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The "too" Rough Guide to Opera

By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 6 September 1997 - Rough Guides began as travel guides, well thought of by all those I've ever spoken to, and they are now branching out into new territory. It is difficult to see at whom this new book - which I started reading with great enthusiasm that turned into ever greater irritation - is aimed, despite the claim in the introduction that, "Whether you're new to opera or are already familiar with many of its masterpieces, THE ROUGH GUIDE TO OPERA is the essential guide through this mass of music, providing concise biographies of all the significant composers, incisive discussions of their major works, and definitive surveys of the recordings." Things became transparent when I arrived at Gounod's Faust to find the following remark: "Whether through solos, ensembles, ballets or choruses (you will probably recognize the thumping 'Soldiers [sic] Chorus'), Gounod gives every scene a tune that is at least enjoyable while it lasts and at best highly memorable." Is the "Soldiers' Chorus" truly the best-known number of the score? And then in discussing Andrea Chenier, we are told that "La mamma morta" was "used to great effect in Philadelphia".

The format is enticing, the choice of operas is unusual with an unusually large segment given over to contemporary repertory, though I would question the criterion for inclusion as likelihood of being encountered in the opera house. Some of the works, e.g. Penderecki's Devils of Loudon or Schreker's Gezeichneten, may be there because of the extant recordings, but is that sufficient justification?

The introductions to each chapter (1. The birth of opera: Monteverdi to Purcell; 2. Baroque Opera: Vivaldi to Handel, ...) are brief, followed by short biographies of the composers, plot summaries in digest form, discussion of the work and recommended recordings. Unfortunately, the amount of factual error I encountered on a necessarily rapid reading was alarming. To cite just a few examples: in the recording of Handel's Serse, did no one realize that not every Studer is Cheryl (in this case Ulrich), the Paris version of Gluck's Orphée was written not for soprano but tenor, axing the final act of Mefistofele was not common, occurring only in one recording for reasons of economy, Toscanini did not choose the Prologue of Gioconda for his solitary post-war concert appearance at La Scala in 1948 (try Mefistofele), in Chausson's Roi Arthus, Genièvre does indeed survive into the third act when she commits suicide after a lengthy solo, the Alagnas have recorded Roméo et Juliette and not Faust, the Russian scholar who has touted the story of Tchaikowsky's suicide is a she, not a he, Peter Grimes has four sea interludes, not three, Ronald Duncan was a British poet, not American, and lots more.

Then there are such tidbits as Christa Ludwig was "a student of Zinka Milanov in New York", Karl Böhm's favorite tenor was Anton de Ridder, not to mention such gems as Eboli and Amneris described as "low" roles in the biography of Fiorenza Cossotto, Barbara Hendricks "ringing tone" being "woefully underexploited by record companies" or Suzanne Danco's "voice has a curiously overstated quality that made it perfect for Mozart and Debussy". And what are we to make of the misattributions of Placido Domingo's directorial posts: "This live recording [Hérodiade] was one of the first to be made by the San Francisco Opera after Domingo's appointment as its director" or "[he] is the director of the Los Angeles Opera." In fact he is artistic consultant to the Los Angeles Opera and director of the Washington Opera, which does not even rate a mention in the Opera House Directory which concludes the book.

I decided not to comment on the recommended recordings, because - as I know from personal experience (see 101 Best) - these choices are always highly personal. In the case of Gounod's Roméo et Juliette, however, I cannot accept a recommendation of the Freni and Corelli version on EMI which is totally beyond the pale, with a second choice for the tepid Erede on Decca, and not a word about the Plasson. Otherwise I might say that their choices are as idiosyncratic as mine.

The same is true for their choice of singers and conductors to be included in the biographical listing. While I will not comment on the inclusions, it is odd that Leonard Warren and Richard Tucker don't make the cut while Robert Merrill and Jan Peerce do. And Antonino Votto is on the list of conductors and not Rafael Kubelik. There is a listing of opera houses throughout the world, with addresses, phone numbers and an indication of ticket prices. Websites are also given where available. The final section devoted to definitions is again full of misinformation, particularly the descriptions of vocal categories with suggestions of characteristic roles. In sum, as with many such guides, THE ROUGH GUIDE is to be used with much caution. We can only hope that succeeding editions will correct the far too many factual errors and at the same time reconsider some of their enthusiastic excesses for the concept is a far cry from many of the guides currently available.

OPERA: The Rough Guide.
A complete guide to the operas, composers, artists and recordings.
Written by Matthew Boyden, with contributions from Joe Staines, Matthew Rye, Simon Broughton, Philip Tebbs and Nick Kemberley.
Edited by Jonathan Buckley.
London 1997.
(Distributed by the Penguin Group.)

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