My introduction to the operas of Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) came in Cardiff in 1986, with Peter Stein’s groundbreaking production of Otello for Welsh National Opera. I’d been booked to play mandolin in the act 2 “Homage Chorus,” so I had plenty of time during the lengthy rehearsal period to watch, listen, and learn about the art of composing and staging an opera as that celebrated staging gradually came into focus. From the opening, disturbing, fortissimo eleventh chord to the heartbreaking plangency of the “Willow Song” that presages Desdemona’s death in the final act, Verdi (who was well into his seventies during its composition) seemed determined to dispense with traditional operatic conventions; indeed, he largely abandoned the standard recitative-aria structure in favor of new Wagnerian techniques, to embrace modernity without betraying his earlier Italian style. No wonder that his contemporaries regarded him not merely as a great composer but as un uomo di teatro, capable of balancing every musical, verbal, and dramatic detail of a scene to create the desired effect.
Since that unforgettable introduction to Verdi, I’ve had memorable encounters with many of his operas (not to mention his extraordinarily powerful Messa da Requiem), but I still knew little about the elusive and reclusive man who created them. So it’s been a pleasure and an education for me to spend a week in the company of The Cambridge Verdi Encyclopedia, leafing capriciously through the (guesstimated) thousand entries contained within its six hundred [End Page 1036] pages. A “one-volume encyclopedia” is always something of an oxymoronic boast, of course, because the latter word’s promise of complete knowledge is fundamentally at odds with the former’s requirement for brevity; and as the entries are alphabetical rather than chronological, it contains no cradle-to-grave biography of its subject in the formal sense of that term. However, by accepting the book on its own terms (rather as one has to do when reading The Unfortunates, B. S. Johnson’s experimental “novel in a box”), and absorbing information in a piecemeal and unsystematic fashion, I found that the fragments gradually coalesced in my head and eventually created a full and rounded portrait of the composer’s life, music, and milieu.
As with the previous volumes in this series (devoted to Handel, Wagner, and Mozart), the entries have been individually prepared by several dozen academic contributors. These include many acknowledged Verdi experts of the present day, notably Roger Parker, himself the author of several major guides to the composer and his work,1 and Dino Rizzo, whose research in the Parmesan comune of Busseto has greatly increased our knowledge of Verdi’s musical activities during his youth and early adulthood.2 Overseeing and editing the project is Roberta Montemorra Marvin of the University of Iowa, who is also editor of NYU’s Verdi Forum journal and author of numerous books and articles on the composer, including a splendid (and frequently amusing) paper from 2001 about the censorship of his operas in London,3 which neatly exposes British Victorian hypocrisy towards sex and religion. According to that article, the overt prostitution in La Traviata didn’t trouble the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, so long as the opera was sung in Italian and the libretto wasn’t translated, but all scriptural references in opera were banned by the Victorians, so the first London performances of Nabucco had to be renamed Nino, with the action transferred from the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem to the pagan Temple of Isis in Babylon.
The most substantial entries are, inevitably, the thirty or so authoritative descriptions of Verdi’s individual operas. These average between six and nine pages each and generally include sections devoted to the genesis, synopsis, reception, and performance history of each work, augmented by appendix 2, which lists the creators of the individual roles. The shortest entries (often just a couple of lines) are the many hundreds that give brief biographical outlines of the multitude of singers, librettists, conductors, artists, publishers, critics, and politicians whose lives...