Last month, Rupert Christiansen stepped down from his role as the Telegraph‘s opera critic. This sent me back to his 2002 book, The Faber Pocket Guide to Opera, from which I am never very far very often. I can pinpoint where and when I got hold of most of my second-handers, but this one eludes me. It feels like it’s been a long and faithful companion. And though an updated version was published in 2014, it’s the original that I have to hand.
Unless there was some terrible falling off in the intervening twelve years, I can recommend the later edition as warmly as the first. For opera hacks like me, The Faber Guide is an enormous boon. Plot sketches, performance biographies and ‘What to listen for’ in 264 operas somehow fit into a genuinely (jacket) pocket-sized format, without scrunching good prose into mere bullet points. Christiansen writes in a no-nonsense, unthreatening way, presuming no musical knowledge (his own, he admits, is ‘frankly A-level’) and appealing even to dramaturgs and theatre-lovers with no particular operatic bent. ‘Like Hamlet, there is something about Don Giovanni that doesn’t quite add up, and this is perhaps why there are so few satisfying productions of the opera’. Woah…
All opera lovers, I think, have to possess a keen sense (and tolerance) of the absurd. It’s a precondition of the art form, and it’s one that Christiansen brings out with the driest of wits. The first performance of Monteverdi’s Orfeo made use of four castrati employed by the Mantovan court, but ‘Orfeo, also a castrato, was borrowed from the Grand Duke of Tuscany.’ Yet although he enjoys opera’s more farcical aspects as much as the next person, the dramatic voltage of his prose leaves his reader in no doubt about the stakes involved. Minnie in Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West is a role that ‘no singer has ever found easy…the nearest it gets to [a show-stopping aria] contains a killer high C that has embarrassingly floored several great names.’ In opera, Christiansen never lets us forget, the sublime and the ridiculous are rarely more than a semitone apart.
The book contains a regrettable lack of operas by women, less Christiansen’s fault than the fault of historical conditions. Anna Beer’s Sounds and Sweet Airs does a sterling job of habilitating women composers whom we ought to know better; but even her subjects mostly confined themselves to solo and chamber music. Few were the theatres willing to pit their resources in a woman’s work; the Vienna State Opera staged its first female-authored opera in 2019. But one feels that Christiansen might have made more of an effort (and to be fair, he may well have used the 2014 edition to do so). The omission of Elizabeth Maconchy’s The Sofa (1957), which scandalised audiences with the first onstage sex scene in opera’s history, represents the book’s chief disappointment. And it seems that at the time of its writing, frighteningly few opera houses had even let women take the directorial reins.
It’s a touch of complacency in a book that is clearly the work of an independent mind. Christiansen never gives the impression of spouting a consensus. He has the critic’s sine qua non, fearlessness. It might be easy to rubbish a ‘glib and tendentious’ production that turns Schoenberg’s Moses and Aaron into ‘a tired corporate businessman and his sleek spin-doctor’, but he also dares to be underwhelmed by some of Jonathan Miller’s work. If he uses the word ‘kitsch’ once or twice two often, it’s because productions of so many operas traditionally laid themselves open to the charge. All in all, it’s a cracking read. With the theatres closed, I hope that The Faber Pocket Guide is coming down from the shelves and coming into its own, as company for the armchair opera-goer.