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The Penguin Concise Guide to Opera

By Amanda Holden

Penguin Reference ISBN 0-141-01682-5




The Penguin Concise Guide to Opera claims on the back cover to "explore the operatic careers of all the great composers". Yet it appears that three of the most prominent British composers of the early twentieth century are not classed as "great composers" – namely Vaughan Williams, Delius and Walton, all of whom wrote a number of operas, that have received – and continue to receive – a number of performances. For example, recent performances include Delius’s Fennimore and Gerda at the English National Opera and The Magic Fountain at Scottish opera; Walton’s Troilus and Cressida at Covent Garden and Opera North as well as a concert performance at the Royal Festival Hall to mark his centenary year, and concert performances of The Bear at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Aldeburgh Festival; performances of Vaughan Williams’ Riders To The Sea in Cambridge, and semi-staged performances by the Royal Opera House at the Barbican of his Pilgrim’s Progress, and Sir John in Love - the latter soon to be performed again at the English National Opera. Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet is described in Groves as "an operatic masterpiece, with drama and music marvellously integrated" – this has received about a dozen performances abroad recently, as well as one at Leeds. Furthermore, there have been numerous amateur and semi-professional performances of these, as well as of Delius’s opera Koanga and no doubt many more that I cannot recall at this precise moment in time! These operas are not works by minor composers that have rarely or never received performances – these are works that are in the repertoire, and should be recognised as such. I will not quibble over other British composers, such as Alwyn, Boughton, Mackenzie, German, Lord Berners, MacCunn and Holbrooke, all of whom wrote operas of which currently-available recordings have been made – but who are admittedly less well recognised as opera composers. However leaving out Vaughan Williams, Delius and Walton is unforgivable! Given their omission, however, I was, on the other hand, delighted to see the inclusion of Holst in the book, although resignedly unsurprised that there is no entry for The Perfect Fool, Wandering Scholar or At The Boar’s Head – (all of which have been recorded) – only Savitri. Similarly, there is – typically – no mention of Sullivan’s serious opera – Ivanhoe – only of the operettas.

This is otherwise a nicely produced guide – the new concise edition includes composer biographies, synopses and musical analyses of the operas, and recommended recordings. The composer biographies are satisfyingly thorough, and the opera synopses gratifyingly clear. Whilst I would by no means call this book comprehensive, it is fairly authoritative, with contributions from top experts – both on the scholarly and practical sides of music - such as Michael Kennedy, Robin Holloway, David Lloyd-Jones and the late Felix Aprahamian. This book is not a dictionary, and the operas are therefore under the name of the composer, rather than having their own separate entries. The operas covered are only those that the contributors feel are the better known works – so, for example, you will not find Parthenope under Handel, but you will find Giulio Cesare. Operas of all times are covered, from Monteverdi through to Adès. I feel that the balance is too heavily skewed towards contemporary music; others may disagree. A handy guide, but only to be relied upon for popular works.

Em Marshall




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