Opera by Robert Cannon
|Opera by Robert Cannon|
|Reviewer: John Van der Kiste|
|Summary: A study of opera from earliest times to the present, including examinations of the major composers, and illustrative tables. It assumes some prior knowledge of the subject and is written to some extent with the informed specialist in mind.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 431||Date: February 2012|
|Publisher: Cambridge University Press|
Opera, Cannon tells us in the introduction to this book, has never ceased to grow and change – often quite radically. His aim is to describe and show the many different facets of opera in its development over the centuries, and its relevance to the modern world. While he does not intend to write a history as such, he has organised this book chronologically as opera developed in a very conscious way across Europe.
The result, part of the Cambridge Introductions to Music series, is aimed at two complementary readerships, firstly at the student of music who needs a basis for an informed way of approaching it, and secondly at the person already equipped with an in-depth understanding of opera, who enjoys seeing performances on stage, and is keen to know more. While it can be used as a point of reference for particular periods or even composers, it is his idea that the book should rather be read as a whole.
The starting point is in the pre-operatic forms, and an understanding of the musical and dramatic elements of the form. Brief reference is made to its origins in the world of ancient Greece, and medieval music theatre, to the beginnings of opera as we recognize it in the Renaissance world, and the creations of Caccini, Monteverdi and others. For most people, however, it really comes into its own in the eighteenth century, from the age of Handel onwards, and through the Romantic era which followed the Industrial Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. The works of Mozart, Verdi, Rossini, Donizetti and other major names are covered in some depth.
I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Romanticism, and liked the way that a strong connection was established between historical events and contemporary cultural achievements, the shared themes and the close relationship between music, poetry, painting and theatre. A chapter is devoted to 'the Wagnerian revolution', and rightly so, in view of the composer's role in changing opera in terms of its musical form and overall content, as well as its aesthetic and social function. Wagner is seen by the author as a kind of 19th century hero, struggling to save and re-direct the art of his day.
The story continues into the 21st century. Britten, who consciously saw himself as establishing an English operatic tradition while at the same time developing a musical language that would accommodate his audience, is dealt with in some detail. The text finishes with three short appendices. One examines the development of singing voices in opera, another the development of lyric theatre alternatives to opera, covering the lighter developments such as opera comique and the musical, from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Sondheim and the vehicles for commercial tunes of our day such as 'Mamma Mia!' and 'We Will Rock You'. Also included are an extensive 12-page bibliography, a table of major opera, artistic and political developments from 1899 to 2008, and a glossary of key terms.
Throughout the text there are illustrative tables, providing detailed easy to follow analysis of arias, scenes and acts, visual guides to historical movements, and chronologies relating to genres and individual composers' works.
I would not classify this as a beginner's guide, or even to borrow the title of a popular series, a rough guide to opera, by any means. It is really intended for the informed reader, assuming as it does a certain amount of specialized knowledge of music. However, as a work of reference and of study, its 400 pages provide a thorough grounding which the well-informed enthusiast will relish and be pleased to have on the shelf.
If this book appeals then yu might also enjoy The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can't Do without it by Philip Ball
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