A number of Verdi’s early operas are closely associated with the Risorgimento, no more so than “Nabucco” with its famous chorus, “Va pensiero,” in which the people yearn for a homeland. Arguably, however, it was the follow-up and now rarely performed opera, “I Lombardi alla Prima crociata,” which best encapsulates the spirit of the Italian people’s desire for nationhood. Listening casually to a recording of the work one would probably be pleasantly surprised, at least initially, full as it is, of rousing choruses and musical numbers of great beauty. Yet sitting in a theatre or listening at home with a greater degree of attentiveness, it soon becomes clear that this is a flawed work, albeit excellent in parts; the music wonderfully expressive and perfectly in accord with drama at times, is at others times heavy-handed, clichéd and verging on the banal, and betrays the fact that Verdi had not yet fully developed the supreme mastery of the stage which allowed him to create the great series of works from “Rigoletto” onwards, and which today define his genius.
Any performance of Verdi’s “I Lombardi,” no matter how well-sung, conducted or directed, therefore, is never going to be a runaway success. This production by Turin’s Teatro Regio was certainly a brave attempt. It was visually and musically a sumptuous staging, full of contrasting colors and glorious singing, although in the end was unable to truly convince.
Back to Basics
Taking the absolutely correct decision to eschew any ideas of drawing superficial comparisons between the Crusades and the current conflicts in the Middle East, or any allusions to the Risorgimento beyond those embedded within the work itself, the director, Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, produced a traditional reading of the work. There was no attempt to deconstruct the text or to impose upon it his own lopsided personal interpretation. Instead, the audience was given the opportunity of viewing the work in a conventional form, with di Pralafera using his expertise to bring the characters to life against the well-constructed backdrop of the Crusades, whilst successfully highlighting the personal dramas of the main characters. Moreover, di Pralafera accepted at face value the themes contained within the work and engaged with them on their own terms, making, for example, no attempt to underplay the Crusaders’ joy at capturing Jerusalem, having slaughtered their Muslim foe. In fact, as a means to hide a set change during the short instrumental battle scene, the audience watched a short black and white film in which the Christian forces put the Muslims to the sword. A brutal, but accurate interpretation of the events which underpin the libretto.
Overall, it was an honest, valid and generally successful staging, albeit somewhat static at times, the choreography being somewhat sluggish and wooden. Unfortunately, as is norm these days, di Pralafera felt the need for a grand reconciliation as the final curtain fell; Accianio, the tyrant of Antioch, who was killed in Act two returns onto the stage and embraces his enemy, Arvino; whilst Viclinda enters the stage to forgive the now dead Pagano, the cause of her troubles. Do directors consider audiences to be so sensitive that they cannot be exposed to anything less than a positive ending or is it that the directors themselves have been immersed in this omnipresent cloying sentimentality from which it is becoming increasingly difficult to escape?
The sets, designed by Jean Guy Lecat, were in keeping with the traditional interpretation. If they did not exactly sparkle, they certainly did not detract from the drama, being generally simple walled structures with arches to represent the palace in Antioch, or a construction of chaotically placed beams to suggest the hermit’s cave. However, both the opening and closing scenes were superbly well done. The opening scene in front of Milan Cathedral reflected the period in which the events are set, with the cathedral being simple in design and on a small scale as it undoubtedly would have been at that point, and was thoroughly convincing. The closing scene brought the opera to a wonderful conclusion. Consisting of more or less empty stage, with the skyline of Jesruaslem with its towers and domes in white stone set against a blue sky. The crusaders and pilgrims amassed in front. It was a powerful and evocative image indeed.
However, what elevated the sets to a higher level was the quality of the Franco Marri’s lighting and the costumes designed by Fernand Ruiz, which together had the effect of transforming the stage into a wonderful explosion of color. The costumes, in a wide variety of blue, red, green and brown shades, were loosely-based on traditional modes of dress, including some oddly designed wiry headgear for the women. The lighting bathed the scenes in rich colors that added to the atmosphere and conjured up the heat of the Holy Land. The many large crowd scenes were stunning in their effect. Even the static nature of certain scenes was easy to overlook such was their impact.
An American Diva At Her Best
If it was visually a very colorful and pleasing production, musically it was no less so. For this production of “I Lombardi” the Teatro Regio had brought together a stellar cast, under the musical direction of Maestro Michele Mariotti.
