Opera and its Symbols


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The Unity of Words, Music and Staging

Robert Donington

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Robert Donington, the noted musicologist, performer, and writer, is famous for his influential and provocative book Wagner’s “Ring” and Its Symbols, and for his indispensable reference work The Interpretation of Early Music. In this book he discusses the workings of symbolism in opera and the importance of staging opera in keeping with the composer’s intentions. Only in this way, says Donington, can we be faithful to the conscious or unconscious symbolism invested in the work by the composer and librettist.


Starting form Carlyle's premise that "it is through symbols that man, consciously or  unconsciously, lives, works and has his being," Donington interprets scenes and characters from operas by Monteverdi, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Bizet, Puccini, Debussy, Strauss, Stravinsky, Berg, Britten, Tippett, and other composers. Time and again Donington sheds new light on operatic situations that are problematic or have become over-familiar. His lively and wide-ranging work reveals a deep knowledge and love of opera, combined with a rare insight into hidden meanings to be found in music, words, and action.

"A persuasive case for a Freudian-Jungian perspective of opera's power to move us in 'exotic and irrational' ways."—Ben Krywosz, Association of Performing Arts Bulletin

"An interesting and often provocative interpretation on the role, purpose and interrelation in opera of words, music and staging."—A. Helen Mason, Brio

"Robert Donington meant this book to be the culmination of his extensive work in the field of opera. . . . Although it would thus seem to be addressed to a scholarly audience, the work is in fact quite readily accessible to the general public. . . . Donington writes in a very personal style as though the reader is sharing in a stimulating conversation over a glass of sherry and is somehow included in the judgements being made. . . . The book is very attractively presented, a fitting format for the last testament of its author."—Mary Woodside, Canadian University Music Review

"Donington's in-depth perception of great composers' 'practice' . . . together with extensive musical and photographic examples, enables him to find the exact words for his thoughts. . . . An important, extraordinary work for both public and academic libraries."—Choice

"Over the years Robert Donington has made respected contributions to the world of music as a performer, a lecturer, and a writer. This final, posthumous volume is a fitting summary of his approach: sane, literate, at times argumentative, wide-ranging, communicative, and gently didactic. . . . It is a survey both of the subject and of Donington's intellectual approach; and there is considerable wit and charm along the way."—Mel Cooper, Classical Music

"All [readers] should find this a rewarding . . . read."—Library Journal

"It is a pleasure to welcome such a thoughtful and wide-ranging appraisal of opera and of the development of operatic plots from Poliziano to Auden. . . . This volume deals with an aspect of opera often neglected by musicians, namely, the allegorical, archetypal and mythological background. Donington brings to it an impressively wide range of learning, and any future historian of the libretto, or of musical drama in general, will want to take his researches into account."—F. W. Sternfeld, Music and Letters

"For an erudite analysis of this idea and much else related to opera production in our confused time, there may be no better source."—Donal Henahan, New York Times

"This is a book I wish I had written. To call it simply the best essay on opera in print may be too subjective. . . . I have never come across anyone who defined the magnetism of opera so well as Robert Donington in Opera and Its Symbols."—Erich Leinsdorf, New York Times Book Review

"Donington's approach is both provocative and comprehensive. . . . Offers fresh insight into many familiar operatic situations. . . . An imaginative and thought-provoking text which should be read not only by producers but by those who experience their productions."—John Allison, Opera

"Opera & Its Symbols deserves a prominent place in the reading list of operatic and theatrical scholarship, because it is both an eloquent statement of an important viewpoint in the current heated debate over operatic staging and an important representative of a growing trend. . . . The significance of this book lies in its underlying assumption that opera is a theatrical form, and that its existence and value depend not on its life in recordings or in the concert hall, but on the stage. That Donington was a musicologist, not a theater scholar, attests to the strength of this new trend in operatic scholarship, one which, it is hoped, will continue to grow in lively debate as a result of this book."—Sam Abel, Theatre Journal

"Donington makes some good points."—Peter Heyworth, Times Literary Supplement

Selected as a notable book of the year (1991) by The New York Times Book Review
ISBN: 9780300056617
Publication Date: September 10, 1992