cover image A Song of Love and Death: The Meaning of Opera

A Song of Love and Death: The Meaning of Opera

Peter Conrad. Poseidon Press, $19.45 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-671-64353-9

This study of opera's rites, repertory and performers is perhaps the most intellectually stimulating book on the subject in the past 30 years. Conrad, a professor at Oxford, identifies opera's chief gods and monsters: Orpheus (from Monteverdi through Offenbach to Gershwin and Stockhausen); Dionysus (whose drinking songs are synonymous with opera); Eros (Don Giovanni and Carmen are similar in their existential capers and courting of danger); Mephistopheles (in the music dramas of Berlioz, Gounod, Boito and Busoni); and Dagon (as portrayed by Handel, Saint-Saens, Meyerbeer and Schonberg). A related section examines the repertory from 1607 to Mozart, significant 19th century romantic, bel canto, political and historical operas, the distinctive contributions of Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, Strauss and more recent composers. The final section surveys and evaluates the achievements of the Paris Opera, the Met and Glyndebourne, film versions of opera, various directorial and conducting approaches and the prowess of leading singers of our time. Discussed in passing are oratorios, Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, Schonberg's Gurrelieder and Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, the film based on a novel by James M. Cain, who had guilty misgivings about his weakness for opera. Performing Arts Book Club main selection. (September 3)