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Book Review: Opera Lover's Companion

Charles Osborne: Opera Lover's Companion

By Joel Kasow

NEW YORK, 14 February 2005—Charles Osborne has been producing books on operatic themes for many years in between his Agatha Christie adaptations and serious biographies of such figures as Benjamin Britten and W.H. Auden. He has adapted the formula—and much of the material—from his earlier guides to the operas of Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Richard Strauss and the bel canto period (Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti).

The book is arranged by composer, with a short exposition of the work's place in the oeuvre of the composer, a plot summary, brief discussion of musical high points and a recommended recording. There is considerable factual error: Fritz Oeser is mentioned, but not the evil nature of the work he carried out on Carmen or Hoffmann, the role of Norma's consoeur Adalgisa was written for a soprano and not a mezzo, something he might have mentioned, or that the original version of Boris Godunov, which is sometimes performed, did not contain the scenes in Poland that were added because the theater management thought that a love interest was essential.

One might ask the function of the timings given for the various operas, as some are far too short, others seem to include intermissions, others not. Limiting oneself to recommending a sole recorded version is risky, and some of Osborne's choices are bizarre indeed (Domingo and Swenson in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette). One might point out that Barber's Vanessa is today almost always performed in the revised version, not the original, that Britten's Billy Budd is sometimes today performed in the original version and not the revised, that there are recordings of both (original cast for Vanessa, recordings of both versions of Budd), that there are several recordings of Charpentier's Louise and Hindemith's Mathis der Maler, to cite but a few examples, and Kent Nagano's Doktor Faust contains the scenes completed by Anthony Beaumont. The only DVD recommendation is for L'Africaine, and only because there is no audio version (but there is, if one looks on the parallel market).

All in all, a book that can best be ignored for the inexistent fact-checking, bizarre judgments ("Fernando Corena is one of the finest Italian Rossini singers of the day"), misinformation (the original Zerbinetta has to have a high f sharp, while in the revised version it is an E and not an F) and the fact that much of the material has been pillaged from the author's earlier traversals of the operatic repertoire.

The Opera Lover's Companion

The Opera Lover's Companion
by Charles Osborne,
Hardcover: 640 pages
Yale University Press, New Haven and London, September 2004
ISBN: 0300104405

Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor of Culturekiosque.com.


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