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Len Mullenger:

RICHARD FAWKES: The History of Opera.   Read by: Robert Powell Naxos NA417612/4 318m DDD.

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The soft clear enunciation of Robert Powell has already thrilled us to good measure in 'The History of Classical Music' so this history of dramatic music provides for an even more instructive guide through the realms of this unique form of artistic expression. The text is permeated by myriad operatic music and this indeed adds candour and originality to the whole enterprise which should now count as the definitive narrated reference book to those who haven't the patience to consult those forbidding reference books!

Starting off with the bawdy incantations of Vecchi and Caccini, we thrill to the highly unique music making of those early 16th century days. A fair amount of just importance is given to Monteverdi's essays in the genre whilst as opera started spreading it is pertinent to examine Pergolesi and his successors on French soil, Lully and Rameau. There we learn of the popular opera-ballet style that was so important to the development of the genre.

Purcell's classic 'Dido and Aeneas' paved the way for handle although all we have here is a short excerpt from 'Rinaldo' together with some popular excerpts from 'Serse'. Another important contemporaneous composer was Gluck whose 'Orfeo' remains one of the classic operas in the repertoire. This has not been the case with salieri or Benda who are justly mentioned as we come to the magnificent Mozartian gems.

All the main Mozart operas are justly given their due and they take up almost half of Side 2 together with a short discussion on Fidelio, that unique masterpiece by Beethoven. Italian opera is also covered with great detail especially the charming Rossini and Donizetti, two giants of the operatic scene. One must not forget Bellini, Weber and Meyerbeer who helped to shape the way for the respective styles that were to dominate the 19th century.

The French also put in an important contribution with Gounod, Offenbach (also operetta) and the prodigiously talented Georges Bizet. I also listened enchanted to the 'Flower Duet' by Delibes and was at turns thrilled and disappointed by the enigmatic Verdi, a composer who still eludes me. Wagner is indeed a special case, his magnificent music dramas continue to set standards by which others are judged (a beautiful Liebestod) whilst the rise of verismo is justly given proper importance.

After being enthralled by Puccini it was a delight to find the nationalistic operas of Smetana and Dvorak given full fore. These lead to the Russian canvases of Borodin, Mussorgsky and Rimsky Korsakov, just representatives of the Slav risings of the late 19th century. There is also time to discuss Szymanowski, Janacek and all the other modernists like Berg and Schoenberg, whose 'Moses and Aaron' I find utterly fascinating.

There is a whole side devoted to operetta as well as sizeable references to Britten and Birtwhistle but by now I feel that opera is not quite what it used to be. 'The History of Opera' should be the ideal reference book to lovers of the genre as well as new found converts or for those simply looking to plug a few gaps in this regard.


Gerald Fenech


Gerald Fenech

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