Mary Gentle, The Black Opera: a novel of operas, volcanoes, and the Mind of God, ISBN: 9781597802192, Night Shade Books, May 2012.
Reviewed by Liz Bourke.
“I have used the source material regarding the history and royalty of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies with the same careful and exact attention to detail as the bel canto composers.
“Given that Gaetano Donizetti once set an opera in Liverpool and described it as ‘a small Alpine village outside London,’ the reader is probably safe in regarding The Black Opera as Alternate History.”
The Black Opera, Author’s Foreword
Mary Gentle has a habit of writing books that get inside my skin and lodge there. Books full of sharp, glittering edges; books that leave me with catharsis and questions in about equal measure. The Black Opera is Gentle’s first outing since 2006’s Ilario: The Lion’s Eye. An alternate history set in nineteenth-century Naples, The Black Opera showcases Gentle’s deft hand with place and personality, and her trademark blend of the skewily historical and the fantastically numinous.
In short, I liked it a lot.
The date is sometime in the 1820s. The place, Naples, in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Conrad Scalese, atheist and opera librettist, is arrested by the Inquisition as a heretic after lightning strikes the opera house in which his opera opened. Rescued from the hands of the Holy Office by His Majesty Ferdinand Bourbon-Sicily, King of the Two Sicilies, Conrad’s given an impossible job: write a libretto and act as impresario for an opera that must be produced within six weeks. A production that will be threatened and sabotaged every step of the way, and yet must go ahead. For in this world, music – whether in opera or the Sung Mass – is the conduit to miracle. And somewhere in Naples, a secret society known as the Prince’s Men is organising an opera to bring about a black miracle: to cause Vesuvius and the Campi Flegrei to erupt, a cataclysm resulting in the sacrifice of thousands – tens of thousands – of lives. And by that sacrifice, to compel the attention of either God or the Devil.
Conrad’s task is to write a counter-opera to cancel out the black opera, aimed at a counter-miracle: the last string in Ferdinand’s bow if all other arrows fail. With Roberto Capiraso, the arrogant but talented Conte di Argente as his composer, and the resources of Naples at his disposal, the project seems possible, but Conrad’s working relationship with Argente is complicated by the fact that il Conte is married to Leonora, the opera singer whom Conrad loved years ago in Venice, and loves still.
I know nothing about opera, so when I say I found the scenes involving the entire rigmarole of an opera company vivid and convincing, I’m speaking from a place of ignorance. But the business of the opera is the heart of the book: Conrad’s writing and re-writing and awkward-brilliant partnership with Argente, the squabbles of the company over who gets what lines, a glorious vivid culture of theatre – the haughty castrato soprano; Sabrine, fed up with playing breeches parts and enthusiastic for the chance to play prima donna; the insecure second donna whose reputation is trouble; JohnJack Spinelli, baritone typecast as operatic villain; Conrad’s cross-dressing sister (and first violin and conductor) Isaura-Paulo, who wants to compose for commercial opera herself.
If the business of opera is the heart of the book, its soul is Conrad. Atheist, freethinker, natural philosopher: to him what the Church calls miracles are a part of the natural world with scientific explanation. The tension between faith and reason comes into its own in the climax, when in the shadow of an erupting Mt. Vesuvius, Conrad comes face to face with a miracle that could be called god.
Offset against and yet integral to the matter of the opera is the relationship triangle (resolved in a refreshingly unorthodox manner) between Conrad, Leonora, and Argente. It is here, I think, the book is at its weakest: both Conrad and Argente love Leonora with a passion that goes beyond reason. I don’t feel that passion convincingly in the same way I feel the passion Gentle has brought out in Conrad’s opera, L’Altezza azteca, The Aztec Princess. (But when it comes to the romantic passions, I’m a cynic.)
Gentle may call her work alternate history, but attractive as her gift for setting history off-kilter is, the fantasy elements here have their own magnetism. This nineteenth century hosts ghosts and religious miracles, and sometimes the dead return – conscious, in their own flesh, almost the person they were, and nearly immortal.
Gentle has a chiseled, muscular way with prose, and a vivid eye for image. The characters are real, alive, and individual. Her control of pace and tension is solid, masterful: the crescendo of the climax slides into a dénouement that, while comparatively long, works for me in a visceral fashion. The ending feels satisfying. It feels right.
I’ve enjoyed every book that Mary Gentle has so far written. The Black Opera may be her best work yet: tense, compelling, lucidly written, and arrestingly unafraid of the tensions at its heart.