Strangely, when I first read this book several years ago, I thought it dry and not thorough enough. However, I recently took it off the shelves to give it another look. Imagine my pleasure when I discovered I had a little gem here. This is a wonderful guide to opera– for a beginner or even a not-so-beginner. I imagine that even if one is an expert, he or she might still enjoy the book if just to compare opinions.
The book begins with a glossary of terms. Here, for instance, you can find out that ‘coloratura’ is a term meaning the elaboration of the melody in the forms of runs, cadenzas, trills, etc.– a vocal line demanding great agility. To clarify each term, the author adds examples of coloratura sopranos, such as Joan Sutherland Best Recordings , or mentions several arias that require this ability (the Mad Scene from Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor (complete opera) with Maria Callas, Tito Gobbi, Giuseppe di Stefano, Tullio Serafin or the Bell Song from Delibes: Lakmé / Bonynge, Opéra de Monte-Carlo). Each definition is fully explained.
‘The Operas’ is the next section. Nicholas explains that because this is a book by and large for beginners, he chose the most well-known and accessible operas that would also be recommended for those who wish to discover more.
Included in each summary is the plot of each opera, the history of the opera, the names of characters, the length of the performance, the first-ever staging, and the highlights from each opera. The recommended recordings for each opera are also included– and this is a superb incluson! For instance, if one is wondering what the best recording of Bellini’s Norma is, he might try Bellini – Norma / Maria Callas, Ludwig, Corelli, Zaccaria, Teatro alla Scala, Serafin or Bellini – Norma / Sutherland Horne J. Alexander R. Cross LSO Bonynge. If one wishes to find a highly recommended recording of Verdi’s Rigoletto, she may want to try Verdi: Rigoletto (Complete Opera); Maria Callas; Tito Gobbi; Giuseppe di Stefano, Verdi – Rigoletto / Bruson · Gruberova · Shicoff · Fassbaender · R. Lloyd · Matteuzzi · Rydl · Santa Cecilia · Sinopoli, or to view, Verdi – Rigoletto / Luciano Pavarotti, Ingvar Wixell, Edita Gruberova, Victoria Vergara, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Riccardo Chailly.
‘The Composers’ is a smaller section and includes, well, all the composers mentioned previously. Here, you’ll find a brief biography of everyone from Daniel-Francois-Esprit Auber: Overtures and Rare Ballets to Kurt Weill – The Threepenny Opera / Kollo · Adorf · Dernesch · Lemper · Milva · Reichmann · Tremper · Boysen · RIAS · Mauceri.
Finally, ‘The Artists’ ends the book. All the performers that contributed to opera are listed here, also with a bit of their history. From Thomas Allen and June Anderson to Dame Eva Turner and Jon Vickers, you’ll find most everyone you’ve heard of and many you might not have known before.
Jeremy Nicholas infuses his writing with humor. Instead of a dry recitation of facts, he includes little details you might not find elsewhere– facts that make each synopsis extremely enjoyable to read. Besides everything else mentioned, I learned that when reviewing Bizet’s Carmen, The New York Times wrote, “Carmen must stand on its own merits– and those are very slender. . . As a work of art it is naught” in 1878. I also discovered that although only Massenet’s Manon (1884) and Puccini’s Manon Lescaut (1893) survive in performance today, there was also a ballet (Manon Lescaut) by Halevy (1830) and another opera (also Manon Lescaut) by Auber (1856) (all four based on the novel by Abbe Prevost).
A Beginner’s Guide to Opera is lavishly illustrated and includes a thorough timeline as well as a helpful cross-referenced index. This is an excellent book.