Friday, June 3, 2016

Understanding Italian Opera: Guest Reviewer Kristen Seikaly has been at it again!

The Lost Language of Opera:
Tim Carter's Discussion of Librettos 

By Kristen Seikaly

If we were to judge a book by its cover, it would be easy to think that Tim Carter’s Understanding Italian Opera is simply another introduction to the beautiful art form. Look a little deeper though, and it becomes apparent that this book is instead an analysis of one of the most overlooked aspects of Italian opera today: the text. Although sleek in size, this book is essentially a textbook that has much to offer when it comes to studying the librettos of Italian opera. The book begins with a discussion of Italian opera at large. It is worth taking the time to consider this introduction, as it sets up Carter’s thought process for the rest of the book. Then, five famous Italian operas are discussed at length and in chronological order. Each chapter can stand on its own, and each has the same basic outline. First, a picture is offered of the composer, along with a brief description. Then, the roles in the opera are listed along with their voice types, and a synopsis is given. Afterwards, he gives a biography for the composer, focusing on the creation of the opera at hand. This historical review often details the musical tastes of the time period as well. Finally, the librettist is introduced and Carter launches into the textual mechanics for each opera. He usually divides this discussion even further into musical numbers such as arias, ensembles, or recitatives. At the end, further reading is recommended. The main idea that Carter focuses on in terms of setting texts to opera is that of balance. For example, for Le nozze di Figaro, he discusses the balance the composer and librettist sought to find between the original text they were working with, and how they can appropriately adapt that into an opera. Furthermore, the concept of “verisimilitude”, or the appearance of stories being real, is brought up over and over again in each section. This is with good reason, as the issue of believability is a constant struggle for opera as an art form.

In terms of enjoying this book, it is best read in a number of ways by a certain set of readers. While those who are merely curious about opera would find this overwhelming, serious students or professionals of Italian opera have much to gain from this book. Simply reading it through may still prove difficult though, as it is far too easy to miss a nuanced yet important detail.

This reviewer would recommend reading this book in one of three ways. First, one could read this with study materials in hand such as a notebook, a highlighter, and a recording of each opera. Although Carter goes into great detail regarding the relationship between text and music, it will always be easier to process this discussion while actually listening to the music.

Second, this book could simply serve as a reference to be opened up as needed. If, for example, someone was doing research on Italian recitative, or aria forms, or a particular period in Italian opera, they could simply flip to the appropriate chapter, or find the subject in the index.

Finally, this book would serve its reader best as a companion to a course or a group discussion on Italian opera. Since there is so much useful knowledge in this book, it would be easiest to digest it all through the structure of a course. It would also be worth using as a tool to discuss the role text and history plays in modern operatic productions.

There are numerous books available on the study of Italian opera. This one, however, offers great consideration to what has ironically become the lost language of opera: the language itself. In Tim Carter’s biography, it notes that he teaches numerous lectures and workshops on the subject. Since we can’t all be so lucky as to attend one of those, he has been kind enough to offer us his specific and unique knowledge in a well-organized and readily available manner.

Kristen Seikaly
Materials for this review were provided by the publisher. The views and opinions expressed here are completely those of the reviewer.

Kristen Seikaly is a freelance writer, singer, and voice teacher in the Philadelphia area. Additionally, she runs Operaversity, a website geared towards providing resources on opera for artists and audiences.

She tweets at @KristenSeikaly.

Readers! Don't forget you can get an attractive discount buying the book at the publisher web site using this code: AAFLYG6.


Unknown said...

Would a composer/librettist of today benefit from reading the book? Is there a contemporary Italian opera studied like "Il prigioniero" by Dallapiccola?

Unknown said...

Thank you for your question! I definitely think a composer or a librettist of today would benefit from this book. While there are no contemporary operas discussed (the last one listed is La Bohème), it does give a great deal of consideration to the choices each composer made based on poetic setting and dramatic interests. While I'm not familiar with the particular opera you listed, I would imagine that many contemporary Italian operas at least considered the principles that Carter outlines in this book.