This is, in my opinion, a very strange book. The title is clearly directed
at people who have some degree of interest in opera, or perhaps may be tempted
to buy it as a gift for a friend who is interested in opera. And yet the
book is unremittingly hostile to opera itself, the composers who write it
and, presumably by association, the purchasers of this book.
The format consists of a chronologically ordered rag-bag collection of historical
and biographical facts, which in the interests of charity I will assume have
been accurately researched. These are interspersed with the author's opinions
and asides presented in a relentlessly facetious, and sarcastically jokey
manner, presumably intended to amuse, but which for me, failed dismally.
Now normally I subscribe to the view that if you don't like it, don't review
it. I also have considerable respect and sympathy for all authors, and therefore
hoped that the reading experience would be entertaining and, in view of the
title, insightful. Therefore, when at first I found irritation rather than
pleasure, I attributed the shortcoming to myself, and simply put the book
down to be reappraised at a more propitious time.
Several attempts later, despite finding that the irritation was consistent
in its presence, but increasing in magnitude, I decided, mistakenly as it
transpired, to grit my teeth and carry on to the bitter end, still in the
desperate hope that somewhere some redeeming feature was to be found.
Sadly there was none that I could perceive, other than that, in his dedication
of the book the author lists a number of composers, all of whom "knew
better than to write any operas" (my italics).
It can reasonably be claimed therefore, that Mr. Barber has honestly nailed
his colours to the mast from the very outset, so perhaps we had been warned.
But who reads dedications before buying a book? Not me, although I will in
The reason that I have made an exception to my rule of not reviewing the
disagreeable is, I believe, justified by Mr Barber's complete lack of compunction
about blatantly slagging-off a host of composers from Bellini to Wagner,
none of whom are around to defend themselves, and many of whose operas have
stood the test of time and, undoubtedly, given great pleasure to generations
of music lovers, including myself.
I also feel that having endured his particular opus right through to the
bitter end, I have earned the right to get my own back.
In fairness to him, the book contains glowing references from Maureen Forrester
and Anna Russell, ladies whose musical stature is considerable, whereas I,
to put it mildly, have none.
However, what damns this book irretrievably in my view, is its complete lack
of humility, tolerance, or affection for its victims and, unlike the august
ladies mentioned above, for me, it contains less wit than a custard-pie routine.
Don't take my word for it. Just be sure to sample before buying; almost any
paragraph should suffice.
As a final aside, I find it interesting but somewhat inconsistent that he
is quoted in the Author's Note as wishing that could claim kinship with the
excellent Samuel Barber. This is a composer whose music I, among many, enjoy
greatly, but whose all too brief output did include, dare I say it....operas.