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A Well Written Disappointment
on 19 February 2013
Although this is a very readable work pleasantly en-scripted by two renowned experts, it falls far short of being a reliable reference work for a variety of reasons. For one thing, the illustrations give all the appearance of having been thrown in as an afterthought and included just to add a smattering of colour to the text. Then again, the work is really about the history of around a dozen or so operatic composers with the rest either being mentioned in passing or left out altogether.
I've counted up to 19 operatic composers who are not even mentioned and a further thirteen who are mentioned only in passing and my lists are not exhaustive by any means. Here are some examples: Harrison Birtwhistle, George Gershwin and Francesco Cilea are not mentioned at all and Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, Michael Tippett and Henry Purcell are mentioned more or less as being in the nature of afterthoughts, and there are many others who fall into these two categories.
Unlike some other leading books about opera, this work does not include a glossary. A ramble through picturesque countryside can be be a most enjoyable experience, but even ramblers are careful to equip themselves with map and compass, both of which are sadly missing from this work. Whereas La Scala, Milan and the New York Metropolitan opera houses are mentioned frequently, many venues, including Glyndebourne, are not mentioned at all. Many great opera singers, past and present, are either mentioned in passing or left out altogether. However, these omissions are in some way compensated for by the inclusion of a colourful picture of Mickey Mouse conducting an orchestra.
Those looking for a good read through the subject may very well be more than happy with this book. However, those requiring an inclusive reference work will be disappointed. Personally, I find I can learn more about composers, their operas and the singers from such works as The Grove Book of Operas, which doesn't even set out to be a history of opera, but it does have a superb glossary. Perhaps I don't fully appreciate these matters and some learned person will be kind enough to explain what I haven't fathomed. All I know is that, when I buy a reference work I don't expect it to be composed after the style of a novel, any more than, when I buy a novel, I expect it to be composed after the fashion of a reference work.
To be fair, and in all kindness, my assessment is that, we have here a well written and readable text that has sadly fallen between two stools. In other words: it's a missed opportunity. It's five stars for the quality of writing style and readability and one star for its worth as a reference work. Hence, 5 + 1 = 6/2 = 3 stars.