Verdi in America: Oberto through Rigoletto
By George W. Martin
University of Rochester Press; 472 pp. $75
In the middle of the nineteenth century, when his operas were first performed in the U.S., Giuseppe Verdi's place in the repertory was by no means assured. Compared to the long-breathed lyricism of Donizetti and Bellini, his terse, emphatic style summoned responses such as "noise without substance"; one critic wrote of Ernani that it evoked "a strong inclination to murder the composer." Even Rigoletto was indifferently received as "not one of Verdi's best."
The composer's American reputation was definitively established only with the success of Il Trovatore, which never left the repertory after its premiere here. Rigoletto eventually joined it, of course, although its progress was slower than one might imagine. The other early operas, for the most part, disappeared until the European "Verdi Renaissance" engendered new interest on the part of American companies.
In Verdi in America, George W. Martin lays out the domestic performance history of all the composer's operas through Rigoletto. He is adept at conjuring the circumstances of the first American Verdi performances, which took a more relaxed attitude toward the composer's text than anything one might encounter today. The American premiere of Rigoletto featured an orchestration concocted out of the piano–vocal score, and the New York premiere of Luisa Miller not only was heavily cut but included the interpolation of an aria from I Masnadieri for the Duchess and, between Acts II and III, "the celebrated Scene from Fioravanti's Comic Opera La Columella, representing an Insane Asylum."
When chronicling the past half-century, Martin cites contemporary reviewers, but he here has a special advantage, in that he seems to have witnessed a great many of the performances himself. He offers informed, trenchant assessments of important Met stagings, such as Carl Ebert's epochal 1959 Macbeth and the house premieres of I Lombardi and Stiffelio. But he is especially insightful about the work of regional companies such as Sarasota Opera and San Diego Opera, as well as small, plucky New York outfits such as Amato Opera and Vincent La Selva's New York Grand Opera Company.
Martin is no blind idolator; he analyzes the stage-worthiness of each work and provides clear-eyed appraisals of the reasons that some can now hold the stage while others languish. The scope of Verdi in America is immense, but it is justified by the thoroughness of Martin's effort, which combines a critic's eye, a scholar's rigor and a fan's enthusiasm.