Music: Orfeo Revived

Expecting realism in opera is like asking Hamlet for a weather report. But even the most fantastic librettos in the current repertory are straight reporting compared to the matchstick plots of 200 years ago. Written mostly by long-forgotten Italian composers and poets, the fashionable operas of the day were filled not with human beings but with animated decorations. Singers stepped out of character at will, indulging in barbarous cadenzas or improvised roulades, and were indignant at the idea of any composer's trying to write down all the notes.

This tradition was smashed by a German with a temper so violent that...

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