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Mary Jane Phillips-Matz' review  in Opera News
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Opera News Review
Nico Castel's translations of "The Complete Puccini Libretti" and "The Complete Verdi Libretti" were reviewed by Mary Jane Phillips-Matz in Opera News, December 14, 1996.
With more than 2,650 pages and still counting, a large format of 8 1/2 by 11 inches, hefty weight and present price of $290 plus shipping charges, this huge work-in-progress stands as an extraordinary witness to the expertise, seriousness and dedication of Nico Castel. (Volumes are available individually.) His quarter-century as a character tenor at the Metropolitan Opera has defined him as a singular stage presence; beyond his voice and acting, Castel is fluent in six languages. He holds the post of staff diction coach at the Met and is one of the most widely respected linguists in his field, teaching singers how to pronounce their lines and how to interpret the words on the page. Sherrill Milnes' introduction to these volumes, plus testimonials from many singers, describe the extent of Castel's influence. It is hard to imagine how anyone could surpass his accomplishment with these complete librettos.

These tomes are a linguistic guide for singers, teaching the sound and syllable first, then the word, phrase, line and whole segment, whether recitative or set piece. They also comprise a textbook for directors, designers, even critics, in search of the poet's and composer's original purpose. And they offer a clear set of instructions for anyone, professional or not, who wants to master Italian pronunciation or simply understand why the action unfolds as it does at any given moment.

Castel helps us grasp just how lines contribute to opera scenes, whether through sound or action, through the individual expression of one singer or the integrated expression of ensembles. Castel takes us down to the moment when the poet (or sometimes the composer) put pen to paper. By deconstructing these texts he returns us to the moment of their creation.

Castel uses white space to separate every word and line; there are none of the blocks of text we remember from standard librettos. Every element is seen independently, so the integrated line can be understood after the reader has dealt with the word. At the beginning of each volume, Castel includes a guide through the maze of the international phonetic alphabet, using it to provide the pronunciation of every word. He explains in the front matter why two singers sound different while singing the same line of text. He goes into Italian vowels, where even Italians sometimes fear to tread, and takes the mystery out of "รจ" and "e." He also defangs the Italian "r," the downfall of everyone who speaks English or an Oriental language. He explains the double consonants that we hear, even when they are not written, and why someone sings "amme" or "comme" when the printed words are "a me" and "con me." A literal translation, word by word, is given beneath the original, in the exact order of the phrase; when necessary, this literal line is supplemented by a line in English, with the words in proper order, so it makes sense. By dismantling the original, the way a mechanic takes apart a car motor, Castel forces us to look at the parts he lays out.

Castel's method can be distracting, even infuriating, when we first follow his relentless word-by-word track along the Italian lines we thought we knew. His literal translations will make most English-speaking readers wince. It is bitter medicine, but a cure for our old, jaundiced and dismissive view of these dense scenes. Awareness comes. In Castel's footnotes, we find the meaning of idioms and archaisms we have heard for years without really knowing why they were there. Because of the phonetic guidelines, we also "hear" how the line sounded in the librettist's or composer's head and can perhaps even recapture a line of his original intellectual reasoning or poetic inspiration.

Those of us who place equal value on the words and the music find that we have been justified all along. Castel leads us with his passion for detail and reverence for the text. This collection should be studied by professionals and music-lovers alike. Its few typographical errors and points of confusion are easliy forgiven because of the importance of the project.