Page 6, 28th December 1984

28th December 1984
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Page 6, 28th December 1984 — Grandes dames and dinosaurs
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Grandes dames and dinosaurs

Prima Donna, by Rupert Christiansen (The Bociley Head, £15.00).

The Last Prima Donnas, by Lanfranco Rasponi • -(Goilancz, £15.00). A FEW years back the architectural historian Clive Aslet produced a book called The Last Country Houses. Stung into action by this title's claims John Martin Robinson, chronicler to the Howard family and an architectural adviser to Westminster Council has recently published The Latest Country Houses, demonstrating the extraordinary quantity of noteworthy seats built since the war.

Another seeming dinosaur, the prima donna, has been the subject of an exactly parallel literary skirmish, the two contenders being Lanfranco Rasponi's . The Last Prima Donnas and Rupert Christiansen's Prima Donna.

Rasponi's 'line comes to an end with Maria Callas and, in as much as her public image conformed all too readily with that of the indomitable and outrageous grandes dames of legend, it is true that she has had no successor.

But a prima donna can also earn her title merely with great singing and the ability to bring off a musical and dramatic synthesis in accordance with contemporary theatrical taste.

While having the advantage of entering We lists. second, Mr Christiansen makes a point of bringing his selection of prima donnas up to the present day sopranos Rosalind Plowright, June Anderson and, as a deliberate surprise, Elise Ross.

But where he really scores over Rasponi is in taking the wide and unpedantic view. Mr. Rasponi's preface — an introductory survey to 56 interviews, printed largely verbatim — is dominated by two principles: one, that most singers sing too much, too loudly and too soon and cut short their careers; two, that the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, whether the barnlike old house or the barn-like new one, is a "singers' house" and all the great singers sang there in the "golden" years before and after the war.

Prima Donna is the sensitive history of a phenomenon rather than a catalogue of its luminaries, which deliberately eschews technicalities and the semantics of voice production. With a precise use of adjective and a deft turn of phrase M. Christiansen brings the reader to the heart of the awesome tour de force that was Birgit Nilsson's Elektra or Maria Malibran's "vulgar country lass" Zerlina.

Louis Jebb




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