Despite a glut of guides to its plots and dictionaries of its characters, there’s an odd dearth of single-volume histories of opera. This fresh and combative attempt at a synthesis of a uniquely complex art form is brave, challenging and, above all, useful. Composed in apparently harmonious and unusually intimate collaboration by two prominent academics – Carolyn Abbate, currently based at Harvard, and Roger Parker of King’s College, London – who represent the cutting-edge of thought in the field, A History of Opera is couched in a coolly sophisticated style that makes for bracing but entertaining reading.
What they have produced isn’t a work of encyclopaedic reference; if you want a facile trot through names and dates, the latest revised version of Donald Jay Grout’s 1947 A Short History of Opera remains perfectly adequate. Nor do they present any recondite musicological analysis – the level of technical