Imagine sitting down for a lengthy chat with a person who has researched his material extensively and has organized it such that he can present a detailed analysis, answering all of your questions before you ask them. Sounds appealing, right? Now add another variable to the conversation: the person takes a superior tone, puts a negative spin on almost every aspect of the story, and frequently inserts titillating but irrelevant details. On balance, would you put up with the narrator's tone and bias in order to obtain the information he offers? If your answer is yes and you are even remotely interested in opera read this book; if no, think twice.
The good parts first: No one can honestly question Mr. Lebrecht's scholarship. Apparently, his extensive sleuthing met with numerous obstacles, from uncooperative government officials to a woman who had burnt material left in her safekeeping because she did not realize its importance. Nor can one fault his organization. Although he sometimes moves ahead of himself to conclude a particular section, he always brings the reader back to the timeline of the story. Few, if any opera fans will complain that their favorite performer is not included; from Abbado to Zeffirelli, they are all there, as a quick look at the index confirms.
However, the performers are really the walk-ons in this book. The starring roles are taken by the management -- the bureaucractic officials (operatic and governmental), the artistic directors, choreographers, chorus masters, union leaders, board members -- for the focus is not so much on what happens on stage as how it gets there in the first place.
Lebrecht is most objective when he is writing the social and governmental history that parallels ROH history, e.g., his two and ½ page description of the social revolution of the early sixties, (pp. 213-215) is succinct and right on the mark. He then seques neatly into the opera house with: "The trick to any revolution is to stay in touch with public sentiment without succumbing to demotic pressure. The worst mistake is turn one's back on the tide - which is what Covent Garden proceeded to do." Unfortunately, that reasoned tone is not the prevalent one in the book.
Most often, Lebrecht's tone is unremittingly haughty and sarcastic. Not only is this off-putting, it adds nothing to his credibility, particularly in those instances in which he insists upon revealing personal details that have no bearing on an individual's professional performance. Mr. Lebrecht central argument is strong on its own without adding details about who slept with whom and where. A little more "don't ask, don't tell" would have helped immeasurably.
To be fair, even when he is being sarcastic, he can turn an effective phrase: "Callas, torn between heart and art, was drifting in the slipstream of her shipowner lover, Onassis." Problem is, too much cleverness can be grating on the ear, putting an obstacle between the reader and Lebrecht's excellent research. On balance, Lebrecht appears to represent that brand of opera-lover who cannot resist snippy-snide remarks; one wonders if he visits the opera house hoping to enjoy the performance or ready to pounce on the slightest misstep.
Occasionally, Lebrecht contradicts himself. A small example: on page 134, after a few disparaging remarks about performances of "The Bohemian Girl", he notes that it "vanished once again into a mist." Well, not quite. On page 158 it emerges from the mist in an anecdote about Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland. Nor did it vanish after page 158. As most of Dame Joan's fans know, she recorded an aria from that opera, "I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls" and sang it in recital throughout her career.
According to the jacket notes, Lebrecht has a live call-in radio show. Undoubtedly he has sharpened his wit and tongue in response to the opera cognoscenti, some of whom can be wickedly biting when offering their opinions. Had he tempered his well-developed wit just a little more, I would have given his book top marks on research, organization, and interest. The lower mark reflects Lebrecht tone which, for me, was an obstacle to complete enjoyment of this book.