Puccini Without Excuses: A Refreshing Reassessment of the World's Most Popular Composer Paperback – Nov 8 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
Puccini, the celebrated composer of La Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly (together, the three make up perhaps a quarter of all U.S. opera performances) is often regarded as a "guilty pleasure," too melodic, too "easy." Not so fast, says Berger, who proceeds to demonstrate exactly why attention must be paid. This is the third in the amusing, educational opera series by the popular NPR commentator and radio host, following Wagner Without Fear and Verdi with a Vengeance. The informal, sometimes slangy tone assumes readers' ignorance (but willingness to learn) and coaches them in everything they need to know. The formula follows that of the earlier books: first, a brief biography of the artist; then a breakdown of each opera (eight here) with comments, introducing the characters and explaining what kind of singer each part calls for; then an act-by-act summary with instructions on what to watch and listen for. Next, Berger veers off into three idiosyncratic essays, including one on Puccini's influence on modern show biz (on Bohème knockoffs: Moulin Rouge was good; Rent, not so much). Then it's back to instruction: singers to recognize, recordings to buy or rent, books to read and a glossary of musical terms, many Italian.
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About the Author
William Berger was born in California and studied Romance languages and music at the University of California at Santa Cruz. He worked for five years at the San Francisco Opera Company, where he acquired for the company’s recorded music collection. He is the author of Wagner Without Fear: Learning to Love–and Even Enjoy–Opera’s Most Demanding Genius and Verdi With a Vengeance: An Energetic Guide to the Life and Complete Works of the King of Opera. He is a frequent lecturer and radio commentator and has recently been a regular host for New York Public Radio’s Overnight Music. He has written libretti, performance pieces, and articles on a wide variety of topics including architecture, religion, and, of course, music. He is a music host for WNYC radio and lives in New York.See all Product Description
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Berger is a radio host on NYC's PBS station (which I unfortunately have never heard), and his book reads exactly like what a well-informed, passionate d.j. would sound like as he waxed fervently about his musical loves. The book reads as if it were spoken and meant to be heard. This is a delightful and most enjoyable aspect of the book. As he recounts the story behind each opera, Berger interrupts himself with commentary, as if speaking over the performance at hand or hitting the pause button on the CD player. And his comments are highly personal, though not arbitrary or off-the-wall, meant to keep us on target and focused, but not school-marmish. He "speaks" to us like an old friend sharing what he knows and feels.
The book is a fairly thorough account of the man and his music: we get a brief biographical sketch, the operas (8 of them) in detail, recommended recordings, dvds, and books, Puccini in the movies, a glossary of opera terms and how they apply to Puccini's work, and more. And everything, even the glossary, has the Berger stamp of authority and élan to it.
So I've already started making a list of CDs based on Berger's recommendations and until I can get some of them, have put my LP version of MADAMA BUTTERFLY with Erich Leinsdorf conducting Anna Moffo and Cesare Valletti (not on Berger's list) on the turntable. That's what Berger's book has done for me: brought me back to the music of Puccini once again. Pops and Bird will just have to wait.
The book has several sections. After a somewhat tendentious introduction, we get a chatty yet informative life and times chapter which also includes a description of what was going on in the wider world of opera and classical music during Puccini's life. There are fascinating comments about, say, the relationship between Puccini and Toscanini in this section.
Then we get a chapter by chapter discussion of each of the mature operas, beginning with Manon Lescaut and ending with Turandot. Each opera's chapter has an exhaustive discussion of each scene of the stage action, followed by really quite wonderful ruminations on the musical and production issues of each scene. Berger's comments are generally witty and almost always spot on. He also manages to include some of the gossip extant about various productions, singers, stage directors and conductors.
Then comes a section called 'The Puccini Code' which focuses on the myth of Tosca (one of the weaker chapters in my opinion), 'what one might expect to see' in various productions, and a little coda called 'Puccinian Permutations' which comments on influences the various operas (and the Puccini style) have had on popular culture; think of 'Rent' and 'Moonstruck', for instance.
Finally, there is a section in which Berger discusses recordings of the major operas, with comments about various singers, conductors (and he pulls no punches here) as well as some mention of DVDs and videotapes. He ends this section with a listing and comments about important books on his subject. The book ends with a glossary of terms (helpful for the neophyte, certainly, but without a pronunciation guide, which he had earlier supplied for the names of the operas; that might have been helpful. Can you pronounce 'morbidezza' or 'Regietheater'?). The book contains a fairly full index. Editing and production values are quite good (although I suspect director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle and baritone Simon Keenlyside might have preferred their names be spelled correctly). The paperback's cover features a blow-up of a photo of the young Puccini taken from a 'musical celebrities cigarette card series.' (!)
I would recommend this book not only to the newcomer to opera but also to grizzled opera veterans who think they already know everything there is to know about Puccini.
Puccini without Excuses is another matter altogether. The entire tone of this book is defensive: poor maligned Puccini, critically under-appreciated. The information in this book is colored by this attitude of the author, and because of this defensive tone, we don't get the feeling of respect and love that Berger transmits in both Verdi... and Wagner...
Nevertheless, this book is useful for the synopses of most of Puccini's operas and other bits of information, especially a very thought-provoking take on Il Trittico, as well as a sense of what you might expect to see in the staging of a production.
If you're a movie buff, you'll have heard snatches of a Puccini aria or musical interlude from THE GODFATHER III to MOONSTRUCK, & if you listen to any of this genius' legacy: LA BOHEME, MADAME BUTTERFLY, TOSCA, & his other five operas, you'll find the music quite familiar.
You'll find out why William Berger thinks Puccini is relevant in today's world in his analyses of the eight operas, the last of which is the unfinished TURANDOT. & you'll also find that Puccini's life was itself worthy of... a soap opera.
Even as I was enjoying the read, I learnt a lot -- about the history of the times, music, collaborations & domestic drama. Bravo!
I found most of the commentary shallow.
Potential buyers should know that most of this book is a summary of Puccini's major operas (Edgar is not included).
Part Three, "The Puccini Code" is quite disappointing. I had hoped I would gain some deeper appreciation for Puccini but I came away unsure that there was anything I did not discover on my own.
Sometimes, Berger could not help taking unwarranted strikes at Wagner. This is strange for someone who wrote a book about Wagner and certainly knows better than to resort to clichés about his operas. At one point he even suggests that racial purity is a theme in Wagner's opera. If there are arguments to be made here, they should be made and not stuck in, unjustified, in a book on Puccini. He levels a similarly unjustified charge of racism on some of Puccini's critics. Mispronouncing "Turandot" . . . "slightly racist."
My advice, save your money and buy recordings or tickets. Puccini's brilliance is there. You do not need Berger to hold your hand through the process.
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