Saturday 13 April 2024

Verdi - Rivoluzione e Nostalgia (Brussels, 2024)

Giuseppe Verdi - Rivoluzione e Nostalgia

La Monnaie, 2024

Carlo Goldstein, Krystian Lada, Enea Scala, Vittorio Prato, Justin Hopkins, Nino Machaidze, Gabriela Legun, Hwanjoo Chung, Scott Hendricks, Giovanni Battista Parodi, Dennis Rudge, Helena Dix, Paride Cataldo, Saténik Khourdoian

OperaVision - 29/30 March 2024

'What will remain of our time?', a man called Giuseppe ponders at the start of Rivoluzione, a two-part opera compilation of selected arias from early Verdi operas created for La Monnaie in Brussels. Well, the music of Giuseppe Verdi remains a cornerstone of the opera repertoire 150 years after his major works, suggesting that his operas still have something that speaks to us today, but what of the lesser early works? Will the ideas expressed in those works from the 'galley years' spent honing his craft still have something to say in the future. That seems to be the question that lies at the heart of La Monnaie's early Verdi project, and if the answer is not clearly resolved in the way that the project might have hoped, it certainly suggests that Verdi's early operas have qualities that ensure that they will be around much longer than Rivoluzione e Nostalgia.

Still, there is merit or at least purpose in such a project, all of the excerpts from these two back-to-back operas being selected from Verdi's first sixteen operas operas, most of which in the main are rarely performed. The reasons for the lack of new productions of these works is open to debate. You could argue an opera house has to consider the commercial aspect; why put on Alzira when you have the name familiarity of a new La Traviata or Aida to bring in the punters? This suggests the other argument that indeed the early ‘galley years’ works are inferior, but inferior to what? To later Verdi unquestionably, but on their own merits the works can be thrilling pieces of crowd-pleasing operatic drama. The quality of the musical composition and hints of the greatness of the later Verdi can be found there - as this project ultimately proves - but the plots of those works are, not to put too fine a point on it, somewhat hokey pot-boiler melodramas. The challenge for Rivoluzione e Nostalgia is whether it can cannibalise those great moments from Giovanna d’Arco, Nabucco, Stiffelio etc. and put them into a new context with a coherent plot in order for us to see their continued value and relevance.

There's an argument then for taking the works out of their original dramatically and psychologically dubious context and applying them to a newly written drama that presents the musical qualities in a better light. It's not as if this is anything new in the world of opera, which has an ancient but now not so common tradition of the pasticcio opera. I can't think of any pasticcio that draws exclusively from the work of one composer, although some lost Vivaldi works have been reconstructed from his other compositions and Rossini is well-known for cannibalising his own works to make new ones. I recall that not too long ago a ballet was made entirely of Verdi's instrumental music and overtures, undoubtedly for similar reasons to this project, ie. the music is too good to let languish. If that's the case then the idea of an early Verdi pick 'n' mix is a good one, but - again not to put too fine a point on it - unfortunately the execution fails in this La Monnaie production of Rivoluzione e Nostalgia.

It's arguable whether it's a good idea to start the first part Rivoluzione with 'Patria oppressa' (from Macbeth). You can't make a bigger statement about the proposed subject than that, and at the same time demonstrate the quality of Verdi's composition, but the new plot context for this piece doesn't really stand up to such a moving chorus. The context for it is a video sequence showing random footage of life in the late 1960's that is to be set into turmoil by conflict and war around the world, ordinary people affected by events in Vietnam and Algeria, initiating student protests in many major cities around the world, but specifically here in Italy, presumably Rome. Starting off on such a note as 'Patria oppressa' however, it is going to find it hard to sustain the momentum and build on that, and indeed instead of a struggle between the rulers of nations and their people, Rivoluzione turns its focus on a romantic tug-of-war between Laura and Carlo and Lorenzo, with her brother Giuseppe adding to the sense of outrage. With Laura a  bourgeois girl, the daughter of the chief of police falling in love with Carlo a common shipyard worker, the struggle becomes one of crossing class boundaries and accusations of being a traitor to the ideals of the proletariat.

The shortcomings of the resetting of the plot aside, there are other weaknesses in the execution of Rivoluzione. Inevitably, considering the cut-and-paste method, there is no through-composition, the cabalettas, arias and choruses drawn from the likes of Ernani, La battaglia di Legnano, I masnadieri and Luisa Miller separated by filmed segments of ponderous portentous spoken dialogue. The names of the characters of Laura and Carlo are defined by the first two arias taken from Luisa Miller ('Lo vidi e'l primo palpito' and 'Sacra la scelta è d’un' consorte'), but elsewhere names and words are subtly changed to reflect the new context, referring to the bourgeoisie and barricades (I masnadieri for example retranslated from 'brigands' to 'agitators') removing references to the diverse nationalities of the different operas.

