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A Song of Love and Death

Meaning of Opera

By (author) Peter Conrad
Format: Hardback
Publisher: Vintage Publishing, London, United Kingdom
Imprint: Chatto & Windus
Published: 30th Nov 1987
Dimensions: w 150mm h 230mm
Weight: 698g
ISBN-10: 0701132744
ISBN-13: 9780701132743
Barcode No: 9780701132743

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Kirkus US
In these densely allusive, nearly free-associative essays on opera, Oxford English professor Conrad (Romantic Opera and Literary Form, Imagining America) emphasizes - sometimes to a glib, distorting degree - the wild, blasphemous, mad, and savage elements in music-drama from Monteverdi to Birtwhistle. The results are often eloquent and provocative, almost equally often strained or blurry. "The characters of opera obey neither moral nor social law. . .Id in opera never learns to fear the superego; libido never acknowledges the repressive rule of a society." Beginning with these and other exaggerated (or simply false) generalizations, Conrad goes on - in five short thematic rambles - to celebrate the irrational and sensual impulses (wine, women, song, deviltry, etc.) at opera's supposed heart; but it's a skewed, only half-convincing overview - with lots about Don Giovanni, for instance, yet virtually nothing about Mozart's more "rational" masterworks. Fortunately, in the ten composer close-ups that follow, Conrad downplays his overstated thesis and brings out, in most cases, the unique character of varied operatic styles: the "social tensions, mental anxieties and spiritual yearnings" in Mozart; the "dreamy derangment" of Bellini and Donizetti; epic historical drama in Berlioz and Mussorgsky; the myth-making of Wagner (who best fits Conrad's thematic tilt); the vast humanistic embrace of Verdi - who, like Shakespeare, "hears everyone at once and distributes music impartially to all men alike." Only when it comes to Puccini does Conrad's idiosyncratic view seem to blind him: loathing realism in opera ("the rite deified"), he can't appreciate even a La Boheme. And the thematic exaggerations ("opera is a preserve of sensual violence") occasionally resurface in the book's final section, which examines specific theaters, directors, performers, and performance styles: the conservative Met and pastoral Glyndebourne; the "spatial freedom" of opera on film; the innovations of Peter Brook, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, and others; and singers - like Callas - whose intense portrayals restore opera "to its source in rite." Vastly knowledgeable, thickly styled, and for sophisticated opera-goers only - who'll be able to separate out the genuine insights and evocations from the grandiose, dubious pronouncements. (Kirkus Reviews)