Mary Gentle is one of the most under-appreciated authors in the U.S. — but the British author's latest novel might finally be the one to introduce Americans to her deft touch.
In Black Opera, Gentle approaches opera and her alternate Italy with the same care and style as her previous novels such as Ash, for which she took a Masters at Kings College in War Studies. The genius of Gentle's blend of truth and fiction is in the fact that places where her worlds deviate from the real one can often be hard to pinpoint — except of course for the obvious changes, such as the existence magic. The overall effect is spellbinding.
Welcome to a Kingdom of Two Sicilies, a 19th century Italy where the sung mass has the power to heal, to inspire — and even to raise the dead. Conrad Scalese is just waking up, after a great opening of his new opera. Unfortunately he wakes with his latest migraine already going full blast and The Inquisition at his front door.
During the night, the opera house that staged his opera was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Mere coincidence, according to Conrad. Blasphemy, according to the church — who maintains that only church music can create magic/miracles.
The final strike against Conrad is that he is an open atheist, but luckily for him that's exactly what King Ferdinand II needs in a librettist for his new opera. A secret society known as the Prince's Men is putting on a black opera, with the intention of raising the Devil and placing him in charge in the world. Conrad needs to write an opera so moving, its emotional impact will swamp the 'black opera' — and he has to write this in six weeks.
This book goes into amazing amounts of detail about opera — what it takes to write one, cast one, compose and put one on, all in a ridiculously small amount of time. And I'm not a fan of opera — I recognize the songs that have made their way into popular culture via Looney Tunes or action movies, and that's about it. There is nothing in the gossip and minutiae involved in putting on an opera that should particularly grip me... but it did. I found myself riveted to the page, as the book raced toward an Epic Opera Showdown ™ conclusion.
Part of it is the drama of the opera and of the book itself. There is a dramatic flair to everything that happens in this book. The personal lives of the characters are climactic to the extreme, the depth of their love, the surprise of the betrayals, the ache of want unfulfilled and the level of coincidence that brings it all together. This much drama could throw a narrative off but it's just so...operatic. That extreme is what the whole narrative is about, it's what opera is all about. No one goes to opera for the quiet love story, after all the art is constantly called musicodrama for a reason and it's delivered in spades.
The other reason this book grabbed me is that while it is a a book about opera, it's also not. If you've been involved in any sort of collaborative art-form you'll recognize the personalities here, the way that egos get in the way and interact with one another. The family-like atmosphere that can form in that sort of environment especially if everything is compacted into six weeks of intense insular work. By halfway through the book you're as anxious for the Epic Opera Showdown ™ as any of the characters singing it.
My one quibble with the book is that when the main villain (or one of them) is finally revealed, the motivation was lacking for me. I wanted a more in depth exploration of the reasons for the villainy, a deeper study of why someone would turn to the Prince's Men. But that's far outweighed by the things I loved in this book — not the least of which is the way Gentle opens little slices of rebellion against the social strictures of the time. She's able to show the way that women and other groups yearned for more than society would allow, in various small ways. It's in subtle moments, like the things that they want to put in the opera but can't get past the church censors. For example an alteration suggested by an actress that is acknowledged as better but too "unfeminine" to play well on stage. It's these little moments that really bring the world and the characters to full realization. These quiet moments of reality, play against all the drama and help to ground the text and reader more fully in Gentle's world.
In the end it's hard to summarize what the book is about any better that Ms. Gentle does in the subtitle - "a novel of Opera, Volcanoes, and the Mind of God". [Amazon]