Dancers are used to bring another element to the stage production, enlivening the stage drama with energetic modern jerky movements. They don't do much to take the heat out of Verdi's blood and thunder melodrama, but instead emphasise every single note, pushing the emotional charge of the scene far beyond its limit, certainly further than a romantic love-triangle plot between revolutionary students can sustain under the excuse that 'Il personale è politico', the private is political. Say what you like about the plots of Verdi operas, but at least they aimed for grand historical drama that merited such musical forces. The plot of this one is too slight and insignificant to bear such weight. Bizarrely - something I've never felt about Verdi operas or even any previous production - but removed from their original context, the confected love-triangle struggle feels more like a macho power struggle than the typical Verdian questions of conflict between love, family and duty.

What is indisputable however is that musically, Rivoluzione is outstanding. Nino Machaidze as Laura is sensational and Gabriela Legun as Cristina no less impressive in the supporting soprano role. Enea Scala's Carlo is a robust Verdi tenor, dramatic and lyrical, Vittorio Prato's Giuseppe and Justin Hopkins' Lorenzo less so, but capable nonetheless. When you have singers of this quality, you can admire the individual pieces from these scarcely performed Verdi operas and the passion that underlies them, even if the dramatic context in their new setting remains flawed. Across two parts totalling 5 hours of this diptych, you can imagine that the cumulative impact might be a bit much. So after the three hours of Rivoluzione I hoped for a little respite in Nostalgia.

'What will remain of our time?' Well, the question that the 1968 setting of Rivoluzione failed to establish in any significant way is explored in Nostalgia, inevitably to diminishing returns. Laura has disappeared, we later discover now dead, but there are video documents of the student days of the 'revolutionaries' who ended up betraying their cause and the revolution, accepting pay-offs and now - reuniting in a plush art gallery to view Carlo's latest barricade installation piece (which is actually rather good) - feeling somewhat guilty about their acceptance into the bourgeois world of art and commerce. There is at least some respite from the onslaught of full-throttle Verdi in Rivoluzione, and great pleasure to be found in the musical choices that include the overture from Jérusalem, an aria from Il corsaro, a romanza from I due Foscari, scenes from Macbeth and - essentially - the chorus of the Hebrew slaves 'Va pensiero' from Nabucco as a finale.

Relying on Macbeth for a large portion of Nostalgia however reveals some weaknesses in the singing. Macbeth is a bigger role than Scott Hendricks can manage, Carlo unconvincingly transforming from tenor Enea Scala into a baritone seemingly for this purpose. Helena Dix is more capable, but not convincing in the Banquet scene or the sleepwalking scene (sung bel canto style with references remaining to Banquo's ghost). Compared to the other rare Verdi operas drawn on, Macbeth is also perhaps too familiar to view in a new context. Dramatically, on the basis of being not much more than haunted by past crimes of betrayal to 'the cause' - and even then it's the banal gossip of romantic betrayal that dominates - it's not strong enough to erase memory of the original when the filmed segments between the arias and choruses fail to merge into anything that resembles a plot. Hendricks, never a Verdian baritone, I'm sorry to say fairly murders 'O vecchio cor, que batti' from I due Foscari. Only Gabriela Legun really stands out again here as Virginia, but even her 'Egli non riede ancora' from Il corsaro lacks a convincing context and emotion that a genuine plot and true characterisation might bring.

Despite the dramatic weaknesses of the diptych, its overextended length, the inconsistency of the singing and its failure to amount to a coherent opera, there is nonetheless some merit in this production of Rivoluzione e Nostalgia. Aside from reminding us that there is a treasure trove of musical richness in the rarely performed first sixteen operas of Giuseppe Verdi, it also proves that opera is not primarily about the music or the singing, but that the drama is the critical element. Without a meaningful dramatic, philosophical and human context, the singing and music alone is meaningless, or at least diminished. There are of course exceptions to any rule, just as there are exceptional productions that prove the value of many operas, including many of the early Verdi operas, thought to be lacking in substance. Just reviving any one of them (yes, even Alzira is redeemable) would have been preferable to creating Rivoluzione e Nostalgia, but as an opportunity to highlight that there is much more to Verdi than La Traviata and Aida, or indeed Don Carlos and Otello, it makes at least a semi-convincing case.