Wednesday 30 November 2022

Not so much a history of opera: Simon Banks uses 400 years of opera to hold up a mirror to the attitudes and views of those who watched and commissioned the works

Simon Banks: Opera: The Autobiography of the Western World; Matador Books
Simon Banks: Opera: The Autobiography of the Western World; Matador Books
Book Review, 29 November 2022

Most histories of opera begin with Renaissance Italy, make their way through the various incarnations of the Baroque, move to Classical Vienna and then explore Romanticism in all its guises before attempting to define what opera is in the 20th and 21st centuries. But Simon Banks takes a different view in his book Opera: The Autobiography of the Western World (Matador Books). He explores the way the operas of a particular age have reflected the age's obsessions, politics and world views.

He points out that over its 400-year history, opera was one of the dominant entertainment forms of its ruling elites, often making opera in the listeners' own images (after all, they were usually paying for it). As Banks puts it in his introduction, 'the operatic repertoire lives on as an astonishingly eloquent record of how the modern West changed its mind on key political, religious and social issues over four centuries', and he sees the operatic repertoire as a living record of the Western world. So, this isn't a book on the history of opera, it is a book about the history of the Western world or more specifically the cultural and political attitudes of the Western world as reflected in one of its favourite art forms.

The topic is possibly one that might be completely indigestible, so Banks' solution is to create 36 chapters grouped into three parts, New answers to timeless questions, The Modern West breaks free from the Middle Ages, and From despotism to pluralism. Each chapter takes a specific historical era or idea, 'How did it all start', or 'Religious Fanaticism' or 'Philip II and Elizabeth I (1550-1600)' and then lists operas from different eras that treat the same, or similar, subject matter and see how they shed light on changing attitudes.

It is a fascinating approach, and the striping by topic and theme does throw up some intriguing juxtapositions. So, in Chapter Three 'Should we acknowledge our irrational drives' he considers the balance between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, looking at operas by Monteverdi, Rameau, Gluck, Rossini, R. Strauss, Szymanowski and Birtwistle, to reflect the way society has balanced the two elements. It helps that Banks has a nice line in pointed description, so he says of Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos, 'The libretto in the final minutes sounds like a competition entry for the ten most important things to say before you die'!

If in some chapters, Banks seems to have had to stretch rather to find suitable operas, in others the contrasts between different approaches to the same subject become very illuminating. We see how Verdi's Aida and Glass' Akhnaten reflect the past, and we can compare Trojan history as reflected by Purcell, Berlioz and Strauss (with a short aside about Wagner's re-working of Gluck). As Banks puts it, 'Les Troyens communicates, perhaps more overwhelmingly than any other opera, the 19th century's sense that the entire human story is one vast, monumental tale of progress'.

Wagner looms large, of course, and Banks is very strong on the way different eras of history appropriated Wagner's operas for their own ends, including a scary poster of Hitler as Lohengrin. But Banks also highlights that it wasn't just Wagner, Donizetti's operas are all about corrupt power (from Dom Sebastien, to Caterina Cornaro to Roberto Devereux), and Meyerbeer's give a dark picture of 16th century religion.

There is an intriguing chapter which places Lohengrin alongside Ruslan and Ludmila and Montemezzi's The Love of Three Kings. I have to confess that despite having seen and enjoyed Montemezzi's opera, I had entirely missed that it was belligerently ideological, setting out to make Italian feel better about their country's historical impotence, with the aim of inspiring military expansion. Whilst Glinka's opera comes after Napoleon's invasion of Russia and reflects the country's turning Eastwards.

Chapter 23 explores attitudes to colonialism with operas stretching from the lost English opera The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru, to the cynical attitudes in Vivaldi's Montezuma and the noble savages in Graun's Enlightenment version of the story, to Spontini's Fernand Cortez, a Napoleon-sponsored opera that encouraged conquest to Verdi's Alzira which maps the native Peruvians onto modern (19th century) freedom fighters, to Meyerbeer's Vasco da Gama with its critique of colonialism to Roger Sessions' Montezuma where the opera becomes an anti-fascist work which tries to give authentic voice to the native Peruvians. And then Philip Glass' The Voyage as a sort of scientific postlude.

This is not really a book to read in one sitting; it is rather fun to dip into and read Banks' compare and contrast chapters. There is a comprehensive index of composers and their works mentioned in the text, so you can find out where your favourites pop up. 

The book is well illustrated both with images related to historical opera performance as well as the different artists' treatments of the subjects considered in the book.

I have always been fascinated by different eras' approaches to the same story, Belshazzar, La Clemenza di Tito, Serse, but this takes it to a new level. It is not a book for those who want to find out about the nuts and bolts of opera, instead, it uses opera to show how society has changed. By looking at operas by Beethoven, Dvorak, Giordano, Massenet, Poulenc, von Einem, and Britten, we can consider how attitudes to the French Revolution have changed, with Banks pointing out that the three 19th century operas are all deeply conservative, the events in France as a warning to history, whilst the three works produced after World War II, ask questions about personal responsibility in the face of evil.

There is extensive information about the book on Simon Banks' website, along with a list of links for purchasing it.

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