Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Verdi - Alzira (Buxton, 2018)

Giuseppe Verdi - Alzira

Buxton Festival, 2018

Stephen Barlow, Elijah Moshinsky, Kate Ladner, James Cleverton, Jung Soo Yun, Graeme Danby, Phil Wilcox, Luke Sinclair, Brian McNamee, Helen Bailey

Buxton Opera House - 20th July 2018

If there's a lesson to be learned from the fate of Verdi's Alzira, it's never offer a negative assessment of your own work. Whether Alzira is a noble failure or potentially redeemable is never really going to be considered when the composer is on record describing it as "proprio brutta" (downright ugly). If you want to consign one of your operas to obscurity that's the way to do it. Even when all of Verdi's early operas have been revived in recent years - successfully or otherwise - most companies still give Alzira a wide berth. Even when compiling a complete Tutto Verdi collection of the composer's work on DVD, the producers could only manage to include a concert version of this opera rather than a fully staged performance.

It's a very pleasant surprise then to discover that Alzira's poor reputation really isn't merited. Far from it, in fact. The only proper way to judge that however is by seeing it in a fully staged performance and thankfully, Buxton Festival were brave enough to take on the challenge (and curse) of Alzira as the third of Stephen Barlow and Elijah Moshinsky's early Verdi revivals (following Giovanna d'Arco in 2016 and Macbeth in 2017) in preference to a more predictable Attila or Il Giorno di Regno, both of which have a lot less to recommend. Moshinsky's production really does pull the work together and proves that, as is often the case, a good production can mitigate against any perceived weaknesses and highlight the strengths of an opera like this.

The weakness of Alzira is that it's an early Verdi opera, which means that it's a bit crash-and-bang and not terrible subtle or original in its plot or characterisation. Based on a play by Voltaire about the assassination of a Spanish governor of Peru by an Inca uprising, Verdi chooses his sources material from a solid literary source but, as is often the case in the earlier works, jettisons any real political questions about the work's attack on colonialism and religion and instead gives the opera audience a romantic drama. The strengths of Alzira lie in the fact that it's still Verdi and he can bang out a great tune, has a strong sense of drama (particularly high drama) and dramatic pacing, and the work never outstays its welcome by trying to make anything more of the plot than is there on the surface.

It's a basic plot to say the least. Gusmano, the son of the Spanish governor Alvaro, wants to marry Alzira, the daughter of one of the Peruvian tribes trying to establish peace with the Spanish authorities. Alzira however is in love with Zamoro, the leader of the Inca tribe in rebellion against the colonial powers. Zamoro has been captured, tortured and has escaped, returning to plead clemency for the governor Alvaro, who has been kidnapped in retaliation by the Incas. He then returns apparently from the dead to the anxious Alzira. When Alvaro steps down and leaves his son to take his place as governor, Gusmano forges ahead with the wedding plans, leading to a further attack by Zamoro and his tribe, where Gusmano is killed.

Setting a complicated impossible romantic love story against the background of political turmoil and revolution is a fairly standard Verdi opera plot that he would carry on with as far as Un ballo in maschera and to some extent, albeit in much more sophisticated compositions, in Don Carlos and Aida. Here, long before Aida, there's an exotic setting - 16th century Peru - but at this stage you wouldn't really know it from the music or characterisation; there's little to distinguish it from Oberto, Ernani, Attila or any one of many early to middle period Verdi works. Verdi nonetheless turns the standard plotting of Alzira into a rousing drama with plenty of action and stirring grand choruses. Like many of the Verdi operas of this period it might seem a little rudimentary, there's a lack of memorable arias and there's no 'Va pensiero' or 'Patria oppressa', but it uses the political charge of the plot to hit all the necessary dramatic points exceptionally well, and even quite thrillingly.

A lot of the credit for it coming across that way has to be down to the spirited musical and singing performances. It would be a mistake to look for any real sophistication in the plot or music, but that doesn't mean Alzira shouldn't be taken completely seriously. Trying to play it ironically or with distancing effects doesn't do such Verdi works any favours. It demands to be played and performed with passion and sincerity, and Stephen Barlow conducts a spirited account of the work that feels fully committed and believing in the drama. The same approach works for the singers as well, with Kate Ladner as Alzira doing well to navigate the considerable challenges that Verdi provides to the soprano in these works, working alongside an impressive Jung Soo Yun as Zamoro, who also shone in last year's Macbeth as Macduff.

That goes some way to making the plot a little easier to swallow, but what brings it all together is Elijah Moshinsky's direction and the excellent production design of Russell Craig. The costumes and set colouration looks more Cuban than Peruvian, or closer to a Central American revolution, but for the purposes of the work - which never really explores the colonial issues - it works even better. TV breaking news reports put the drama into this context and the real-life revolution footage and abuse of the oppressive authorities does contribute to making the drama feel real and present. Projections are also used in a more abstract way also to suggest deeper sentiments than the plot or music really contain, but more than that they ensure that there is plenty of visual interest to engage the audience. Quite simply though, the real strengths are all in just good direction of the performances.

Quite why Verdi didn't believe in the work the same way that the Buxton team do is a mystery, although his reported comments are thought to be disparaging of the libretto more than his own solid musical contribution. I suspect part of the dislike of the work might also have been dissatisfaction with the ending. It's quite unusual for the 'villain' of the piece to be given an almost heroic role at the conclusion that puts the leading romance into the shade. It might not be the most convincing turnaround certainly and there's no Macbeth-like 'Mal per me' to seek or gain audience sympathy. As good as James Cleverton is, even he can't quite carry off this turnaround, but it certainly provides a shock, sudden resolution to the opera that is hammered home with relish by Barlow and a superb Northern Chamber Orchestra. What a delight to see Alzira being rehabilitated in this hugely enjoyable production. Not a lost masterpiece maybe, but a modest gem.

Links: Buxton Festival