lunes, 30 de abril de 2012

The Black Opera by Mary Gentle, a review with music

(Disclaimer: English is my second language, so I want to apologize in advance for there may be mistakes in the text below. If you find any, please let me know so that I can correct it. I'd really appreciate it. Thanks.)

The Black Opera, Mary Gentle's new book, is a "novel of Opera, Volcanoes and the Mind of God". Thus, I will try something new (at least for me). I'd like you to read this review while listening to the Queen of the Night aria from The Magic Flute opera. I suggest the Diana Damrau version. If you are a Spotify user, you can just click on the play button below. If not, you can try this YouTube video. If you don't like my review, I hope that at least you will enjoy the beautiful music.




In the alternate 19th Century Naples depicted on The Black Opera, music can be used to perform miracles. For instance, a Sung Mass can heal the ill and even resurrect the dead. But this power is not exclusive of holy music. Opera can also be used to do magic. When lightning strikes the theater after Il Terrore di Parigi is staged, Conrad Scalese, its librettist, is summoned by King Ferdinand II. A secret society, the Prince's Men, is trying to channel the power of music for their dark purposes with a Black Opera. Scalese must write a counter opera to stop the impeding doom...

When I first learned about the synopsis of The Black Opera I was seduced by the idea of an original magic system and it quickly became of my highly anticipated books for 2012. However, when I started reading it, I was a bit dissapointed. The magic power of music is, for the most part of the book, only implied. In fact, the plot focus mainly on the dramatic nature of opera and its ability to convey the most powerful human emotions:
And opera - opera is the pure extreme of secular passion. Love, revenge, triumph, grief, all as expressed by voice and music...
The plot revolves around the creative process and the rehearsals of the counter opera. This may seem a bit dull, but Gentle masterfully manages to tell a story within a story. As in Hamlet, where a fictional play re-enacts the plot of the real play, in The Black Opera the libretto that Scalese writes closely resembles the plot of the novel. In both we find love triangles, treason, volcanoes, human sacrifices and a striking finale ultimo. 
Conrad, in shock, thought, 'Strange how often real life mirrors the stage'.
Though there are some differences (and some surprises), almost everything in Scalese's libretto find its counterpart in the plot of The Black Opera. We even have a prima donna, a primo uomo and supporting roles. Appropriately enough, the plot twists are somehow predictable and the characters are quite stereotypical, as in opera. Both Gentle and the characters are aware of this and they let us know:
"Confidence, padrone. Confidence!" Tullio muttered, comfortably close enough that he bumped his shoulder against Conrad's. "Pretend that you're a character in an opera!"
Though it was not what I was expecting when I started reading the book, I quickly came to appreciate what Gently does with this novel: a reflection on the classic idea of art as an imitation of life and life as an imitation of art. And one that works extremely well.

The book, however, is not without its flaws. The prose is direct and functional. Nothing wrong with that, but from a book featuring opera so strongly I expected something more elaborate. To use an operatic term, it lacks coloratura. However, the main problem with the novel is that is far too long (maybe that is also true of most operas, but I wouldn't know). The fact that almost every detail is explained once and again doesn't help either. I strongly believe that the novel could greatly benefit from some serious editing, especially in the part where the counter opera is getting written.

All things considered, The Black Opera is a good novel and one that I'm glad I read. It may not be the kind of story I was expecting, but it is nonetheless an interesting one and Mary Gentle skill in going back and forth between the plot of the novel and the libretto of the opera is something worth reading. It is a pity, though, that the book is not shorter. With 100 pages less it would have been a much better novel.

Acknowledgements: I'd like to thank my friends and colleagues César, from whom I borrowed the idea of including music in the review, and Iñaki, who pointed me to the version of the Queen of the Night aria that I have used here.

(You can also read this review in Spanish/También puedes leer esta reseña en español)

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