Operatic Italian

Article excerpt

Robert Stuart Thomson, Operatic Italian. Godwin Books, 2008. Paper, 443 pp., $40.00 US, $45.00 Canadian. ISBN 0-9696774-0-5


Anyone who has ever tried to translate operatic Italian can attest to a world of difference between standard modern usage and the language found in libretti. Robert Stuart Thomson, who has both a terminal degree in Romance Languages and a passion for opera, has written an indispensable guide for anyone wishing to understand this theatrical tongue. Thomson strives to clarify the grammatical structure of opera libretti to make an often confusing, convoluted, and outdated usage of the language comprehensible.

The author begins with a description of the sounds of Italian, complete with a chart of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbols and guidelines for pronunciation. Italian opera libretti employ language that is atypical of the vernacular: specifically, the use of obsolete and truncated words, unnatural syntax, concision, and the addition and deletion of words to fit the musical line. Thomson's approach is based upon the premise that learning to recognize the parts of speech is a short cut to learning the structure of the language. Accordingly, the salient aspects of grammar are presented in a systematic manner, beginning with a discussion of nouns, and wending through prepositions, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, and verbs. Verbs are the most important part of speech, and Thomson devotes six chapters to different tenses. He maintains that traditional grammatical labels are off-putting and inaccurate, and he adopts his own terms-such as "compound past" in lieu of "present perfect"-for clarity.

In some sections, Operatic Italian contains two tracks. The first is for the reader who is seeking an overview of language usage in libretti; the second is for those who wish to delve more deeply into operatic Italian. The book includes numerous musical examples, as well as translations and transcriptions into the IPA, complete with indication of stressed syllables. Fourteen quizzes are interspersed throughout the book, and an answer key allows students to monitor their progress. …


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