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Discover Opera
Written and compiled by Nick Kimberley;
Excerpts from operas by: Orazio VECCHI, Claudio MONTEVERDI, Francesco CAVALLI, Henry PURCELL, George Frideric HANDEL, Jean-Philippe RAMEAU, Christoph Willibald GLUCK, Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART, Ludwig van BEETHOVEN, Richard WAGNER, Gioachino ROSSINI, Gaetano DONIZETTI, Giuseppe VERDI, Giacomo PUCCINI, Hector BERLIOZ, Georges BIZET, Pyotr Il'yich TCHAIKOVSKY, Claude DEBUSSY, Alban BERG, Leos JANÁČEK, Bela BARTÓK, IGOR STRAVINSKY, Benjamin BRITTEN, John ADAMS and Harrison BIRTWHISTLE
incl. 25,000-word essay. Booklet illustrated with photographs.
NAXOS 8.558196-97 [79:30 + 76:02]


For once I have omitted a complete listing of the contents in the heading, but follow this link and you will find all the information needed. Let me say at once that any compilation that aims at giving a “wall-to-wall” picture of the development of opera during its 400-year-long history must be open to debate. Limiting the space to 2½ hours, by necessity means that several important composers have to be omitted. The choice of items excludes longer pieces of music. Bearing this in mind this set is on the whole successful, even though I might at times have opted for different selections. One inhibiting factor is what is available to the record company. A similar set from EMI or Universal would naturally have had more to choose from and, at least in some cases, even better performances.

To start on a grumpy note: what would I have included? Well, Vecchi’s L’Amfiparnaso is of course interesting as an example of the link between the madrigal polyphony of the late Renaissance and the monody of the early baroque, but it wasn’t intended as stage music, while Peri’s Euridice, allegedly the first real “opera” - although this was not yet the term for it - would have been interesting, if nothing else to show how much more advanced Monteverdi was only a decade later. From the high baroque I would also have liked something by Alessandro Scarlatti, who after all was the one who laid the foundation for the opera seria stereotype with aria – recitativo secco – aria … and also created the so-called Italian style overture. From the early 19th century Weber, more than Beethoven, sounded the horn for early romantic opera while one of the representatives of French Grand Opera – Meyerbeer, although more interesting as a phenomenon than for intrinsic musical values – might have been included, but Berlioz will do as a substitute. Slavonic opera is a bit of a Cinderella, represented only by Tchaikovsky where also Mussorgsky should have found a righteous place. The more nationalist 19th century opera – read Smetana and The Bartered Bride – could have been there but the most serious omission is undoubtedly Richard Strauss. From the 20th century something relating to the influence of popular music – since Nick Kimberley also writes about operetta and even musical – why not some Lehar or Gershwin? The post WW2 period is still very much contemporary and not quite established, but “The Finnish Wonder” – Kokkonen, Sallinen, Rautavaara – definitely belongs in the opera canon. As anyone can see this would have implied a third disc and that would probably have made the project less viable from a financial point of view.

What actually is on the set gives a good introduction to the fascinating world of opera and the target group should be primarily newcomers to the genre, maybe in the first place those who already have a liking for Western Art Music, as some like to term it. I have a sneaking feeling that Nick Kimberley’s 25000-word-book presupposes some basic knowledge concerning epochs and terminology. Maybe a glossary wouldn’t have come amiss. His long text, however, conscientiously traverses the main directions of opera. There are direct track-references with short descriptions of what happens in the different scenes and those composers I missed on the discs are often dealt with extensively in the text. As the basis for an evening course in opera history, lead by someone with at least basic insight in the subject, this set should function very well, preferably with each participant having his/her own set for self-study.

There are a couple of annoying errors. According to the text Weber died only weeks after the premiere of Der Freischütz, while in reality it was five years later after the premiere of Oberon. Puccini’s year of death is also in one instance given as 1928, but the correct year (1924) is given elsewhere.

The quality of the singing and playing is variable but by and large it is more than acceptable and in many cases much more than that. Most excerpts are culled from the Naxos catalogue, which today is impressive indeed, but they have also licensed recordings from associated companies like BIS and LSO Live. Knowing the majority of the recordings from their original releases I have only made some random samples, but let me pick some of the highlights:

The well-known aria from Rinaldo (CD1 tr. 8), beautifully sung by Susanne Rydén, Bo Skovhus in Don Giovanni’s two arias (CD1 tr. 12 – 13), Inga Nielsen’s Abscheulicher! from Fidelio (CD1 tr. 15) – wrongly attributed to Edith Lienbacher in the tracklist, Luba Orgonasova’s Ardon gl’ incense from Lucia di Lammermoor (CD1 tr. 19), Miriam Gauci’s Vogliatemi bene from Madama Butterfly (CD2 tr. 4) and Gabriela Benackova and Leonie Rysanek in a scene from Jenufa (CD2 tr. 11).

The timeline, concluding the booklet, is a brilliant idea, where decade by decade we get important operatic milestones and in adjacent columns events in general history, art and architecture and literature.

At the asking price this is a cheap way of getting an introduction to the history of opera and the book alone will be a useful reference until the beginner has acquired so much basic knowledge that it is time for something more comprehensive.

Göran Forsling



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