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A Night at the Opera:
As a nuts-and-bolts operagoer's guide, Denis Forman's book is richly incisive. It's equally satisfying as a tart, effervescent take on the solemn world of opera.
The author--a British television executive and former deputy chairman of the Royal Opera House--covers most of the likely offerings of your local repertory company, with a few questionable omissions (Peter Grimes) and inclusions (The Threepenny Opera). For each he provides a synopsis, musical highlights, critical remarks, and historical information (the premiere of Il Trovatore: "stupendous"; that of Norma: "a flop"). Another section offers comments on everything from the craze for authenticity to the practice of booing.
Forman's opinions sometimes run athwart of convention. Falstaff "has no sex appeal and no heart, and opera demands both these qualities"; Tristan und Isolde is the creation of "the Wagner that liked to spend time stroking velvet." His tone, especially in the synopses, is often evocative of Anna Russell's opera parodies: "It really is too bad of you Tristan to die on me like this. She passes out."
The prose can be cute, but that fits Forman's approach of puncturing the inflated atmosphere of opera while glorying in it. Though he is most entertaining when he's daring to shout in church, his enthusiasms are as illuminating as his barbs. "Traviata is the first grown-up opera about contemporary life," he says, adroitly locating that work in operatic history. In Don Giovanni, "Mozart brought terror to the opera stage for the first time." It's the book's greatest pleasure that Forman's passion is matched by his knowledge. --David Olivenbaum [via]