The Birth of an Opera: Fifteen Masterpieces from Poppea to Wozzeck
By Michael Rose
W.W. Norton; 441 pp. $35
Michael Rose's new volume begins its introduction with a clever strategy seemingly directed at reviewers as well as prospective readers: asking, "So, another book about opera?" he details what this volume is not. It is not intended as an overall history of the form, nor are its fifteen chapters, covering as many operas, interconnected. It presents no musicological claims or musical examples, nor does it deal with appraising performance histories (casts, conductors, stagings) of the works it surveys. Instead, Rose points out, he concerns himself more with documenting and describing the gestation of the operas selected than with the contents of the operas themselves.
Rose, who has published worthy volumes on Berlioz and other musical topics, was coauthor of a BBC radio series sharing this volume's title. Much of his material doubtless derives from those broadcasts, as does the selection of material, which, with few exceptions — it does include Puccini! — skews to the British musical world's tastes of the 1960s: L'Incoronazione di Poppea, Alceste, Idomeneo, Fidelio, Les Troyens, Carmen, Pelléas et Mélisande, Turandot and Wozzeck are covered, among others. Mozart alone gets two studies; most Slavic works and later twentieth-century examples get excluded due to linguistic or copyright issues. No Handel, Bellini, Donizetti, Gounod or Massenet is on tap.
The volume stands as a casebook of these important works, and it might usefully be read alongside Patrick J. Smith's 1970 The Tenth Muse and with a recording of the work at hand. Rose writes fluidly and presents a cogent study of the factors and personalities involved in creating — sometimes against considerable odds — the operas herein. Anyone who has written program notes has committed smooth and definitive sentences to paper that, on examination or with time's passage, do not prove to be true or enduring. One finds several such statements here, as when Rose states of Poppea, "No opera, not even Don Giovanni or Tristan, is more concerned with sex" — this published in the era of Powder Her Face.
The book is handsomely designed, but primary source quotes are set off typographically in a pronounced way (indented, with the source's last name in preceding italics) that is perhaps designed for clarity in Kindle reading, but which makes perusing the printed text rather a disjointed experience. Despite these few cavils, Rose's volume should prove enjoyable and useful to many opera-lovers and would seem a worthy acquisition for well-stocked music libraries.
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