The high notes

A History of Opera: The Last Four Hundred Years, by Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker, Allen Lane, RRP£30/Norton, RRP$45, 624 pages

When Mark Twain visited Bayreuth, the Wagner shrine, in 1891, he described his sense of alienation as that of “the sane person in a community of the mad”. Twain was articulating a reaction that, even today, many first-time visitors to an opera house share when confronted by its social and musical conventions. Why does opera feign realism while insisting on an unrealistic form of communication – the act of singing? Why are opera’s “stories” so formulaic? And how do seasoned operagoers put up with seeing the same operas again and again without getting bored?

This book provides answers in a way one would not expect from academics immersed in the technical and intellectual minutiae of their subject. Maybe that is because Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker, respectively American and English historians, are themselves opera fans: their enthusiasm runs through every page of their 400-year conspectus.

Like many intelligent people who happen to be operagoers, they are not afraid to admit that opera ultimately defeats rationalisation. They may be able to detail Wagner’s “tricks of construction” in Tristan and Isolde but even they cannot explain why its marriage of music and drama creates such emotional impact in the theatre. It is “a mystery ... given expression without being answered or contained”.

The idea that you can encapsulate opera, its aesthetic formulae and social history, in a single volume is, of course, a nonsense, and for all their lightly worn knowledge, Abbate and Parker do not avoid patches of unevenness and sketchiness. By the same token, this is not the kind of A to Z survey that aims at pocket-book status. It adds up to an exhaustive (but never exhausting) study of where opera began, how it developed and why, so the authors contend, it is in terminal decline four centuries after its birth.

Their discussion of key works is invariably stimulating, even when some of the conclusions are wacky, as when they assert that the strongest music in Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman is the most conventional. They are at their most reliable in Italian opera. Take The Coronation of Poppea, premiered during the 1642-43 Venetian carnival season: they argue effectively that Monteverdi’s authorship is a presumption of posterity, there being no evidence to support it. Musical scores in the 17th and 18th centuries were “the equivalent of today’s film scripts”, constantly changed or replaced to adapt to new circumstances.

They also indirectly ridicule their own profession – the holier-than-thou scholars who, in a spurious quest for authenticity, reconstruct a score according to 21st-century conceptions of what is “original”. Such work betrays a basic misunderstanding of the past, because “the ancient operatic practice these editions purport to restore was often close to the opposite of careful and preservationist. It could be thrillingly lax and last-minute, with a ready indulgence of cuts, re-scorings and pragmatic accommodations that would be unthinkable today.”

Among the book’s more entertaining diversions is its description of the 17th and 18th centuries as a period of “acoustic warfare”: music had to compete with the hubbub of social (and, occasionally, illicit sexual) intercourse, for which the performance was a convenient excuse. To counteract this, composers increased the amount of vocal soliloquising on stage – giving birth to the aria, a device that made the audience pay attention. But as soon as the structural device of aria and recitative established itself, it became formulaic. As Abbate and Parker point out in their refreshingly accessible style, “making an opera became analogous to making a movie sequel. The sequel may still be marvellous but the content has been industrialised.”

It’s this ability to set musicological analysis in a wider socio-historical context, avoiding abstruse technical detail, that makes their story so fluent. The opera that tested the waters of social change more than any was Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, written on the eve of the French Revolution. Despite being dressed as a comedy, the music’s message was blatantly subversive: it blurred social boundaries. Abbate and Parker pinpoint the Act Three seduction duet between Count Almaviva and Susanna as the first time a servant had been elevated to the musical quality of his or her master. “By way of her musical transformations, Susanna is revealed to have depths and human frailties that her words hardly suggest.”

For anyone who thinks they know their Figaro, such observations can be illuminating. Verdi’s La traviata, which dramatises the life and death of Violetta, a contemporary Parisian courtesan, also comes under the social microscope. Opera has always had an easy ride with immorality – 19th-century audiences could swallow prostitution, fornication, incest and necrophilia in musical dress in a way that was not possible in spoken drama – but postmodern studies have been less forgiving, as when the authors raise the spectre of “musical misogyny” in Verdi’s treatment of his heroine.

Did La traviata mirror sexual politics of the era, as some have argued, by apportioning the dominant musical material to tenor and baritone? After reciting various arguments for the prosecution, Abbate and Parker throw off their academic gowns and listen to what their ears and hearts are telling them – that Violetta’s music has far greater emotional force than her male counterparts. “Verdi’s setting tells us that, at least in this fictional world articulated through music, every relationship of power is fragile.”

Given the prejudices swirling round the closed world of opera, it is hardly surprising to find the authors exhibiting some of their own. They underestimate the role of German romanticism in the forest scenes of Weber’s Der Freischütz. They fail to recognise the influence of Mercadante and Donizetti on Verdi’s through-composed style. They ignore the devastating impact of Nazism and modernism. The past 80 years get a miserable 30 pages as if, removed from their mouldy manuscripts, the authors are lost.

Their summary of recent trends betrays a blindness to life outside the metropolitan opera museum. They fail to recognise the fissure between today’s narrow commercialised repertory and new forms that reflect more open-minded creativity. If opera has survived four centuries of constant adaptation, it can surely reinvent itself for a fifth.

Andrew Clark is the FT’s chief music critic

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