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Librettos and Libations

A new book celebrates wine in opera

Harvey Steiman
Posted: April 15, 2005

Several years ago, I was invited to speak to an Italian men's club in San Francisco. They wanted me to talk about wine, of course, but the member who called me also knew I was an opera buff and wondered if I could talk about wine in opera.

I dubbed off several of my favorite scenes where wine plays a role in an opera, introduced them, and played them on a portable boom box. The guys loved it, and they even invited me back for more.

I thought of that when a new book landed on my desk recently--Opera & Wine, Wine in Opera. Perfect, right? Not quite. While I enjoyed the work of the artist, Valentino Monticello, the writer, Luciano Citeroni, misses the boat. Anyone who knows a lot about either wine or opera will find little of value in Citeroni's text.

Valentino Monticello has created some 150 delightful paintings using patterns of wine labels to represent opera scenes. These illustrations are the primary reasons to own the book. The brief commentaries on 65 operas read like abbreviated program notes, and not very insightful ones at that. The 100-page wine section seems to be there mainly as a vehicle for several dozen additional collage-esque illustrations. The information could have been cribbed from any of dozens of basic wine books that take a geographic approach, most of which have done it much better.

What's missing is much discussion of the idea of wine in opera, how composers and librettists may have used it to affect a scene, or in some cases the entire course of the opera. A chemistry teacher by profession who professes to love both wine and opera, Citeroni fails to develop the idea much beyond selecting brief passages from the librettos. Most of the excerpts, but inexplicably not all, make at least a passing reference to wine. In some cases the scenes are generic drinking songs, which could involve wine or not.

Drinking songs are a staple of 19th-century opera. Composers used them to set up boisterous scenes. One of my favorites is in Act I of Verdi's Otello, in which the composer uses the moment to etch indelibly the fraught relationship between Iago and Cassio. It's not in the book.

One of my favorite wine moments in all of opera is the beginning of Act III of Verdi's Falstaff. The fat knight pulls himself out of the Thames. Wet and bedraggled, he sinks into a chair outside the Garter Inn, his favorite tavern. He calls for a glass of hot wine. As he drinks it, his sings a marvelous paean to wine, underlined by some of Verdi's most colorful orchestral effects. But the book misses all that; the excerpt in the book from Falstaff has the title character upbraiding his servant Bardolph for drinking too much and then ordering another bottle for himself.

Mozart's Don Giovanni sings a whole aria to Champagne, but the bit in the book quotes a later scene in which the servant Leporello pours him some wine and the Don recognizes it as Marzemino.

My guess is that the artist picked the excerpts he wanted to illustrate. In the end, that makes this an art book, not a wine book. That being the case, less text would have left room for larger illustrations, which would have made a better book.

Opera & Wine, Wine in Opera, by Valentino Monticello, text by Luciano Citeroni (Cantor Holding Art Publications, $100, 264 pages)

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