Twentieth Century Opera: A Guide
(Limelight). Martin provides a guide to opera that is sweeping in its scope, thorough in its detail, and authoritative in its commentary. He recalls a century of achievement in an art form that today enjoys unprecedented popularity and that has been generously enriched by challenging works in many cases yet to be fully recognized of the modern era.
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When George Martin first attempted a reference book on 20th-century opera in 1979, it was already a sprawling topic. He then expanded and refined his ideas twice before this fourth version, and his long immersion in the subject has paid dividends. Martin begins with six essays, two of which offer general historical overviews; the earlier one shows how World War I was the defining event for the form. Martin discusses what he sees as the two revolutions in opera (12-tone music and electronic amplification), makes an interesting comparison of religion with psychoanalysis, and touches on the literary quality of opera librettos. The later essay takes on the idea of rock in opera (Martin still has hopes) and the waxing importance of stage directors (especially Robert Wilson) and declares Martin's view of newer operas as a return to "gigantism" with works such as Zimmermann's Die Soldaten. These chapters frame four others on specific composers: Puccini (three biographies are compared for their psychological insights), Prokofiev, Stravinsky (whose shorter operas Martin rather persuasively deems "failures"), and Janácek. The bulk of the book offers a chronological series of 90 plot synopses. There is thorough representation of Britten, later Strauss operas, and Janácek, two works each by Philip Glass and Hans Werner Henze, and even Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. Martin spends more time on operas likely to be encountered in actual performance (such as Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites) and takes the chance of including relatively recent works (Nixon in China by John Adams and The Ghosts of Versailles by John Corigliano) that have not yet made it into the repertory. He even offers approximate timings of each scene to help operagoers through the evening. Martin is a refreshingly honest companion, quite free with his opinions. He goes so far as to point out places where a first-time listener might be bored--and why. This volume is a fine companion to The Metropolitan Opera: Stories of the Great Operas, which covers so many of the 18th- and 19th-century works. --William R. Braun