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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

July 25, 1993|Martin Bernheimer

INTERNATIONAL DICTIONARY OF OPERA edited by C. Steven Larue (St. James Press, an imprint of Gale Research, 835 Penobscot Building, Detroit, Mich. 48226-4094: $250; two volumes, illustrated, 1,543 pp.). Does the world need another big, fat opera dictionary? For many students--professional as well as amateur--of this most provocative and most irrational of art forms, the question was answered last year with the long-awaited publication of the "New Grove." It cost $850, spanned more than 5,000 pages of small print, offered a little frustration along with a lot of insight, but seemed to satisfy most operatic curiosities, at least for the time being. Now, with hardly a heralding Ho-jo-to-ho , comes a somewhat more modest, more frustrating yet still massive entry from St. James Press.

"The International Dictionary of Opera" costs $600 less than its British precursor, looks a lot less scholarly (Luciano Pavarotti serves as cover-boy on both slick volumes), pads many a page with redundant indices, makes generous use of empty spaces, condones some strange omissions and vacillates with maddening frequency between high-brow exactitude and fan-magazine gush. It is lavishly illustrated, however, and, most important, it musters some stimulating, opinionated essays on important singers, past and present. "New Grove" had remained stubbornly, tastefully bland in that regard.

The most serious problem here would seem to involve editorial quality control. Some of the entries, written by bona fide experts (British and American), are clear, tough and informative. Others, apparently contributed by partisan aficionados with dubious credentials, are distorted and self-indulgent. A few, obviously composed by would-be voice teachers, represent annoying exercises in technical obfuscation. It is futile, of course, to look for consistency in a project as vast as this. Even so, the reader should remember that not all voices--operatic or lexicographic--are created equal.

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