A HISTORY OF OPERA. By Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker. W.W. Norton & Company. 624 pages. $45.
Two academics, one American, one British, have collaborated to write a one-volume history of opera for W.W. Norton & Co., the leading publisher of college-level textbooks in music history.
This is a daunting task, and Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker had to be selective. The result is not comprehensive, especially in the spotty way they cover the 20th century. Charlestonians and Spoletini will find that Philip Glass and Samuel Barber are given extremely short shrift, while George Gershwin and Gian Carlo Menotti are not mentioned at all. On the other hand, the coverage of Mozart, Verdi and Wagner is excellent, especially Verdi (author Parker’s specialty).
Still, this is not “An Introduction to Opera” for novices. There are no musical examples, which always is off-putting to the general reader. But you will enjoy this book if you are already a devoted opera fan.
The book puts the “canon” of operas now generally performed into their historical context. Specific scenes are cited as examples of why certain composers and operas are so strong dramatically and musically. This sent me to YouTube and my CD and DVD collection to review these scenes (a selection of them on a companion DVD would have been nice but too expensive).
For earlier opera history, Monteverdi is treated well, but the authors seem to find little reason for the present successful revivals of Handel’s operas.
So if you own more than one recording of “Don Giovanni” or have attended all the Spoleto Festival operas or go regularly to the Met’s high-definition relays, this book will give you lots of insights into opera. If you are just beginning to appreciate opera, it may be rough going.
It is not a reference work, nor does it give plot summaries. But for intense discussions of the masterworks of the operatic world, it is highly recommended.
Reviewer William Gudger is an organist, musicologist and retired professor of music at the College of Charleston.