The American soprano, Angela Meade, was cast in the role of Giselda. Possessing substantial vocal strength and a secure technique, Meade painted a wonderful vocal portrait of the character. Her lower and middle registers were solidly secure, while her higher register positively sparkled, underpinned by wonderful breath control. In line with the rest of the production, her stage movements were fairly static, which detracted slightly from the overall impression, but her nuanced singing brought a high level of expressivity to the part and produced a convincing rendition. It was, however, a little surprising, given her established reputation in the bel canto repertoire, that she appeared to sacrifice a degree of beauty for the sake of dramatic impact, even if it was a valid decision.
An Italian Tenor Ups His Quality
Having recently reviewed Francesco Meli’s strong performance as Riccardo in “Un Ballo in Maschera” at Venice’s La Fenice, it was welcome news to see that he had been cast in the role of Giselda’s lover, Oronte. However, this was a performance on an altogether higher level. Whereas in “Ballo in Maschera” there was a hint that he was not fully immersed in the role, and failed to fully connect to his Amelia, Kirsten Lewis, as Oronte, no such doubts existed. Apart from some careless transitioning in his opening aria “La mia letizia infondere,” Meli produced a compelling performance. He sang with the ease and élan of someone full of confidence, exhibiting clear diction, an array of vocal colors and dynamic subtlety. His warm, sweet sounding tenor blended beautifully with Meade’s soprano, matching her vocal strength and finesse at every turn. The duet “Oh belle, a quests misera” was a delight to experience.
Alex Esposito played the role of Pagano, the perfidious brother turned penitent hermit. Pagano is a complex character, initially treacherous and vicious, he undergoes a deep and sincere conversion after killing his father and seeks atonement. To convince in the role requires a great deal of acting and singing ability and Esposito was not to be found wanting, for this was a first-class reading of the role. Alone amongst the principal singers, his acting was of the highest quality, as he convincingly portrayed the multilayered character. Moreover, his singing was of an equal quality; his is a bass with an appealing timbre and wonderful flexibility, which he used intelligently to create a nuanced and insightful reading, his subtle phrasing bringing real depth to the characterization of Pagano.
It fell to the tenor Giuseppe Gipali to play the thankless role of Arvino. One uses the word “thankless” because although having to perform a large role, he is continually overshadowed by Oronte, who actually has a smaller role, but is cast as the primo tenore, with the more ear-catching numbers. Nevertheless, Gipali made a good impression, although to be fair his voice does not have the same power, subtle coloring and dynamic variation as Meli’s and therefore compounded the image of his secondary status.
All the minor roles were well-parted and made successful contributions, although Livinia Bini, playing the role of Viclinda, was particularly noteworthy. Antonio Di Matteo, literally, towered head and shoulders above the rest of the cast, displayed a powerful bass with pleasing textures, in the role of Pirro. The soprano, Alexandra Zabala, convinced in the role of Sofia, phrasing her lines with skill and style. Giuseppe Capoferri was cast as Acciano and the Prior of Milan was played by Joshua Sanders, both exhibiting an accomplished level of singing.
“I Lombardi” has an extensive role for the chorus which has significant contributions in all four acts. It is not only required to perform a number of different parts, including the citizenry of Milan, members of Acciano’s harem, heavenly spirits, pilgrims and crusaders, but also it must sing on and offstage. Moreover, their singing must be flexible and nuanced in order to produce the necessary variety of dynamic shadings and vocal colors required. Under the direction of the chorus master Andrea Secchi, the Coro del Teatro Regio did not disappoint and produced a scintillating performance. Whether singing full-voiced or sotto voce, the choral numbers were always vibrant and gripping. Not surprisingly, “O Signore, dal tetto natio,” which became one of the songs most closely associated with the Risorgimento, went down a storm with the audience, and deservedly so.
In the pit, Michele Mariotti, always attentive to the needs of the soloists and chorus, maintained a wonderful balance, eliciting a fine array of colors from the Orchestra del Teatro Regio, and created a level of dramatic tension that carried the onstage drama forward.
Overall, this was a first-class musical performance, full of color and vitality. If it did not fully convince this was partly the fault of Verdi himself, who at this point was was still learning his craft, and to the rather labored choreography, which tended to create visually static scenes. However, from an aesthetic point of view, it was visually satisfying; costumes and lighting flooded the stage with color and reinforced the textures generated by Mariotti’s musical direction.