Saturday, 21 September 2013

Verdi - I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata

Giuseppe Verdi - I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata

Teatro Regio di Parma

Daniele Callegari, Lamberto Puggelli, Roberto de Biasio, Michele Pertusi, Christina Giannelli, Dimitra Theodossiou, Roberto Tagliavini, Gregory Bonfatti, Jansons Valdis, Francesco Meli, Daniela Pini

Tutto Verdi, ARTE Live Web

Verdi's skill as a composer was clearly established by the time he came to write I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata in 1843, but he was also increasingly finding himself confined by public expectations, particularly after the success of Nabucco the previous year. In its first act alone, I Lombardi more or less sums just how adept Verdi was at establishing a dramatic situation, combining personal drama with political or nationalist sentiments, and driving it forward with a forceful musical accompaniment, but it also shows its constraints. As the opera develops, the quality of material that has largely been manufactured to fit conventional situations starts to wear thin, but there's nonetheless a lot of great Verdi to enjoy here.

Act I of I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata sets the tone well, if the tone you are striving for is Gothic melodrama overload. The Overture leads seamlessly into a prologue where a choir relates the backstory of a dispute - over a woman inevitably - that has driven two brothers apart. Pagano and Arvino are however about to be reconciled, Pagano welcomed back from exile. Despite appearances of contriteness however, Pagano wants vengeance and plans to abduct Viclinda, who is now Arvino's wife. The kidnap attempt is foiled, but it results in Pagano mistakenly killing his own father. The stage accordingly resounds with fervent prayers (Verdi controversially setting the 'Hail Mary' to music), dark curses ("Dreadful monster of Hell!") and dire pronouncements ("More than the fire and the serpents of Hell, terror consumes my flesh!").

It's fairly standard material for Verdi then, harking back even to his first opera Oberto, but it is certainly handled with greater aplomb here. What sets it apart from a standard family melodrama is the working of the material to incorporate wider political events and calls to duty. That comes with a passing announcement in Act I of preparations for a Crusade, which not only provides a wider sense of drama, but it gives the composer room to invoke some exotic colour in the musical arrangements when the location (and conveniently everyone involved) transfer over to Antioch and the Holy Land. The Eastern inflections feel a little forced, as does the obligato violin introduction to Act IV, and it's no surprise that Verdi attempts to reprise the success of the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves by introducing stirring choral sections at every possible juncture, but it is nonetheless masterfully realised. 

Unfortunately, the change of scenery does feel perfunctory, the questions of religion, war and differing beliefs coming secondary to the personal and romantic drama. There's an attempt to draw them together with the kidnapped Giselda falling in love with Oronte, causing the son of Acciano to consider converting to Christianity, but again, it feels more like Verdi, despite not being a religious man, is trying his hand at the writing of sacred music in all the prayers and devout sentiments expressed in the choral pieces. He does so marvellously, it must be said (if not quite at the level of the Requiem), contrasting hymns with the darkness of the murder, vengeance, parracide and the violent battles that take place. It's the kind of varied and colourful material that, with the addition of even more dramatic elements and ballets, made I Lombardi eminently suitable for rewriting in the Grand Opéra style for the Paris stage as Jérusalem.

Directed by Lamberto Puggelli, the staging of the work at the Teatro Regio di Parma (and released on DVD/BD as part of the Tutto Verdi collection) is almost completely period, traditional and theatrical in a way that suits the work. Conducted by Daniele Callegari, it's a very fine musical account of the work. Other than some strange choices of background projection images (Picasso's Guernica), the lighting and colouration reflects the colours of Verdi's score and the exotic locations. Sand, a few swords and armour scattered around and a huge wall at the back that takes on literal and metaphorical significance, create exactly the right kind of imagery and tone. The literalness is challenged only at the conclusion, where the City of God is invoked and the fallen rise, but it's perfectly in keeping with the heightened tone of the finale.

The singing is also of a very high standard with no weak elements at all, and there are plenty of interludes and scenes to extend the cast (Pirro, Acciano, Viclinda) and the colour of the work. Michele Pertusi is the baddie yet again playing Pagano/the hermit and does well to resist the kind of over-playing that some of the libretto seems to call for. Roberto de Biasio is a fine Arvino, though his is very much a lesser role than either Oronte or Giselda. Dimitra Theodossiou takes on the greater challenges as Giselda, including the fervent prayers and a near mad-scene at the feared death of Oronte. She's just tremendous, almost bringing the house down in Act III with Verdi's dramatic writing and arranging of events. Francesco Meli demonstrates a good Verdi tenor voice as Oronte, harmonising well with Theodossiou.  Not Verdi's finest work then, but with this kind of performance, fully realised and revealing of its merits.