research, interviewing, and a strong narrative style. I picked up this book about 4 p.m. one day, and in just a few pages I was hooked – I read it all in one sitting, late into the night. I recommend starting earlier!

Seghers treats all aspects of Corelli’s history, from birth in Ancona on the Adriatic coast, to death in August 2003 in Milan, a demented and emaciated 84-y.o. millionaire, whose wife would not keep him at home for she feared his senile rages. The author, unlike many others, does not glamorize his subject, nor does he soften the rough edges of Loretta Di Lelio, Corelli’s possessive and controlling wife, who many believe made the “adolescent” tenor’s huge career possible. Loretta herself freely described her husband as immature and requiring constant care and attention. This she supplied in abundance, though in later years he somehow escaped her control and undertook some love affairs, which caused a temporary separation of the Corellis. This contrasts with hilarious scenes of the Corellis’ backstage rituals before performances, when the terrified tenor, insecure and superstitious, was sprinkled with holy water by Loretta, who would rub a crucifix on his throat just before she pushed him onto the stage. The Corelli anecdotes are legendary, as are his wars with opera managers, especially New York’s Rudolf Bing, and Seghers gives them full treatment, even dispelling some (Franco did not bite Birgit Nilsson in the Boston Turandot).

Of greater interest is Seghers’ thorough discussion of the evolution of Corelli’s stunning vocal technique, which he worked on constantly throughout his career. In the 1960s, in his forties, he often was in Spain seeking to make his voice more fluid and lyric through studies with the great Italian tenor of a generation before, Giacomo Lauri-Volpe, who helped him significantly. Corelli’s finest vocal period was the mid and later-1960s, and he readily credited the coaching of the senior Italian tenor di forza.

Corelli’s major public career extended from about 1958 to 1975. The author organizes the greater part of his book chronologically, touching upon each season, where and what Corelli sang, and often with somea critical analysis. This required prodigious research, and Seghers’ account has the strong flavor of authenticity. In mid-career Corelli moved to New York City and lived there until old-age; this facilitated his many seasons of dominance at the Metropolitan Opera, where, along with Milan’s La Scala, the handsome Corelli established himself as the most vocally potent and popular Italian tenor of his era. “Prince of Tenors,” as a book, is a keeper; it is going on my shelf and I expect to take it down often. Among other virtues, author Seghers is an accomplished photographer and knows the value of visuals, so has furnished his 526-page book richly with photographs, many never seen before. The list price is a steep $34.95; Amazon is offering copies at $21.95. Amadeus Press and René Seghers have done the vocal world a service by publishing this invaluable biography of the wondrous Corelli.

* * * * *

Now, to the noted composer Dr. Paul Moravec. He is currently visiting professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton, NJ, and is in addition a professor of music at Adelphi University. Thus, Moravec is an academic composer and distinguished musical scholar. His music, to my ear, sounds exactly that – “academic,” if highly competent.

I bring this up because in Season 2009 you’ll be hearing a lot more about Moravec, as his first-ever opera, “The Letter” (based on a 1927 play by Somerset Maugham, famous from the Bette Davis 1940 movie), is being premiered at Santa Fe Opera, starring Patricia Racette in the Davis role of a murderous wife.

Moravec_Time.gifI just listened several times to two Naxos recordings of Moravec’s music, one, “Tempest Fantasy,” is a Pulitzer prize winner (Naxos 8.559323 ), the other is “The Time Gallery” (Naxos 8.559267). Both are interesting, and they share some traits. While the music lacks lyric line, it is energetic -- busy and chattery (one friend called it “molecular”), except when it makes a point to be quiet and mellow, which doesn’t last very long, for its heart lies in smart antics and excitement, though these particular selections are not much for originality or melodic effect. Moravec_Tempest.gifThere is a lot more to this composer than these two CDs, and I wont comment more because I have not heard his lyric writing. But considering that opera, even “opera noir,” as Santa Fe is calling the forthcoming show, must be about singing and lyric reach – if that does not occur, rather than true opera, you have a play with music. While a novice opera composer, Moravec is an accomplished and sophisticated man; and his text collaborator, the jazz critic Terry Teachout, is a bright one too. So they may come up with a good show; how “operatic” it will be remains to be seen. We hear it’s 90-minutes in length, with an orchestral interlude. Bette Davis is a hard act to follow, but maybe clever Santa Fe can pull it off. The talented singing-actress soprano Racette is clearly an asset; she was recently reported advising the composition team on how to make their ending more dramatic. Will this be opera by committee?

J. A. Van Sant © 2008

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