Tue, Apr 24, 2012 - Page 16 News List

Book review: Overture Opera Guides: Idomeneo; Overture Opera Guides: Madama Butterfly

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing Reporter

Overture Opera Guides: Idomeneo,by Gary Kahn.

The history of small publishers is usually much more interesting — some would say invariably more so — than that of major ones. This is certainly the case with the firm founded in London in 1949 by John Calder. The Calder imprint — briefly Calder and Boyars — was most famous for publishing Samuel Beckett’s non-dramatic work, but also took on a string of authors — Henry Miller, Alexander Trocchi, William S. Burroughs, Hubert Selby Jr — many of whose most famous books would result in obscenity prosecutions. Such deliberate provocation, however, was part of the 1960s ethos, and the books survived to grace the bookshelves of many a fashionable student in those heady days. They were accompanied by a colorful lifestyle on the part of the publisher himself (whose Uncensored Memoirs appeared in 2001). He combined a close friendship with Beckett, and a failed attempt at an open marriage, with a passion for opera. One of the results of this last taste was a series of opera guides, published alongside all those scandal-inviting books from what were at the time highly unconventional writers.

When Calder Publications fell on hard times following what John Calder said he’d been trying all his life to prevent, the taking over of book publishing by giant conglomerates, its list was acquired by Oneworld Publishing (now renamed Alma Classics). The opera guides, for some time now issued in collaboration with the English National Opera, are still there under the imprint Overture Publishing, and six new titles are being added every year to coincide with new opera company’s productions. One of the most interesting of these new guides treats Mozart’s Idomeneo.

Publication Notes

Overture Opera Guides: Idomeneo

By Gary Kahn

172 pages

Alma Classics

Harkcover: UK

Overture Opera Guides: Madama Butterfly

By Nicholas John

130 pages

Alma Classics

Harkcover: UK

This opera has an extraordinary history. Mozart wrote the music when he was 24 to a text given him by the court in Munich. It was a major commission, and he went there to supervise rehearsals, reporting progress in letters to his father (reproduced here). It had four performances, followed by another in Vienna given by aristocratic amateurs. It was then forgotten for 200 years.

It was effectively rediscovered by the opera-in-a-garden at the country house of Glyndebourne in the UK in 1951. The cast was stellar — Richard Lewis as Idomeneo, Sena Jurinac as Ilia, and Birgit Nilsson as Elettra. It was frequently revived, in 1964 with the young Pavarotti as Idamante and Gundula Janowitz as Ilia. Now no longer a forgotten white elephant, it soon received a famous production in Europe from Jean-Pierre Ponelle, the essence of which was used by James Levine at the Met in New York in 1982.

The guide is divided into eight sections including a thematic guide (identifying 50 themes), the complete libretto in Italian and English, a performance history, a list of recordings on CD and DVD, and a guide to Mozart Web sites. It opens with an essay by Nicholas Till, author of Mozart and the Enlightenment: Truth, Virtue and Beauty in Mozart’s Operas (1992).

The essence of the plot of Idomeneo is that the title character is saved from a shipwreck and promises the god Neptune to sacrifice the first person he meets in gratitude. This person turns out to be his son Idamante. After considering the 18th-century Enlightenment’s attitude to religious vows (not binding because the entity you made the promise to can’t be shown to have been a party to the agreement), Till refers to Mozart’s conflicting feelings about his own somewhat tyrannical father. He relates a story told later by Mozart’s widow that four family members once sang the quartet from the opera at home, with Mozart as Idamante and his father as Idomeneo, but that Mozart rushed from the room in tears half way through. Mozart, argues Till, knew he had to get away to Vienna to escape his father’s repressive control, just as Idamante believed he had to go into exile to escape Idomeneo’s murderous intentions.

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