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Covent Garden: The Untold Story - Dispatches from the English Culture War, 1945-2000 [Hardcover]

Norman Lebrecht
2.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

18 Sep 2000
An account of the struggle to turn England into a cultural nation. Using private archives and access to key players, Lebrecht reveals hidden links between London's Covent Garden Opera House and the people in power.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 592 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd; 1st ed edition (18 Sep 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684851431
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684851433
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 16.5 x 5.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 2.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,244,736 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Lebrecht from the audience perspective 13 July 2004
Norman Lebrecht is a mixed bag from my perspective as an audience-oriented classical music activist and writer. I'm among those who seek reforms in the encrusted music establishment. My motivation is to work with other music lovers to stop, and if possible, reverse the decline in classical music.
There's no doubt about it. Lebrecht is a superachiever who operates at an intensity beyond normal humans: writing regular columns and negotiating their wide dissemination, travelling, researching a myriad of topics, interviewing and being interviewed, and somehow finding time to write books on complex subjects on the fly. The "normal" writer may be exhausted after three years' work on one book - no other duties intruding.
The old concept of noblesse oblige suggests that people with special gifts have an implied obligation to higher purposes in society. Admittedly that's now routinely violated in the U.S. But from cultured Britain we Americans somehow expect more.
There's wide agreement about Lebrecht's facile pen, his colorful, often big-theme topics, and his willingness to be candid and provocative. As other commentators note, however, Lebrecht's motives, judgment, and net effect on the world of music and culture are widely questioned. My rather superficial quest in exploring Covent Garden (looking at reform angles) convinced me that Lebrecht did much scholarly digging. He unearthed apparently accurate, if painful and politically incorrect background. But why and for whom did he do it?
Lebrecht is unquestionably fascinated by and committed to the arts. But my conclusion is that elitist ego, the ability to tread where others fear to go, to create flamboyance for its own sake, and to sustain his reputation and sell books (income)are a large part of Lebrecht's goal for Covent Garden.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Incredibly bad 26 Oct 2013
To save time for busy readers, this is from p 17: 'Music played little part in English culture until the ascent of Edward Elgar ...' That's enough for most judges.
For those in search of more detailed commentary, let's concentrate on two areas. First, NL is almost illiterate; in the first few minutes of reading I came across a dozen common words the meaning of which was unknown to the author (e.g.'morbid', 'rue' [vb], 'frugal', 'decamp'). The 'prose' is in turns affected, unpleasantly dense, riddled with cliches and failed witticisms, and hopelessly jumbled.
Secondly, this linguistic incompetence sits side by side with often malicious commentary and unbalanced judgment. He shares the elitism he purports to denounce, with several obnoxious homophobic asides. The author in the blurb openly flaunts his affiliation to the discredited right-wing rag 'The Daily Telegraph'.
It is ironic that this unrevised drivel is handsomely bound and stitched in signatures, whilst worthy books are so often lamentably merely glued.
The publisher, Simon and Schuster, has failed to copy-edit this book in addition to having made the more grievous error of agreeing to publish it - behaving, thus, exactly like Little, Brown, which has also begun to operate in the UK and to unleash mediocrity and worse on British readers. Boycott the publisher!
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.0 out of 5 stars  1 review
29 of 29 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting material, off-putting tone 2 Dec 2001
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
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.
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