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Published in the wake of last year’s bicentenary celebrations, this first English-language encyclopedia dedicated to Verdi is a compact, 600-page volume intended, writes editor Roberta Montemorra Marvin, ‘to serve as a starting point for vital information about Verdi’s world, as well as a summation of current thought on his life and works’.

The general tone is accessible and readable (though, with nearly 80 contributors, expect some variations), the overall impression one of authoritative commentary. Biographical entries on key people, places and institutions in the composer’s life and work, and those on the operas and music are supplemented by thematic discussions on topics such as aesthetics, singing techniques, compositional process, politics, censorship, conductors and much more besides. These prove especially valuable in offering a wider context for the immediate subject at hand and provide useful perspectives on the tenets and temper of the times in which Verdi was working.

Each of the operas is dealt with in varying degrees of detail that examines relevant source material, genesis, gestation, synopsis, music, biographical resonances, revisions and multiple versions and so on – thus, for example, nine pages for La forza del destino, ten pages each for Aida and Otello, 11 for Macbeth and, between them, a dozen pages for the French and Italian twins Don Carlos and Don Carlo.

Three appendices offer a complete list of compositions, tables of opera casts and characters and a ‘very basic’ chronology of the composer’s life. The decision not to include a catalogue of available recordings is arguably defensible given the rate at which new versions continue to appear. This vital and valuable volume follows a similar undertaking on Wagner published by CUP earlier this year. Both provide admirable one-stop springboards for further reading (assisted here by a 47-page bibliography) and a deeper, richer understanding of their subjects.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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