Opera criticism today, when it does not deal with works by a single composer, often links opera to something outside it. It is common for books and articles to have such titles as Literature as Opera, Opera and Ideas, or Romantic Opera and Literary Form1 and chapter headings like “Opera as Representation” or “Opera and Society.”2 The authors are frequently professors of literature or history and they may include anthropologists and psychologists. Lurking in the background is the specter of Wagner’s Oper und Drama, though only Joseph Kerman’s classic Opera as Drama3 boldly adopts Wagner’s terms. Kerman’s is also one of the few books to insist that “opera is a type of drama whose integral existence is determined from point to point and in the whole by musical articulation.” Though some of the books by historians and teachers of comparative literature can illuminate important aspects of operatic art, serious opera criticism cannot afford to keep music at bay.
Peter Conrad’s new book takes its title from Tristan und Isolde’s “Liebestod” (“A Song of Love and Death”) and it has a subtitle of Wagnerian pretension. He writes ambitiously, in a variety of tones, of which two stand out: that of the passionate opera fan, even groupie, and that of the sophisticated literary critic. In his first paragraph he describes opera fans as “converts” to a religion that “changes the lives of those it wins over, transforming them into acolytes and partisans who will queue all night in a blizzard to buy tickets or cross continents for a performance—who think, talk, read and dream about the art that is their avocation.” One might remind Conrad that the followers of Bruce Springsteen or the Grateful Dead seem to feel the same way about their heroes.
Nonetheless, the enthusiastic tone pervades Conrad’s book, even in its first two, more analytical, sections. In the section on “Rite,” Conrad seeks to identify “the gods of opera, the subjects of its rite” (Orpheus/Apollo, Dionysus, Eros, Mephistopheles, and Dagon—a pagan idol), drawing examples from across “the history of the form,” starting with Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607). The section on “Repertory” proposes to follow, in a general way, “the course of that history to show how opera in one period after another makes drama out of music.” In the final section, “Performance,” Conrad has many interesting stories to tell about standing-room lines at the Metropolitan Opera, the social background of Rudolf Bing, the night Jessye Norman sang both Cassandra and Dido in Berlioz’s Les Troyens, and the night Birgit Nilsson devoured three successive tenors during the three acts of Tristan.
For the true fanatic, going to the opera becomes itself a rite, and the prima donna its goddess: as Bellini’s Norma leads the Druids in prayer to their “casta diva,” Conrad and his fellow believers worship at the shrine of the diva from whose charmed body and throat emerge the bel canto strains. Nowhere is this more evident than in Conrad’s comments on the art, vocal…
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