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BOOK REVIEW: FIRST NIGHTS AT THE OPERA

Thomas Forrest Kelly: First Nights at the Opera
Yale University Press

 

By Joel Kasow

NEW YORK, 6 October 2005—Thomas Kelly’s First Nights at the Opera fills a gap in our knowledge about theatrical customs at various crucial periods in operatic history. The author takes five operas—Handel’s Giulio Cesare, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Meyerbeers Huguénots, Wagner’s Rheingold and Verdi’s Otello—and gives us the socio-historical context in which to place the works. We thus read extensively about early 18th century London, late 18th century Prague, mid-19th century Paris, Bayreuth and late 19th century Milan, not only from a historical point of view, but we are told how theaters were constructed and functioned, how the performers acted on stage, how audiences reacted. We can no more easily understand that what we sometimes today experience as interminable pauses for changes of scenery did not exist at the time because changes were effected in front of the audience, through the use of what the author calls "short" and "long" stages, the stage divided laterally by a painted drop so that intimate scenes were played downstage with the drop raised when the full stage was required for the ensuing scene. Descriptions of the stage machinery available at these different times is also revealing.

Each chapter follows the same general outline: a brief introduction, Preparation, Background, The Performance, Documents. There are also sidebars with contemporary commentaries. The section containing documents would have been even more useful if it had only new material rather than often repeating what we had already read either in the text or the sidebars. The many illustrations add to our enjoyment, particularly when we get to Wagner and Verdi and there is photographic evidence.

A problematic aspect of this otherwise fascinating and highly recommended book is that it does not seem to have been through the hands of an editor. Would we otherwise be reading about the "Spanish domination of Belgium in 1830", or that Harriet Smithson was the heroine of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique? I had never previously encountered the word  "chapel-masters" instead of the more customary Kapellmeister or even Maestro di cappella. Not to mention such questionable remarks as "a chorus of peasants arrives accompanying a bride and bridegroom to their wedding. The chorus has beautiful but relatively simple music" (Don Giovanni) or "The ballroom, scene of the most spine-chilling scream in opera…." (Don Giovanni). A further instance of verbal infelicity accompanies a photo of Louise Jaide as Erda: "Her enunciation was perhaps less than perfect, possibly hampered by her appearance from below stage in a bluish light. …" Don’t let these negative comments prevent you from reading an otherwise engaging account of five significant periods in operatic history.

   

Thomas Forrest Kelly: First Nights at the Opera
Hardcover: 464 pages
New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004
ISBN: 0-300-10044-2
$35.00

Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor of Culturekiosque.com.



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