An idiosyncratic source book on Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924).

An idiosyncratic source book on Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924).

Berger's third installment in his series on significant opera composers (Verdi with a Vengeance, 2000, etc.) follows the same general intent as previous editions: Cram between the covers as much fact and judgment and even attitude as the market will bear. Here Berger includes an artistic apologia, a biography, a summary and analysis of the operas, descriptions of productions, a sketch of the composer's place in popular culture and a list and critique of audio and video recordings. There is no gainsaying Berger's mastery of his subject—or the vast dimensions of his research. He teaches in a patient, if at times tendentious, way. He makes few assumptions about his readers' musical knowledge and in most cases eschews hyper-technical explanations of Puccini's craft and art. Throughout, he employs allusions to popular culture (hoping to attract general readers?). The Beatles, Courtney Love, Cecil B. DeMille, the Seven Dwarves and Wile E. Coyote all make unexpected cameos. Berger instructs (in Turandot, the final syllable is pronounced doat), entertains (he describes a production of Madama Butterfly that ended with the detonation of an A-bomb) and amuses (Puccini wrote to his sister that comely American women could "make the Tower of Pisa stand erect") And everywhere he opines. In Angelica, he says, one character is "perhaps the single biggest bitch in all opera (no mean accomplishment)." General readers will find most useful the swift biography, the summaries and commentaries on the operas and the recordings thereof; many will find merely puzzling (if not narcotizing) a long turgid essay that, among much else, rehashes Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy and its distinction between Apollonian and Dionysian principles. Opera-lovers and aficionados will either love to hate or hate to love this text.

On virtually every page is something to learn, something to remember, something to smooth the fur or raise the hackles—or both.