How did we get here?

abbateparkerCarolyn Abbate and Roger Parker’s A History of Opera: The Last Four Hundred Years, published in 2010, is an interesting and, occasionally, perplexing read.  It looks at developments largely from a musicological perspective only rarely straying into political context and even morer rarely dealing with sociological factors surrounding opera although there is an interesting short section on French grand opéra that deals with the extent to which French opera of various kinds was subsidised and how the odd social habits of the audience shaped the works themselves.

Mostly though it’s a useful look at the various musical lines of descent and changes in fashion in opera.  It’s good on the lack of influence of Mozart (versus, say, Rossini) on later developments.  It lays out clearly the emergence of the “heroic” tenor following the demise of the castrati.  The section on the impact and influence of Meyerbeer is very interesting and quite surprising for a composer now almost forgotten.  Perhaps most interesting of all is their analysis of the emergence of repertory works and the gradual switch in emphasis from new commissions to revivals that was the beginning of our modern dilemma of “museum opera”.

There are areas that I found less satisfactory.  The “dead end” of Italian opera after Puccini gets no sort of explanation and I found their treatment of new opera since 1945 rather cursory, pessimistic and dismissive.  It also seemed curiously dated for a book published so recently.  There’s really nothing on the emergence of very different approaches to opera on either side of the Atlantic, for example.

Weaknesses aside though, I think any opera lover would learn something useful from a very stimulating book.

4 thoughts on “How did we get here?

  1. Why do great operas like Palestrina, Mathis der Maler and Doktor Faust attract only a small contingent of passionate admirers?

    • That’s a great question which I suspect has no good answer! Similarly why do some operas become very fashionable for a while and then fade away or, alternatively, come back from the dead?

    • It’s the influence they are concerned about. As I recall it’s the way Rossini begins the arc away from the rigid recitative/number format and his role in making the tenor the central male character. Ironically that was a move that led to a style of vocal delivery that Rossini deplored.

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