by Tim Carter
Review by Mark Spano
Opera, next to Gothic architecture, is one of the strangest
inventions of Western man. It could not have been foreseen
by any logical process.
— Kenneth Clark
“All art,” Walter Pater tells us, “constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” A true opera fan understands that if we “take in” or “apprehend” an opera, that is, if we are mere spectators of opera, then, that opera has failed. For an opera to succeed, it must “apprehend” or “capture” the listener. And, this, of course, is the greatness of music and the aspiration to which Pater tells us all art aspires. Music captures us against our wills, and no music is capable of taking us body and soul quite like opera. This musical drama in which elaborately costumed characters standing on sets that can verge on the phantasmagorical, are singing to one another over a booming orchestra for sometimes as long as five hours, make for the most unlikely and, well quite frankly, the most irrational of art forms.
Tim Carter’s Understanding Italian Opera offers a great many musical and prosodic details related to five specific operas in the Italian language. He states that regardless of the composer’s nationality, an opera in the Italian language is an “Italian Opera” based on the poetics and musical conventions that have driven the Italian style which is essentially opera’s original style.
The book Understanding Italian Opera contains seven chapters: front and ending pieces and five essays on individual Italian-language, operatic masterpieces.
In Chapter One, the author explores what an opera is. This is can be paradoxical territory for the essayist. In more technical terms, an opera is a complex work, but explaining it is fairly straightforward. In other ways, explanation is nearly impossible. The author can tell us how an opera works, but he cannot truly divine why an opera works.
With remarkable facility, Carter takes on the “poetic” aspects of operatic texts and how the blending of poetry and music combine (or do not) to create a form. Carter also steps up to the discussion of, “a search for greater naturalism in opera, or an attempt to mitigate opera’s patent antinaturalism.”
It seems the biggest gripe of opera’s most vociferous detractors is “opera’s patent antinaturalism.” While those of us who see ourselves as champions of the operatic art form, lecture these infidels until we are blue in the face on a willing “suspension of disbelief.” Carter tells us that this “is part of the contract required to gain admission to the theater.”
Carter hearkens us back to Dryden, who reminds us that “‘passion’ helped mitigate the problems of verisimilitude caused by singing on stage.” Opera like any good drama uses poetry, music and stage action to create a series of sharable emotional states. There is no question that these states are limited in terms of content and exploration of complex ideas. These states that an operatic performance may evoke, though, can be seemingly boundless in their intensity.
When the earliest operas took to the stage in late Sixteenth Century Florence, they were stories of Greco-Roman myths. (It is possibly easier to countenance deities, accompanied by an orchestra, sing to one another in rhyming and metered lines.) What Carter tells us regarding the evocative nature of opera is that “its range and depth somehow make opera true to emotional life.”
When opera truly succeeds it is an elaborate, noisy contraption where we the listener are enjoined with the performers in ecstatic moments of emotional truth.
Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim has written of fairytales, “The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue …” Possibly, there is a requisite immaturity that is part of the ticket price to “gain admission to the theater.” How different is the exaggerated, invented world of opera from that of The Avengers, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, or Star Wars?
Carter manages to create detailed biographies of five individual Italian operas, providing musical, dramatic, and historical contexts for each work. I am honestly amazed at just how much information, how many facts related to an individual work Carter manages to compile without creating something less of an essay and more of a spreadsheet. Such are the risks of this kind of writing. And, Carter navigates these risks brilliantly, remembering no matter how jam-packed with facts, a good essay is made of compelling prose. Each chapter ends with a section providing more resources for the opera scholar or for the truly curious opera fan.
The five chosen operas are placed in the book in chronological order. This chronology clearly shows an evolutionary process in the art form. In a straightforward movement from the late Renaissance of Claudio Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea to a nearly modernist approach of Puccini’s La bohème, Carter points out the clear progression of storytelling, the streamlining of the dramatic arts, and the revolutionary changes in musical composition.
Few operas from the Italian bel canto era can fairly be called groundbreaking or structural masterworks of musical drama. Many bel canto operas, though, continue to be produced around the world based simply on their tremendous popularity with opera-going audiences. This might have been reason enough for Carter to have included at least one of them in his book on Italian opera. This, though, is not a critical omission from Carter’s delightful book.
A word of warning: This book is with all its cleverness and fine prose remains something of a scholarly work. If you have not read a great deal on opera, you might want to start with lighter fare. That being said, Understanding Italian Opera by Tim Carter is a jewel.