There are, in principle, two quite different kinds of opera books: the ones that are about opera and the ones that are about operas. There aren’t (to my knowledge) many of the second kind that are very good; and there are practically none of the first kind. It would be lovely if someone were to write a good book about opera, since the medium is a conundrum both for its devotees and for aestheticians. The litany of complaints is familiar: most libretti cannot be taken seriously; but for the music, they couldn’t hope to hold the stage. The performers often don’t look right for the parts they sing and generally can’t act. Even if you understand the language that they sing in, what they sing is likely not to be intelligible (operas in English are routinely performed with surtitles for anglophone audiences). And so on. How, then, can anything that is in so many ways preposterous be, when it works, so enormously moving? Granted that one might like some of the tunes; but how could anybody like opera? Bernard Williams doesn’t say and he doesn’t try to. His book is mostly a collection of (previously published) papers that discuss one or other of the major works in the operatic canon. (There is also a very sympathetic introduction by Michael Tanner.) If you are prepared to settle for critical responses to operas in the standard repertory, responses that are informed, insightful, literate and civilized, you will have to look both far and wide for anything better than this.
more from the TLS here.