Conrad L Osborne, Opera As Opera: The State of the Art.
The cover art says it all. OPERA AS OPERA in big capital letters. The first "OPERA" in the title is given a pristine graphic treatment, the second resembles crumbling marble. It's perfect imagery to sum up the impetus behind this book--that the operatic art form today is in serious decline, if not in imminent disintegration.
Conrad L. Osborne, elder statesman among music critics, took 18 years to write this book and the result is 827 densely packed pages. Even for opera lovers accustomed to lengthy works, this magnus opus is formidable, a veritable treasure trove of operatic/cultural observations from the last fifty plus years. While it's impossible to cover all the details here, I will address Osborne's main points, many (not all) of which resonate with this reviewer.
Divided into seven sections, the book begins with a discussion on the nature of opera, which Osborne calls "theatre through song," a genre that only comes alive in performance. It's the end-product of a chain of hierarchical events--from creators (composers/librettists) to interpreters (singers, musicians, conductors, directors) to receptors (audience members/critics).
While interpreters are necessarily given a certain degree of freedom, the ultimate arbiter of the work must rest with the creators, who set the boundaries or "rules of play. The interpreters should yield to the creators--after all, the opera is the intellectual property of the creators, not the interpreters. Osborne feels directors and designers today largely ignore this code of ethics, citing Robert Wilson's Met production of agner's Lohengrin as a case in point, in a chapter humorously titled "Dob Does Dick."
According to Osborne, the Wilson Lohengrin removes the work from its time and place, separates the music from the action and the words. Whatever the dramatic situation, he prescribes movements that are glacial and devoid of urgency. The opera's meaning is therefore no longer narrative-based, but instead, embedded in the design or stage action. In contrast, Osborne cites a straightforward Mariinsky Theatre production of chaikovsky's Mazeppa as one he feels better serves the original.
Osborne invents the term "E-19"--or "Extended 19th century"--the period from Mozart to Puccini--as the golden age of operatic creations. He feels that since then, there has been a dearth of meaningful new works capable of entering the core repertoire. One reason for this is what he calls the abandonment of the "cultural centrality of the myth of Tristan and Isolde," a kind of universal core narrative that is at the centre of the Western Romantic tradition. In its place is a sort of postmodernist style that's ill-suited to opera, and narratives that are somehow less engaging.
While I feel that may be true, society has changed since the E-19 period. here are plenty of contemporary subject matters that make for fine operatic fodder. If these new works fail to engage an audience, it's for musical reasons. The advent of atonality/12-tone/minimalism and a general devaluing of melody can render new works less accessible: it may be intellectually meaningful, but emotionally unengaging.
Osborne mentions there's a general decline in truly great voices. He cites a 1968 Metropolitan Opera Adriana Lecouvreur with Tebaldi, Corelli, and Domingo, calling the first two great while the third (Domingo) equivalent to 2/3 of Corelli--a provocative statement! I argue if singers today are less distinctive, it's not due to a lack of talent. There're simply more performances worldwide, and the talent pool is spread very thin. Conservatories and teachers encourage a uniformity of tone, so as a result, even beautiful voices tend to sound the same. The huge size of opera houses, especially in North America, doesn't help matters.
At the end of the day, opera lovers will find this book a satisfying, if provocative, read. Do set aside a holiday to tackle it.--Joseph So