IN SOME ways, this book should never have been published.
Great Operas, by Michael Steen
Icon Books, £25
The preface describes how the author was asked by a friend to write a brief bluffer’s guide to an opera she was going to see – “something informative, but light and amusing” and presuming no more musical knowledge than “a typical BBC Radio 4 or Classic FM listener who learned piano at school”.
This volume collects 25 such guides, offering an outline of the plot, a more detailed scene-by-scene breakdown, some biographical notes on the composer and librettist, a few critical comments and some related, relevant information – on, say, the spread of tuberculosis for La Bohème, the career of Pushkin for Eugene Onegin or freemasonry in The Magic Flute.
There is an abundance of witty and gossipy material in the footnotes, often dealing with performance history. As well as the notorious diva whose behaviour as Tosca so annoyed the stagehands they placed a trampoline on the spot where she would fall from the battlements, it has more recondite little episodes. Contrary to the caricature in Shaffer’s Amadeus, Salieri was a plump, jokey little chap who apparently found it impossible to pass a patisserie. Likewise, I’m glad to know that Placido Domingo’s overlong kiss with Birgit Nilsson in Turandot led not just to catcalls from the audience but Nilsson contracting tonsillitis.
The 25 operas Steen selects are a peculiar mixture. It’s peculiar that he omits Wagner’s the Ring Cycle, undoubtedly his masterpiece, and Verdi’s Falstaff, though it is referenced a number of times. The absence of Bellini could be a matter of taste, but the absence of Beethoven’s Fidelio requires a reason (perhaps because it has slipped out of Operabase’s useful statistical record of the 25 most performed operas worldwide between 2007 and the present?) Personally, I’d have included The Turn Of The Screw or Billy Budd by Britten, and increased the representation of the 20th century generally.
But these are personal choices. The reason this should not have been a book at all is it can’t be read from cover to cover: it is, in effect, 25 little essays that should have been sold individually at £1 a piece as e-books.
There is a degree of repetition that makes me wonder if the book was read by an editor at all. So, in the chapter on “Cav & Pag” we read: “Fauré, the leading French composer who most of us know for being the composer of The Requiem, dismissed the verismo school of music for consisting of ‘three or four chaps who have conjured up a neo-Italian art which is easily the most miserable thing in existence’.” He regarded their operas as “a kind of soup, where every style from every country gets all mixed up”.
Flick forward to the chapter on Puccini’s Tosca and we read “Fauré, the leading French composer who most of us know for being the composer of The Requiem, regarded the Paris premiere of Tosca in 1903 as an important event because ‘of Sardou, the librettist, and the bizarre school of music to which the composer Puccini belongs. It consists of three or four chaps who have conjured up a neo-Italian art which is easily the most miserable thing in existence’.” Steen continues, quoting Fauré describing Puccini et al as producing “a kind of soup, where every style from every country gets all mixed up”.
In the next chapter, we read that Puccini was seen as an anachronism “and tends to get a bad press from music professionals. Fauré, who many know mainly as the composer of The Requiem, dismissed his music as ‘a neo-Italian art which is easily the most miserable thing in existence… a kind of soup, where every style from every country gets all mixed up’.” This is the most egregious, but far from the only, example of self-recycling.
Steen is clearly the kind of person to produce such guides – his eye for a good anecdote is sharp and there is an evident love of his subject. The musical knowledge is imparted lightly: for example, his description of elaborate coloratura is linked to an anecdote of a soprano singing Rossini’s Una voce to him, only for the composer to ask “But what were you singing?”
Going to the opera can be daunting – hence the need for such a book. But writing a book can be daunting as well. «