Opera: Passion, Power, and Politics

There it all is, everything a boy or girl could want in one headline.

Now in fact that’s the title of a big beautiful book that I’ve been reading.  And what good is a book if it doesn’t push your buttons? This one certainly intrigues and excites me.

passionpowerpolitics_PICTUREIn my experience big luscious books about opera that are full of nice pictures rarely have the depth or intellectual heft to match.  Hm, isn’t that funny? A book will be heavy to lift but light-weight where it matters most: in the text.  Aha,  that’s the usual, but not in this case.  I saw Opera: Passion, Power and Politics on the new arrivals shelf at the Edward Johnson Library, where I find so much great stuff (for instance that Bernstein book that I devoured just a few days ago): a book that arose in context with an exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum that ran quite recently, from September 2017 until February of this year.

Ah, if only we had a show like this in Toronto.

When I read you the conceptual overview from the back jacket, please note that I am describing text that is embossed in gold, embedded in the fabric of the cover.  It’s almost too beautiful for me to capture the words, a wonderfully sensuous book to handle, even before you discover the beautiful pictures inside.

Here’s that blurb, which may surprise you by being quite intriguing, certainly more than any such opera picture book I’ve ever seen before. I’ll bold-face it in gold-coloured text, although this doesn’t nearly do justice to this lovely object: as in the gleaming picture above.

Focusing on seven key premieres in seven European cities, this fascinating book –published in collaboration with the Royal opera House, London– captures the passion, power and spectacle of opera over its rich 400-year history.  With introductory essays by some of today’s leading practitioners including Plácido Domingo, Antonio Pappano and Simone Young, it celebrates an innovative and complex art form that continues to inspire new generations of audiences around the world. A product of its own time, each opera also acts as a lens through which we can examine contemporary politics, culture and society.

Claudio Monteverdi L’incoronazione di Poppea 

George Frideric Handel Rinaldo

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Le nozze di Figaro

Giuseppe Verdi Nabucco

Richard Wagner Tannhäuser

Richard Strauss Salome

Dmitri Shostakovich Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District

The jacket speaks of Domingo & Pappano perhaps because those names will help sell the book. But I’m more intrigued by Danielle de Niese talking about her role debut as Poppea, Robert Carsen musing on Rinaldo and Handel’s da capo arias, Roger Parker on the young Verdi, Michael Levine speaking of the design of Tannhäuser complete with a couple of intriguing photos, and Graham Vick speaking of Shostakovich.   It may not cover everything, but it does give you essays exploring opera in genuinely inter-disciplinary  ways.  I’m thinking of titles such as

  • Nicholas Till writing about “Vienna and the Englightenment”, aiming to put Mozart into context
  • “Wagner among the boulevards: Tannhäuser in Paris“, talking about the city and its culture as much as the opera
  • “Visions of women: Salome and Dresden”, looking at Wilde, Strauss & Beardsley (yes some lovely images), and Strauss’s opera as seen through the lens of directors Peter Brook (with help from Salvador Dali’s designs), Robert Carsen & David McVicar.
  • “Heroine, victim, or Criminal? Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”, an ambitious essay from Elizabeth Wilson exploring the intersection of Soviet politics and opera.

Each of the seven pairings –an opera and a city—elicits a short introductory piece (such as Domingo’s or Carsen’s) plus a longer essay (such as the one by Parker or Wilson).

And there’s a concluding section that isn’t really necessary, that curiously reminds me of the Bernstein book I reviewed a few days ago, the way it weakens the book, perhaps by seeming to be trying too hard.

Even so it’s a magnificent book, a worthy gift for any opera lover of your acquaintance.  (if you follow the link you can see the book in soft or hard cover, an inexpensive opera tote bag and even an Aubrey Beardsley scarf.)

Oh heck, buy it for yourself. You’re worth it.

This entry was posted in Art, Architecture & Design, Books & Literature, Music and musicology, Opera, Politics, Popular music & culture, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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