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The Wagner Operas
ISBN 0691027161 / 9780691027166 / 0-691-02716-1
Publisher Princeton University Press
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Ernest Newman's study of the major Wagner operas (from Der fliegende Holländer onwards) was originally published in 1949 and rapidly achieved the status of a classic opera text, which it retains to this day. There are plenty of other, differing treatments of the stories of the operas, but none as detailed or as dramatically aware as Newman's magisterial volume. Of course, the reprint does not contain information about the composer and his works that would later come to light, nor does it traffic in current modes of thought about the operas (in some cases, thankfully). What Newman does is begin with a history of the myth or the tales on which each opera is based, widening that out to a discussion of Wagner's interest in the story, his involvement with its genesis, and an account of how the work in question was created and first produced. Since in some cases this gestation took years, Newman's clear explication does much to lift the mists surrounding even the simplest of Wagner's operas. He then discusses each opera in detail. The plethora of musical examples and Newman's understanding of Wagner's use of the leitmotif ensure that his readings are responsive both to the histrionic and musical aspects of the stories.
Reading the details of the often complex backgrounds of the operas, as well as what goes on in the opera itself (the discussion of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg alone runs to more than 110 pages of text), should immeasurably enrich the listener's opera-going experience, even in this age of the surtitle. And an appreciation of the range and cogency of Wagner's musical and dramatic genius, which this book offers, will serve to balance the unflattering portrait of Wagner the human being that dominates today's thinking about the Master. --Patrick J. Smith [via]