A History of Opera
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A History of Opera

Second Edition, Updated
W.W. Norton & Company; 656 pp. $21.95 

Books History of Opera 316

AS STANDARD ACCOUNTS HAD IT, opera was the brainchild of a group of Florentine intellectuals engaged in high-minded endeavor at the beginning of the seventeenth century. In their latest chronicle, Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker assert that version of events to be, if not entirely false, at least a severe simplification of a rather more chaotic set of historical circumstances. But they move beyond simple revisionism to examine the motivation behind the standard chronicle: the need nineteenth-century historians felt to present the form as a philosophical endeavor, the authors say, reflects “an idealization of opera—as a noble, prelapsarian form of expression.”

That impetus to delve into the intellectual ramifications of the evidence pervades A History of Opera, a magisterial volume first published in 2012, here revised and augmented for its second edition. The book covers a lot of ground: it’s amazingly comprehensive in its tracking of the various strands of opera history and convincing in synthesizing them into one huge narrative. But its breadth hardly precludes depth; along the way, it offers trenchant examinations of huge chunks of the standard repertory, with analyses that will reward even readers who know the works intimately. 

Abbate and Parker have abjured the use of musical examples; nonetheless, their discussions are deeply grounded in the music itself. Take their treatment of the opening duet of Le Nozze di Figaro: the contrasting themes of Susanna and Figaro, the authors point out, portray their disparate centers of focus. The couple only reaches accord in the last four lines, when the two join together for a final statement of Susanna’s melody. “What was just a piece of dialogue in the play and libretto,” they write, “has become a little musical drama … a sentimental education in miniature.” 

The authors’ revisionist bent can similarly be felt in their treatment of Verdi’s putative Risorgimento early works. The status of Nabucco, I Lombardi, Ernani and Attila as calls to revolutionary action, they say, is a latter-day invention, the result of a search for “national monuments” when Italy finally achieved statehood some decades after the operas were written, and a fiction that the composer himself willingly corroborated. In fact, opera in Italy remained a conservative, elite institution during Verdi’s early years: “Any revolutions depicted onstage … were essentially for show, their entertainment value being equivalent to those other operatic staples, female madness and pathological male jealousy.” 

For this reader, the book’s most eye-opening bit of emendation comes in its prolonged discussion of Der Rosenkavalier. The work is often seen as Strauss’s retreat, after a period of experimentation, into a kind of reactionary fantasy. But Abbate and Parker treat it as an audacious example of modernism, a work whose layers of “acoustic frosted glass” obscure the “correspondence … between musical mood and character’s condition” and thus call into question “the idea of sincere, unmediated expression in opera.” Perhaps they are unusually sympathetic to Strauss because they find in him a fellow spirit, a man acutely aware of opera history—one who may, in fact, have felt that he was witnessing its end. Der Rosenkavalier, the book argues, “gives us an avenue into the operatic year … that marked the genre’s wildest efflorescence at the moment it was becoming a thing of the past.”

The authors’ willingness to announce the death of opera as an organically developing art-form earned the book some critical opprobrium on its initial publication; as if in response, the current edition includes coverage of “very recent developments.” In fact, its treatment of recent works
such as Thomas Adès’s Tempest,Kaija Saariaho’s Amour de Loin and George Benjamin’s Written
on Skin
is typically penetrating. But the authors note that the Benjamin work hardly advances the art form past Wozzeck.“Operatic time … has slowed to lento,” they write.

It’s a dispiriting conclusion, but cogently argued, and typical of a volume chock-full of surprising insights. Abbate and Parker have covered their topic well: A History of Opera is as good a survey of the art form as any I’ve read. Yet their real achievement here lies in drawing us into a fascinating conversation.  —Fred Cohn 

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