Magazine article The Spectator

Opera A Time for Reflection

Magazine article The Spectator

Opera A Time for Reflection

Article excerpt

As any regular opera-goer knows, next year is uniquely one for three major operatic centenaries, two of them, Verdi's and Wagner's, bicentenaries, while Britten was born only 100 years ago, but seems to have been dead for a very long time. So we can expect numerous series - of performances, recordings, broadcast radio and TV features - and probably quite a few biographies and critical studies. Indeed they have already got under way in Wagner's case, with several new German biographies, while the prominent conductor Christian Thielemann has just given his account of Mein Leben mit Wagner, a book and CD; Marek Janowski, another of today's leading Wagner conductors, is almost midway through a series of recordings of all the mature operas, CD only, since, like me, Janowski finds most contemporary productions of Wagner impertinent, ugly and distracting. The Verdi and Britten industries have so far been less pressing, but no doubt will get under way in the next few months.

I have been wondering why I feel less enthusiastic about the forthcoming 15 months than I might have expected. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that none of these composers is neglected, so it won't be like some other anniversary years, where we found out a lot more about, for instance, Schubert, in 1998, or Handel in 1985, or even Mozart in 1956. There will, I expect, be productions of Wagner's three early operas, though they are long but well worth performing with excellent casts. There is hardly any unknown Verdi, though some of his earlier operas are rarely performed, which is good for his reputation. And none of Britten's operas is neglected, even if we have many more chances to see some of them than others.

I think the reasons why I am, if anything, apprehensive about 2013 differ in the three cases. A centenary should, of course, be a time for celebration, but it could even be a time for thoughtful evaluation as well. That, it seems to me, is unlikely, especially in the case where it is most urgently needed, that of Britten. Not only are some of his operas far more successful than others, as one might expect, but they all need scrutiny on account of their obsessive subject matter, apart from Gloriana, which I regard as an uneven but absorbing work.

In recent years there have been several books devoted to his operas, with subtitles like 'Expression and evasion', but where is the evidence that people who attend and review performances actually read them? …

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