Friday, 28 April 2017

Verdi - Jérusalem (Liège, 2017)

Giuseppe Verdi - Jérusalem

L’Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège - 2017

Speranza Scappucci, Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, Marc Laho, Elaine Alvarez, Roberto Scandiuzzi, Ivan Thirion, Pietro Picone, Natacha Kowalski, Patrick Delcour, Victor Cousu, Benoît Delvaux, Alexei Gorbatchev, Xavier Petithan

Culturebox - 23 March 2017

Although they are not without their merits, it's becoming clearer to me at least why the revival of Verdi's early operas is usually reserved only for anniversary occasions. It's not so much that they lack the sophistication of the composer's great mature works, since they make up for that in thrilling high drama and are still head and shoulders above much of Verdi's contemporaries and a substantial proportion of the Italian bel canto repertoire that preceded it. The problem would seem to be more that, on the surface at least, there's not much to distinguish one from another. That's certainly true of one of the greater rarities in the Verdi catalogue, Jérusalem, but there are other factors that make its production here at l’Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège an intriguing proposition.

To put it crudely and probably not terribly meaningfully, not to mention showing my age with a comparison that is about 20 years out of date, but you could liken the early Verdi as the Oasis to Wagner's Blur. While Wagner experimented to create a new musical voice that contained a sense of national identity and poetry, Verdi was content to stick more closely to the classical model, with vigorous rhythms, crowd-pleasing catchy melodies and not terribly sophisticated lyrics in his libretti. There's not much to tell one piece apart from another, but done well Verdi's method is undoubtedly effective and incomparably thrilling.

So what are the dramatic elements that make up a typical Verdi opera? They often abound in such matters as war or political tensions, some corrupt religious authorities, an old vendetta over a family tragedy, an unjust decision by a ruler, plots and assassinations, an innocent romance that crosses political or social boundaries all related with great revelations, coincidences and cruel twists of fate. All this is musically enriched with love duets, laments, prayers, marches and patriotic choruses. The regular early Verdi opera will have quite a few of these elements. If you're talking about Verdi in French grand opéra mode, well just bung the lot of them in there, add in a few additional large choruses, a long ballet, a drinking song, maybe drop a thunderstorm in there for good measure and retain the option of a ghostly apparition.

If only it were that simple. Jérusalem makes good use of a number of these elements and Verdi scores them well, the composer already having the basis of his successful Italian opera I Lombardi alla prima crociata to rework for a French audience. In reality, Jérusalem would appear to be Verdi operating to ideas yet above his station, but that's not quite fair and the opera is a little more than that. You could even look at Jérusalem as being the first step towards true Verdi greatness. It does represent a development in the composer's style and ability, using more through-composition, showing a stronger alignment of music to character rather than just heightening emotion and dramatic expression, for pacing or simple accompaniment. Composing for the French opera would take Verdi out of his comfort zone and force him to adopt to the expectations of a new and different audience.

And it worked. In terms of French opera, Les vêpres Siciliennes is a little more of an adventurous move away from those more familiar dramatic points, if still not quite making the mark. Jérusalem's plot developments would however resurface in other guises to a much more satisfying result, the pilgrims, a war torn land and regrets over old family tragedies would come up again in La forza del destino and beyond that to Don Carlos, where there is a much more sophisticated blend of plot and characterisation. There's even a hint of Eastern exoticism in Jérusalem that would point the way towards Aida. By this stage, no one could accuse Verdi of being stretched beyond his abilities, so this opera is very much of interest for exploring where those developments arose from and how they compare.

Plot, characterisation and relative musical qualities aside, the true value of any Verdi opera - and part of the reason why even the least celebrated of the early Verdi operas can still be thrilling stage pieces - is in the performance. Often it's only when performed well and the singing challenges are met that the drama really comes to life. The stage design and concept are not so important, and indeed any attempt to derive any deeper meaning, relevance or psychology would not only be superfluous but probably quite ridiculous. The Opéra Royal de Wallonie's artistic director Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera recognises this, keeps the work grounded in the period and focuses his direction in getting the drama across as effectively as possible. He doesn't quite succeed, but whether that's a failure with the direction or the work itself is hard to say.

Despite all the elements being in place, Jérusalem just never seems to come alive or convey any real sense of urgency. It really does seem like a compendium of conventional operatic tricks and numbers with no real personality behind it at all. Jean-Guy Lecat's set designs are basic and functional, which means they provide a suitably lit and appropriate backing for the scenes in Toulouse and Palestine, but the contrast between them doesn't seem to have any real connection to the characters within these locations. The main part of the stage is necessarily left clear so that the large choruses can take their place, and there is room also for the long ballet sequence that takes up the majority of Act III. These are the kind of constraints that come with Jérusalem (it would be tempting to cut the ballet for example, but that kind of misses the point of performing the work in the first place) and the Liège company just do their best with what they are given.

They put their best efforts and resources however into the areas where it can really count, and that's in the singing and musical performances. If the characterisation is paper-thin in these earlier operas, Verdi nonetheless provides some meaty challenges that put his principal singers to the test. They all come out of that exceptionally well here, showing that there is nothing to fault in Verdi's scoring for the French voice. Marc Laho's Gaston is excellent, demonstrating a beautiful clarity in his enunciation with feeling for the underlying sentiments. He grows in strength too as the opera progresses. Verdi's lead soprano roles are killers and Hélène is no exception. Cuban-American Elaine Alvarez navigates those hair-raising bends in the vocal line well and often impressively. Roberto Scandiuzzi also makes a great impression as Roger, singing the bass role with resonant clarity.

Speranza Scappucci's contribution as conductor is also notable. She strikes what seems to me to be a perfect balance between the rough and ready nature of early Verdi and the growing sophistication of his later works. The musical performance here permits you to hear that growing elegance of melody, mood and through-composed orchestration. It can be heavy when the high drama demands, but there's a lightness of touch there also that recognises that there are individual sentiments involved, even if the characterisation doesn't really go that deep.

Jérusalem is by no means an exceptional work or even an underrated Verdi opera, or at least not different enough for a company to take on its grand opéra challenges when any other early Verdi opera would do. On the other hand, it's certainly not without musical and historical interest, and if the stage production is a fairly indifferent response to an unexceptional drama where it's hard to feel any real sense of personal involvement in its tragedy, the first-rate musical and singing performances here in Liège go some way towards making up for it.

Links: L’Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Culturebox