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There is something rather touching, elegiac even, about an incisive and illuminating history of opera that concludes with a description of the form as being now ‘almost exclusively a museum of past musical works’. Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker’s A History of Opera, published towards the end of last year, is both substantial in size – it runs to 600 pages – and in scope. Of equal substance is the enviable command of the authors’ exploration of a form that continues to compel attention despite its inherent exaggerations, absurdities and dogged reliance, as with no other art form, on its past.

Despite their doubts about opera’s future, Abbate and Parker’s sweeping survey celebrates an art form that from its beginnings has seemed to fly in the face of financial, artistic and emotional sense and which, to boot, makes enormous demands of those who both create and consume it. It’s those tensions that underpin an exemplary exploration of opera’s virtues and vices, its development and, despite its continuing struggle to reclaim the place in the cultural mainstream it once enjoyed, its abiding appeal.

The focus is almost exclusively on opera as product – the book teems over with one insight after another into the qualities of individual works and their composers – with valuable consideration of social, political and literary contexts. It’s hard not to concur with the argument that emerges that opera’s success – and, worryingly, its viability – is being suffocated by the stubborn conservatism of its audience.

But, above all, this is a magnificent analysis in which the contributions of both authors combine seamlessly and cogently to make the case for why opera mattered in the past. What future it might have, however, is left conspicuously alone – a tantalising omission given the propensity of much contemporary opera to echo the concern of the opera buffa that dominated the 18th and 19th centuries with topicality. Even so, this is a beautifully written, deeply intelligent and highly instructive read, one that can be set alongside Daniel Snowman’s social history of opera The Gilded Stage (Atlantic Books: 2009) as an altogether essential read.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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