Grabbing Operas by Their Tales: Liberating the Libretti


182 pages
ISBN 0-920151-38-8
DDC 782.1'0268





Illustrations by Mike Rooth
Reviewed by Desmond Maley

Desmond Maley is the music librarian at the J.W. Tate Library,
Huntington College, Laurentian University, and editor of the CAML


Although Charles E. Lake does his best to put a humorous spin on these
plot summaries of 15 great operas, the results are rather mixed. He does
a commendable job of accurately condensing these often tragic love
stories while developing an amusing commentary based on wordplays and
ironic asides. (The most successful of all is his take on the outlandish
plot of Verdi’s Il Trovatore.) But Lake falters with his effort to
tack on an “epilogue” to each opera, in which we are told where
these fictional or legendary characters are now.

I also wondered who will want to read the summaries. Since Lake has
chosen the most frequently performed works in the repertoire—including
Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Gounod’s Faust, Wagner’s Die Walkьre, and
Puccini’s Tosca—opera lovers will already be familiar with them.
That leaves people who happen to be curious about opera. But this
audience will be just as well served by the synopses to be found at the
Metropolitan Opera website, which (while not intended as amusement) are
admirably clear and succinct. It should also be noted that while Lake
does mention arias from time to time, there is not a scrap of music in
his book. Anyone who wants to connect melody to text will have to resort
to other sources, such as Rudolph Fellner’s Opera Themes and Plots.

Ultimately, I think there was more comic potential in exploring the
human side of the operatic equation, rather than rehashing the stories
themselves. Why not take us on a satirical tour of the world of
librettists like Lorenzo da Ponte, Arrigo Boito, and the team of Jules
Barbier and Michel Carre? Or why not shed light on the
composer–librettist interaction that resulted in these theatre pieces?


Lake, Charles E., “Grabbing Operas by Their Tales: Liberating the Libretti,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 30, 2024,