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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


THE NEW PENGUIN OPERA GUIDE
Edited by Amanda Holden
Publ. Penguin Music, 2001
ISBN 0 140 29312 4
ISBN US 0 140 51475 9
1142pp
30.00

 

AmazonUK £24  




This is a substantial reference work and no mistake! It is weighty in both content and size. At the same time it manages to avoid a portentous approach. Thank heavens a certain eager missionary enthusiasm is to be found in the writing of the legion of contributors. It is this factor together with the spate of little known facts that also makes this book a delightful browse that will send you to your record library, CD store or internet supplier with credit card at the ready.

The book is laid out in two columns, in a small but legible font (8.25/9.6 pt Postcript Adobe Minion). It is clear enough. The characters are about the same size as those in New Grove 2. High quality, white, low glare paper is used with the contrast and weight of the paper being superior to the more ephemeral but just as entertaining and informative Penguin Guide to the CD.

Amanda Holden's first edition was published by Viking in 1993 as The Viking Opera Guide. Since then it has gone through 1995 (Penguin Opera Guide) and 1997 editions before this one emerged as the New Penguin Opera Guide.

This is a hardback book with a dark lustrous dust-jacket featuring a typically plush opera-house interior with titles picked out in autumnal orange and gold.

The book's layout is alphabetic by composer. Each composer is treated to a day-specific birth and death dates, biography and a full lust of all that composer's operas with the year of composition for each. Their major operas are given plot summaries, musical analysis (not at all technical), recordings are mentioned and there is a compact composer bibliography.

There are entries for circa 850 composers. 2000 operas are profiled. In addition to a plot summary for each opera the book also indicates approximate duration, librettist, date of composition, world, UK and US premieres, cast lists and the register of each part and details of the orchestra specified (though not always a comprehensive specification). Each opera is set in artistic and sometimes political context. Publisher and significant recordings are also identified. Librettists and opera titles are separately indexed. These two indices are extremely valuable for the reader whose browsing binge has burnt-out and wishes for revival.

The content is of uniformly high quality as you would expect from this editor and from a team of contributors one hundred strong. The writers include Felix Aprahamian, David Lloyd-Jones, Nicholas Kenyon, Michael Kennedy, Rodney Milnes, Paul Daniel, Peter Dickinson, and Stephen Walsh. All contributors are profiled at pp 1102-1112.

Who and what is omitted? You will search for the late Inglis Gundry's name in vain. This simply reflects the unworthy obscurity into which his many operas have sunk. Galileo and The Return of Odysseus merited mention. I was also sorry to see that Denis ApIvor has been completely overlooked despite his opera Blood Wedding premiered under the baton of Eugene Goossens. Goossens himself gets an entry but is not awarded a profile for his opera Don Juan de Mañara. A pity also that Karl Rankl (a significant opera conductor as well as a composer) receives no mention at all despite his Festival of Britain opera Deirdre of the Sorrows. Why was no place found for Jesus Gurídi's opera Amaya (revealed as a glorious piece of grand opera in the Rimsky vein on last year's Marco Polo set) nor Paul Ladmirault nor Joseph Canteloube whose Le Mas should not be so easily dismissed? Perhaps in the next edition.

The treatment of recorded sound is at token level. While lead recordings are listed the catalogue number is not given. The name of the record company is given. I am sure that the book was not intended to provide that depth of coverage. If so I think that was a small miscalculation.

Despite the visual/aural essence of opera DVDs and videos are not listed. This is a surprising lacuna which will, I hope, be put right in the next edition.

I had to look very hard for typos. They are few and far between. I came across only one: the name of the French record company Auvidis is wrongly shown as Auridis - probably a scanning error. But can I put my finger on the page where I found this? I cannot.

British composers are well enough treated though it could have been better. In the case of George Lloyd we could have done with his operas Iernin and John Socman being fully profiled. All we get is a single biographical and musical entry albeit from the unfailingly imaginative and authoritative Lewis Foreman.

