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The Victor Book of the Opera by Samuel…
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The Victor Book of the Opera

by Samuel Holland Rous, Charles O'Connell (Editor), Henry W. Simon (Editor)

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I picked it up years ago when I first began collecting old books. It is a fourth revised edition, “Copyright 1917” by the Victor Talking Machine Company in Camden, New Jersey. On the copyright page, there is that familiar logo, the dog with ears cocked to listen to a gramophone. The motto quoted beneath is, “His Master’s Voice.”

On the green cloth binding, in an ornate frame, embossed in gold in large letters, is the title, The Victrola Book of the Opera. Underneath in another regal frame, in smaller letters, with lots of caps, is a long subtitle: Stories of ONE HUNDRED and TWENTY OPERAS with SEVEN HUNDRED ILLUSTRATIONS and Descriptions of Twelve Hundred VICTOR OPERA RECORDS. My copy of the book is in excellent condition, almost as if it were brand new. Like the operas it catalogs, it has lasted through the years. Of course, it served as a large and elaborate advertisement for the old Victor recordings, long, long before LPs or CDs or DVDs, when each 10-inch or 12-inch disk would provide time for only one aria. I used to play such records on my grandmother’s Victor Talking Machine. They were always just a bit scratchy, whether from wear or the sounds of the needle on the disk, with the sense of an echo, as in a sound-proof sound chamber. The voices always had a slightly treble quality, again whether from the singers or the primitive technology, I’m not sure.

For each opera included in the book, after the title there is a list of credits and a brief history of its production, the cast, a summary by act and scene, interrupted by bold face type listing arias from each scene available as Victor recordings. For example, for Act II, Scene I, of The Marriage of Figaro, the summary says,

“Figaro departs, and Cherubino enters [as you recall, Cherubino is the Countess’s page boy, played on stage by a soprano]. Seeing his mistress, he begins to heave deep sighs, but Susanna mocks him and tells the Countess he has written a song about his lady love. The Countess bids him sing it, and he takes his guitar and describes the delights and torments caused by Cupid’s arrow.

Voi che sapete (What is This Feeling?)
By Nellie Melba, Soprano
(in Italian) 88067 12-inch, $3.00

“The song is in ballad form, to suit the situation, the voice giving out the clear, lovely melody, while the stringed instruments carry on a simple accompaniment pizzicato, to imitate the guitar and this delicate outline is shaded and animated by solo wind instruments. ¶ It is difficult to say which to admire most—the gracefulness of the melodies, the delicacy of disposition of the parts, the charm of the tone coloring, or the tenderness of expression—the whole is of entrancing beauty."

For each opera, there are several small, but exquisite, black-and-white photographs, or very realistic art pieces, of singers in costume on stage sets. On this double-page spread from Figaro, there is Cherubino singing his/her ballad, a languid Cherubino lounging on a throne-like chair, and a scene from Act I with the Countess and Figaro.

You can tell that the description of the music is designed more to sell the recording than to evoke the experience of the opera. Even so, it captures an aura.

The whole book captures an era. In a fake group photograph used as the frontispiece, captioned “THE GREAT SINGERS OF THE WORLD, all of whom make records exclusively for the Victor,” there are (among others) Enrico Caruso, Luisa Tetrazzini, Alma Gluck, Geraldine Farrar, John McCormack, and of course Nellie Melba. You never turn very many pages without finding Caruso, costumed as every hero who ever sang tenor. The photographs and art work alone make the book priceless: they capture so perfectly the artificiality and the magnificence of performances of the day. There are picture postcard shots, as it were, of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, the Royal Opera in Berlin, Covent Garden in London, La Scala in Milan, and others. There is a view of the proscenium arch in the old Metropolitan and a view from the stage of the Philadelphia opera house. (One can see how the old movie theaters of the 1920s and 1930s, that are now being restored in many cities, were designed to emulate the opulence of opera houses.)

The operas are listed in alphabetical order, so the first one is L’Africana with a full page photograph of an incredibly dashing and handsome (and overweight, but never mind that) Caruso as Vasco di Gama. In his cape and feathered hat, lace and leather, with sword and dagger, he seems ready to swagger off the page or belt out a high C at any moment.

As a boy I listened to the Texaco Opera Theater just about every Saturday on an old-time radio (about as scratchy as my grandmother’s records), switching every few minutes during football season to check on the efforts of the Vanderbilt Commodores. I remember well the stories, the soaring sounds, and the scenes that I simply had to imagine. How thrilled and titillated I would have been with Götterdämmerung in the Victor book, especially the full-page scene of Siegfried and the (very tastefully) nude Rhine maidens, or the vision of Venus in Tannhäusser! Seductive poses like that just weren’t available to thirteen-year-olds in my youth. There are full stage sets with choruses; for example, the arrival of the players in Act I of I Pagliacci, the inn in Tales of Hoffman, or the Te Deum in Tosca. There’s a very realistic Rigoletto, and a very regal (if somewhat top-heavy) Amneris from Aida.

Most of the old favorite operas are there: Carmen, The Barber of Seville, Fledermaus, William Tell, Lucia di Lammermoor, The Magic Flute, La Boheme, Der Rosenkavalier, Il Trovatore, Die Meistersinger. But there are others about which one wonders: Robin Hood by Reginald de Koven (with “O Promise Me”), Giacomo Meyerbeer’s The Prophet (about the Anabaptists in 1543), and Zaza by Ruggiero Leoncavallo (the story of a concert hall singer, one of the few operas of the time in contemporary dress).

I have other reference works on the opera that help me be a sensitive listener and an appreciative audience member. But no book takes me back to the old days—of Caruso, of the Texaco Opera Theater—like this one. It came out in many editions, at least through the 1930s. If you have an inkling of interest in Grand Opera, when it was truly grand, you might look for one in used book stores or online.
1 vote bfrank | Jul 28, 2007 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Samuel Holland Rousprimary authorall editionscalculated
O'Connell, CharlesEditormain authorall editionsconfirmed
Simon, Henry W.Editormain authorall editionsconfirmed
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