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A History of Opera: The Last Four Hundred Years

By Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker. Penguin. 624pp. £30. ISBN: 9780713996333

 

Daniel Snowman

 

Some books, like the finest haute cuisine, can be all the better for having had time to simmer, steam and stew. For a number of years now, the word on the Rialto was that two of our leading opera scholars, the American musicologist Carolyn Abbate and Britain’s Roger Parker, were cooking up a substantial history of opera: the resulting feast has been well worth the wait and is a joy to consume.

Abbate’s early operatic expertise emerged from an immersion in Wagner studies while Parker’s initially centred on the work of Verdi, and the two first collaborated back in the 1980s when editing the papers presented at a Wagner-Verdi conference at Cornell (where Parker was a professor at the time). In the years since, Abbate, probably most widely known for her book Unsung Voices, has called upon a variety of theoretical models in her pursuit of the deeper impact and narrativity of music, while Parker, retaining his primary focus on Italian opera, has extended his reach to investigate many musical styles and periods and he remains one of those rare academics capable of writing of arcane matters in richly communicative prose. Despite their different centres of intellectual gravity (and living, as they point out at the end of a charming Preface, 5,605 kilometres apart!), the authors decided from the outset that this book would be a joint effort, every sentence including the imprint of both. Sometimes, one-plus-one can make a delightfully invigorating three. Thus, Park-bate write of the Götterdämmerung scene where Hagen blows his horn and summons up his men that it ‘illustrates the brutal side of 19th-century German art, and is good for frightening children’, and few opera pundits since Anna Russell would have had the nerve to summarize the Ring as featuring a ‘marching army of arrogant Gods, sword-brandishing heroes, cavorting water nixies and sweaty dwarves’.

With all its welcome readability, this is a serious and scholarly book which takes the story of opera from its roots in late-Renaissance Italy through the emergence of opera seria and opera buffa via Mozart, Rossini, Wagner, Verdi, Puccini, Strauss and a great many less familiar figures through to Berg, Britten and beyond. This may not be the book for you if you want to read about famous singers and conductors of the past, how operatic production styles and values changed over time or something of opera’s fluctuating finances and audiences. But it will surely become essential reading for anyone seeking an engaging and highly informed chronicle of the great composers and their works.

This kind of bold historical overview was once more common than it is nowadays in our era of ever-narrower academic specialisms, and Abbate and Parker deserve credit for being among the few musicologists to tackle the operatic longue durée. Inevitably selective, they concentrate on works that can be taken to indicate broader historical trends. Thus, a Verdi chapter (there are two) deals in some detail with La traviata, especially the Violetta-Germont duet, then moves on to the opening aria and closing duet in Aida, gliding rapidly through the operas written in between; Wagner’s Tristan and Ring get the full Abbate-and-Parker treatment, but fans of Parsifal might feel a tad short-changed. Janáček gets more attention than Smetana, Bohème is covered in detail but not Turandot, and Salome outruns Elektra. Abbate and Parker wear their scholarship lightly, and they (and their editors) are clearly aiming to reach a wide readership. Hence, no doubt, the decision to omit all musical quotations and to concentrate on opera as ‘event’ (i.e., what it means in performance) rather than ‘text’ (the score). However, the authors do include a fair bit of musicological detail, and some may want to be near a piano when reading of the harmonic processes and successive chordal clusters in, for example, the Prelude to Tristan or Siegmund’s Winterstürme.

Abbate and Parker weave a number of sub-plots into their narrative. For example, they periodically highlight a distinction between the part played in an opera by one of the characters and the musical or vocal qualities he or she is given. The two are not normally, of course, widely divergent: you would not expect Wotan or King Philip to launch into a cynically seductive serenade à la Don Giovanni or Méphistophélès any more than Elektra could express her derangement with the coloratura frills and trills of Lucia. But opera is a multimedia art in which many things can go on at once, and Abbate and Parker identify a number of instances, in early Verdi for example, where a character’s musical style can add deeper layers to the drama. In Ernani, ‘plot-Elvira’ (to use their terminology) is ‘a classic passive female’ while ‘voice-Elvira’ is ‘the most forceful musical presence in the opera’. A few years later, ‘plot-Manrico’ is desperate to rush off and save his mother, but ‘voice-Manrico’ has a heroic aria to deliver first. And then there’s that heartless, selfish ‘plot-Duke’ in Rigoletto, a cad whose irresistible if superficial charm is reserved for ‘voice-Duke’.   

At the very heart of opera, the authors suggest, lie a number of troubling paradoxes. Like all art, opera can tell us something about ourselves and, at its finest, evoke a powerful emotional response in those who experience it. But opera, in which people spend all or most of their time singing with an orchestra as companion, is unlike a play, painting or novel, for example, in that it is by definition based on a format far removed from anything resembling ‘real’ life. How is it, then, that generation after generation of opera-goers (and doubtless you and I) have been deeply moved by something so calculatedly artificial? The question is raised at the outset of the book, and is revisited in some detail when we reach the late-19th and 20th centuries. The so-called ‘realism’ of Italian verismo opera, the authors show, rarely earned its sobriquet, while German Sprechstimme was closer to the affected styles of stage acting than to that of everyday speech. Sometimes, it is the most unrealistic aspects of opera that move us the most: the thunderous orchestral chords or yearning harmonic shifts, or the sheer vocal athleticism of a robust high C.

Running through the book, too, is a deeper, more troubling paradox that resurfaces every now and then like the rolling, rumbling undercurrents of the Rhine in the Ring—one that suggests, moreover, that the entire operatic project may by now be in its twilight years. Precisely when the worldwide popularity of opera was reaching its historical peak, the art form itself was showing signs of being in terminal decline. This is an issue that a number of writers (myself included) have tried to tackle, and it is the one to which Abbate and Parker return in their concluding pages. During the first half of opera’s history, audiences were in general keen to sample new works, rather as today people might want to try the latest hit movie or a novel on the Booker shortlist. Gradually, things changed as audiences showed a growing predilection for a small canon of pre-existing works, just occasionally augmented by a new piece by Puccini, say, or Strauss. Thus, the standard operatic repertoire, give or take a handful of works on the outer edges, has come to consist of a few dozen pieces mostly composed during the ‘long’ 19th century. For all its popularity, in other words, opera has for some time been turning into a ‘museum’ art, with revivals of Traviata or Tosca far more likely to fill the house than new or recent compositions. The conscientious opera manager does his best, of course, to resist the trend by making a show of commissioning new works. But Abbate and Parker are scathing about the reverential solemnity with which this is routinely done, the ‘hallowed traditions’ and the ‘need to encourage the next Mozart or Verdi’ ritually invoked by tired marketing departments. Cruelly but realistically, the authors list ten of the most highly hyped operas premiered between 1950 and 1980, not one of which is staged today. Worse, they cite statistics to show the numbers of performances worldwide, per composer, over a recent five-year period: Verdi, Mozart and Co. top the list, as you might expect. The first living composer, Philip Glass, comes in at 52nd.

Abbate and Parker try to put a brave face on things. Opera as ‘event’ has not died. Today, there are more opera companies, singers, performances and audiences than ever before, and the same old operas are often produced in the newest kind of ways, which, in the hands of a sympathetic and imaginative director, can be a boon. In any case, they remind us with a sigh, everything is transient, and opera has had a longer run than many another dead or dying musical genre (the madrigal, motet, symphony). ‘The Last Four Hundred Years’, indeed. But then, as any good opera lover will know, ghosts do have a habit of returning.
Opera Awards in association with OPERA Magazine
Cabbells 2012 B & C