Peter Conrad’s book begins and ends at the edge of Venice, beyond the Arsenal, in a public park that boasts statues commemorating Verdi and Wagner. Whether by accident or design, their location makes it impossible to view both simultaneously. However, as they were born in the same year (1813) and were the pre-eminent opera composers of their respective countries in the nineteenth century, a comparison is certainly invited. It is odd, as Conrad points out, that the task has not been undertaken before. With nearly four hundred pages and 200,000 words at his disposal, he has been given the opportunity to fill and seal the gap hermetically.
As befits a scholar who has spent his career teaching English literature, his approach is neither historical nor musicological. Rather he moves, apparently at random, from one topic to another, scattering observations as he goes and grouping his work under headings alliterative (‘Maestro, Meister, Muses’, ‘Duets or Dualities’)