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The remit of George W Martin’s new book looks dry: Verdi reception in the New World. But within this ostensible performance history, Martin guarantees a larger musicological discourse, charting 19th-century moral indignation to wild popularity at the beginning of the 21st. Shifting mores and musical changes have made Verdi the central totem he is today. It’s a promising polemic.

From early beginnings in innovative but isolated New Orleans to the cinematic, big screen and DVD broadcasts of the Met, Martin looks at the modern operatic age through a Verdian prism. Although his American slant gives an initial impression of parochial bias, he is deft at pointing out flaws within the supposedly sophisticated repertoire of Europe. His claims for Verdi as the Shakespeare of opera, however, go a little far.

Ultimately, the promised contextualisation is buried in a more dogmatic blow-by-blow account. The scholarship in amassing the material is impressive, but it is impossible to keep drawing meaning from every quirk and fad of performance history. And the collection of reviews, production images and programmes vacillates between erudite academic prose and more impassioned fandom.

For Verdians and performance history scholars, Martin has achieved much. But his geographical focus limits the text. Phrases such as ‘US and hemispheric premiere’ feel incomplete. If the 20th-century Verdi renaissance started in Europe, then America has to be its reflection (albeit often trumping the Old World’s performances and productions). So however intriguing the highs and lows of Rigoletto productions or amusing the wash-out Central Park relay of Stiffelio in 1993, the book is too off-stage for such an on-stage composer.

GAVIN PLUMLEY Read the full review on Agora Classica

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