Well, folks, this is it. If you want a book on opera (and you’re not an opera academic), this is the one. I should preface all comments by saying that in Australia and the UK, this book is called The Good Opera Guide, in the US, it’s called A Night at the Opera, but it’s the same book, regardless of which particular title/cover, etc. that you purchase it under.
Denis is English (unlike Phil from the last review, who is American) and maybe that’s why he can afford to be so irreverent. But he served as Deputy Chairman of the Royal Opera House for 9 years, so he certainly knows his opera.
This book doesn’t necessarily contain much in the way of introductions to the opera – but there are a lot of appendices containing a glossary of terms, composer and singer biographies and anything else useful to help you get into opera.
But the meat and potatoes of this book is Denis’s opera descriptions. Unlike any other book on opera, he divides his descriptions into two sections. The first one talks about the plot, the second section talks about the music and tells you what to listen out for.
The music sections are very good, and Denis is quite enthusiastic and down-to-earth when describing the music. Also, he rates the musical sections from no stars through to ***, so even if you don’t agree with him, you can tell which bits he likes, which is helpful to know what to listen out for.
As far as the plot description goes, however, Denis just as enthusiastically trashes the opera storyline completely as he describes it. For instance, here is his description of the background for Il Trovatore:
“Stand by for the most confused baby-swapping plot in the business. So let’s get that sorted first.
“Count Luna II has a younger brothercalled Garcia. One day when Garcia was a baby an old gypsy woman was found breathing over the cradle. Garcia fell ill. Garcia’s father Count Luna I believed the gypsy had cast a spell on the baby. Disregarding the due processes of law he had her hunted down and burned at the stake. The gypsy’s daughter Azucena understandably mad for revenge seized – as she thought – the wretched baby Garcia and chucked him on the fire. Mistake! It was the wrong baby – her own (and nobody noticed). Thus she was left with Garcia and brought him up as her son under the name of Manrico, our hero, true brother to our villain, Count Luna II. Get it? Then the rest is a pushover.”
And in this vein he continues to rubbish the stories of the most famous operas of all time. All of which they thoroughly deserved.
Opera has always been a collection of the most C-grade stories held together by A-grade music, and I’m all for someone standing up and saying so. You would think that this approach would take all the fun out of music, but Denis is such an opera buff, it only makes it more enjoyable. (In fact, taking the upper-crust mystique out of it just makes it more accessible.) So if you were only going to get one book on opera, this would be the one.
5 out of 5.