MUSIC / Judging a book by its covers: Bayan Northcott greets the publication of The New Grove Dictionary of Opera with modified rapture and a few questions

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Once again, the thing has got out of hand. Initially planned, one gathers, in two volumes, The New Grove Dictionary of Opera has ineluctably swelled over the five years of its preparation to four. Indeed, if it had been put out in the same format as the even more runaway 20-volume New Grove Dictionary of Music of 13 years ago, one suspects it would have extended to six or seven. The tomes of the New Opera Grove are not just larger and heavier - to the point of inconvenience, the limp-wristed may complain - but, in their Royal Opera-style plum- coloured buckram bindings with toppings of gold leaf, conspicuously more luxurious.

No doubt, there will be serious opera enthusiasts who would happily do without the gold leaf for a few pounds off the asking price of pounds 550. And maybe some of the 1,300 actual contributors will be reflecting ruefully on the disproportion between the product - not to speak of its lavish promotion - and the exceedingly modest fees they have received for entries that often required an eternity of research to get right. The standard answer to that one, of course, is that if they were not prepared to contribute as much for the honour as the cash, such publications would hardly be economically possible in the first place. On the other hand, the handsome look of the New Opera Grove may have been precisely calculated to maximise sales among the wealthier clientele of Covent Garden and the Met, whether or not they happen to be obsessed with the work-lists of minor Baroque composers.

So there seems to be a real question as to what, or whom, the new dictionary is really for. In his preface to the first volume, Stanley Sadie is insistent that the enterprise he has edited is not a comprehensive dictionary of musical theatre. So vast, so almost- beyond-encompassing has the culture of opera grown since it first emerged in Italy around 1600, that contiguous genres such as music- theatre or the musical can only be glanced at, while quasi-operatic traditions of the non-Western world, such as Japanese Noh theatre, are excluded all together.

In order to distinguish it from the New Grove Dictionary, however, over 80 per cent has been newly commissioned, much of it by a younger generation of authorities. Another novelty is that each of the major operas in the repertoire gets its own entry, complete with historical background, synopsis and short critical comment, as do certain much-set opera librettos, or recurrent themes such as the Orpheus myth. There are also major surveys of the chief operatic traditions by country; articles on operatic cities; histories of such forms as the Overture, and inventories of periodicals and archives.

And while vast tracts of the 5,000-odd pages are inevitably given over to entries on composers - some 2,900 of them - and performers, including a good 2,500 singers, there has also been an attempt to encapsulate the wider artistic, social and ideological ramifications of opera in an array of entries from Allegory and Theatre Architecture to Versification and Operatic Postage Stamps. Unlike the New Grove Dictionary, which notoriously lacked an entry on Music, the New Opera Grove duly includes an Opera entry with some pregnant comments on the genre's inherent contradictions by the philosopher Bernard Williams. At which point, a reviewer might routinely be expected modestly to disclaim judging a work whose value can only be discovered in the usage; then set to regardless with an oh-so-perceptive parade of pet niggles and corrections before magnanimously concluding, as Charles Rosen once put it, 'in the banality of praise'.

But what mere critic could question the expertise of such an authority as J B Steane in the magisterial series of entries on the various standard voice-types; or the detailed lists and seating plans of 18th- and 19th-century opera orchestras by John Spitzer and Neil Zaslaw; or the incredible number of singers past and present chronicled by Elizabeth Forbes - even if her heroic battle to find a fresh epithet for each is inevitably a losing one?

About the commentaries on individual operas, it is possible to be more critical: to note that while Julian Rushton on Mozart and Arnold Whittall on Britten are sound enough, David Murray's treatment of Richard Strauss is shot through with fresh perceptions. There is also a disparity in the use of music examples, which Julian Budden on Puccini or Barry Millington on Wagner deploy frequently enough to set one wondering why Roger Parker on Verdi almost never does. And, yes, there are a few cavils. Why does Richard Taruskin, who writes so positively on Russian opera in general, turn so teasingly ambivalent when he gets to Stravinsky? Why is there is no separate entry for Roberto Gerhard's luminous masterpiece, The Duenna? Where on earth did the writer on Puppet Opera get the idea that Harrison Birtwistle's Punch and Judy 'was composed specially for marionette performance'?

Yet the real complaints lie more with the general topics, or lack of them. While the New Opera Grove contains expansive entries on Costume, Lighting, Stage Design, Publishing, Copyright, Censorship and so on, it has no entry on Reception. To be sure, the subject is partly covered by John Rosselli's cogent survey of the Sociology of Opera, with its varying class basis over the centuries, and can be supplemented by the critical fortunes of individual operas. But an over-arching account of the way the repertoire has unfolded as a focus of taste and power surely ought to have been attempted. Nor, apart from Bernard Williams's remarks, is there any synoptic entry on Theory, though from its origins opera has been a recurrently theory- driven activity, whether from the standpoint of music, text, staging, social function or sometimes all of them together.

Quite the most frustrating entry, indeed, is on Analysis. In a densely dialectical survey, Caroline Abbati shows how this has traditionally been vitiated by unstated ideological biases towards music, or text, or staging, whereas any real grasp has to start from the experience of their contrapuntal interaction. At which point, she stops: presumably the research is yet to be done. If the focus of this counterpoint is the phenomenon of pacing, then, it has to be admitted, a new problem has arisen in more recent decades. Opera scores have always ensured a relatively fixed, however complex, interaction of music and text, which, in the Baroque, with its accepted stage conventions, or in the 19th century (when composers such as Verdi and Wagner virtually produced their own works) audiences could expect would be coherently complemented by gesture and movement. Maybe it is the insensitivity of certain modern producers of the deconstructionist tendency to such contrapuntal dynamics, rather than their manifest intention to challenge, that has set audiences against them.

The New Opera Grove itself has already been attacked, notably by Tom Sutcliffe of the Guardian, for an unstated ideological bias away from theatre towards academe and the taste of 'the mafia from Opera magazine' - to which Dr Sadie's submission that it is simply an even-handed lexicographical arrangement of the widest range of current research on opera may not be an entirely adequate answer. Of course, professional musicians, educational institutions and libraries are going to want this grand compilation regardless. But a more general public may wonder whether it is ever likely to need enough of what is largely a scholarly and historical concern to justify the cost. Perhaps the promotion should make more of the joys of serendipity. Just for starters: what modern opera on the last days of Captain Scott calls for a chorus of penguins . . . ?

'The New Grove Dictionary of Opera', edited by Stanley Sadie. Macmillan, four vols, 5,424pp, pounds 550. (All right . . . the answer is 'Das Opfer' by Schoenberg's pupil Winfried Zillig)