These are minor cavils. Overall the book scores an overwhelmingly confident triumph.

If a composer has an entry and he is eminent or notorious enough he will get a biography and one or several entries for each opera. If he is not in that category he gets a single biographical musical entry with references to leading works built in.

Let's see how Puccini's Turandot is treated. The opera is shown to be in three acts and lasts 1hr 45m. The libretto is by Adami and Simoni after the 1765 play by Carlo Gozzi. The Milan, UK and US premieres are listed with full day-specific dates and locations but not the casts. The character names are given thus Emperor Altoun , t. The full orchestral specification is provided. There is a photograph of the Eva Turner as the disdainful Turandot. The photographs are paper printed rather than being on plate quality glossy paper. The plot, introduction, synopsis and musical context runs to circa three columns - about a page and a half. The listed recordings with artist, conductor and orchestra names are the Nilsson-Leinsdorf on RCA, 1959 and the famous Sutherland-Mehta on Decca, 1973. About ten books are listed in the bibliography. The whole entry for Turandot runs to circa 1500 words.

Coverage ranges far, wide and usually deep. There are, taking two letters of the alphabet, entries for Isang Yun, Maurice Yvain, Ziehrer, Zeller, Zumsteeg, Oehring, Orefice, Ostrcil and Osborne. These do not include a full profile of each of their operas. In the same corners of the alphabet Carl Orff has eleven of his operas treated in considerable detail. Stephen Oliver has three operas profiled. Seven of Offenbach's operas are given the full treatment although all eighty or so are listed (as they are for all composers featured in the book). The Offenbach seven are Les contes d'Hoffmann, La Périchole, La Grand-Duchesse de Gérolstein, La Vie Parisienne, Barbe-bleu, La belle-Hélène, Orphée aux enfers. The age of this entry has begun to show. In the Offenbach bibliography a thematic catalogue by Antonio de Almeida is listed as being in preparation. Almeida died a couple of years ago. Perhaps someone else is completing his work perhaps not.

The approach is quite broadminded. Stephen Sondheim is there (I didn't know Sondheim's middle name was 'Joshua') and his entry covers about three pages. This includes Passion, Assassins, Sunday In The Park With George, Merrily We Roll Along, Sweeney Todd, Pacific Overtures, A Little Night Music, Follies, Company and A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. Richard Rodgers, Harold Arlen, Cy Coleman, Frank Loesser and Frederick Loewe are also given the full treatment.

Operetta gets its due with entries for the Strausses, Künneke, Friml and Lehár being prominent.

More modern operas are not neglected with full details of Ligeti's Grand Macabre, Carlisle Floyd's Of Mice and Men, Pousseur's Votre Faust, five operas by Rihm, Josephs' Rebecca, seven operas by Goehr etc. John Corigliano's Ghosts of Versailles is profiled as are such curiosities as Max Brand's Maschinist Hopkins, Walter Braunfels' Die Vögel, Cherubini's Lodoïska, Donizetti's Adelia, Kabalevsky's Colas Breugnon, Massenet's Bacchus, Milhaud's Christophe Colomb, Schreker's Irrelohe and Searle's Hamlet. Ernest Bloch's Macbeth (with a libretto by the same Edmond Fleg who provided the libretto for Enescu's Oedip) is profiled and it is a mark of the depth of knowledge on show that the contributor knows that the opera is available in a modern recording from the small French company Actes-Sud. The same entry tells us that a second opera (Jezabel) occupied Bloch from 1911 to 1918 though the composer never completed it.

This book now joins the elite ranks of opera books. On the same shelf you will find Kobbé and the Operatic Grove. However as a single volume opera encyclopedia it is peerless. As such it will find its way off the shelf and onto your lap and desk far more often than other reference works. At 30.00 this is money exceptionally well spent. Others will need to re-examine their pricing policies.

Short of the Opera New Grove (a multi volume effort) this is without doubt THE opera guide to have. It make a natural choice for a Christmas present or indeed a purchase at any time of year.

Rob Barnett


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