The Black Opera by Mary Gentle

imageFor a moment Conrad was beyond the pain, luminous with a memory of absolute satisfaction. Music and human voices intertwining with precision and drive, building to a heart-shaking climax, and — after the end of the opera’s last act — twenty-seven seconds of pure silence. Every level of the opera house from boxes to pit exploded in applause. Brava! Bravi! Bravissimo!

Conrad Scalese, librettist — no — poet. Creator of stories…
Conrad rolled over, half-burying himself in sheets and blankets.
… Finally successful! Finally there.
The world tore apart with a shattering, literal, crash.

Conrad Scalese is a rising star in the Neapolitan Opera scene, just starting to make a name for himself when tragedy strikes — the night after the premiere of his latest masterpiece, a dramatisation of the French Revolution, lightning strikes the theatre where it is playing. The Inquisition believes this is God’s punishment for the irreverent subject matter, and Conrad is immediately arrested. However, he is offered a chance to save his skin by the King of Naples himself….

The King has uncovered a daring (and somewhat ludicrous) plot by a secret society of religious fundamentalists to stage an ambitious opera. This opera will cause such feeling in its audience that the magic of it will cause Vesuvius and half the Mediterranean to erupt and a God to answer their call. To prevent this natural disaster, the King commissions Conrad to write an opposing piece that will counteract the effects of this ‘Black’ Opera. So Conrad and his band of eccentric misfits must write and stage an opera in just six weeks in order to save the world.

If you can get past the ridiculousness of the premise there is a lot to love about this book. The alternate history Europe is beautifully thought out and realised, and I loved the occasional appearances of real historical figures, such as Napoleon! The writing is suffused with musical metaphors, pitching you head first into the engrossing and chaotic world of the theatre. And I loved the characters, particularly Conrad’s sister Isaura, who lives as a man throughout the book, without this being a big deal, or there being a big reveal at the end.

The magic in this case comes not from the music itself but the collective strength of feeling of an audience responding to music. This does at least make the motivations around staging an opera a bit more realistic. The final act of the book is perhaps a bit long, but overall this is a hugely enjoyable story in a brilliant setting.

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