The Birth of an Opera: Fifteen Masterpieces from Poppea to Wozzeck

Michael Rose, Author
Michael Rose. Norton, $35 (512p) ISBN 978-0-393-06043-0
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Drawing on letters, memoirs, and personal accounts by composers, librettists, performers, and producers, music historian Rose (Berlioz Remembered) allows these primary sources to chronicle the contexts, controversies, failures, and triumphs of 15 popular operas. Far from a staid history of opera, Rose's reflections—which originated over 50 years ago as a series of radio programs on the BBC—illustrate the human forces, including the contention between composers and librettists and the contention between audience and actors, that comprise the backgrounds of these operas. For example, in Monteverdi's 17th century L'incoronazione di Poppea, the librettist Busenello, recognizing opera as entertainment for the middle-classes rather than simply a spectacle performed solely for the king and his court, "wove into the historical core of his drama the popular elements that Venetian audiences demanded." Rose observes that Monteverdi's opera is the first opera in which composer and librettist "create a musical drama in which human ambition, human instincts, and human frailty are allowed to run their natural course to an end that accepts, for good or ill, the overwhelming power of Love." Bizet's Carmen was a disaster, Rose says, for hostile audiences found the music completely void of melody. Rose's entertaining book reveals new aspects of favorite operas for opera buffs and provides a nice introduction to opera for new listeners. (Mar.)
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