Battista Parodi, Giovanni

AttilaGiuseppe Verdi - Attila

Teatro Verdi di Busseto, 2010 | Andrea Battistoni, Pier Francesco Maestrini, Giovanni Battista Parodi, Sebastian Catana, Susanna Branchini, Roberto de Biasio, Christiano Cremonini, Zyian Atfeh | C-Major - Blu-ray

By the time he came to write Attila for La Fenice in Venice in 1846, Verdi had firmly established, consolidated and refined a style and a structure that would be recognisable in nearly all his subsequent works. Attila is made up of a number of stock situations involving war, vengeanace, romance and betrayal and Verdi packs it with big dramatic numbers and choruses that match the intensity of the emotions. There’s nothing inspired here however, nothing that provides any great insights or revelations into the characters or human behaviour. Even worse, there are no great memorable arias or musical numbers.

Dramatically however there’s never a dull moment in Attila. Much of the reason for that is down to Verdi’s sense of arrangement and his scoring for situation. You can see how all the elements that are to define the drama and the conflict are laid out forcefully, strongly and concisely in the opening scene. Here you have all the euphoria of the Huns’ victory in the capture and plunder of Aquilera mixed in with the shame of defeated. In Attila’s sense of invulnerability and the proud defiance of Odabella, the daughter of the defeated king, you have the sowing of the seeds of a deeply personal revenge that is only heightened by Odabella’s appearance of compliance and subservience. It may be feigned, but her lover Foresto doesn’t know that, and just to add further emotional turmoil to the situation, he accuses her of unfaithfulness to him, her father and her country.

And there you have the typical Verdi dramatic situation that stirs the emotions like nothing else, particularly when the composer directs it towards the people of an Italian nation seeking its own independence. The situation between the Roman general Ezio and Attila emphasises the position further. Ezio seeks agreement that Attila will venture no further into Italy, but buoyed by success Attila refuses. “In vain! Who now can restrain the onslaught of the consuming wave?“, as the colourful libretto by Francesco Maria Piave and Temistocle Solera puts it, and the intensity of the sentiments in this powerful stand-off situation between two formidable warriors who are respectful of the position of each other is matched by the grave intonations of Verdi’s scoring for the bass/bass-baritone roles that play those parts.

The qualities of Verdi’s dramatic writing are all there then and the cast for this 2010 production of Attila at the Teatro Verdi di Busseto are more than capable of bringing them out. The theatre - seen previously in the ‘Tutto Verdi’ release of Oberto - has a tiny stage that you’d scarcely think capable of putting on a work as big and ambitious as this. The use of 3D-CG projections in Pier Francesco Maestrini’s direction might not be the ideal solution, but it’s a reasonable means of covering the epic settings of battlefields, ships, stormy seas, Roman camps and forest glades. It’s a little cheesy, but probably no more so than painted backdrops, which would be the only other feasible option for a stage this size. (In the case of Oberto, Pier’ Alli went mainly for minimal props and plain dark backgrounds).

There’s still not much room for the singers to do anything more than stand and belt out Verdi’s big numbers, but the costumes, the stage directions and the performances all make reasonably good use of the limited resources. Occasionally, for no other reason than having no room to do anything else, the singers run off the stage and back on again to finish their number. The singing performances are mostly fine. If they lack some precision in places the voices are at least all more than big enough for the work and the size of the theatre.

Giovanni Battista Parodi is a fine Attila, and if he doesn’t particularly come to life, that’s as much to do with Verdi’s writing. Robert de Biasio has a classic Italian tenor voice for Foresto. He’s not always on the note, but in the context of the live performance, it’s fine and he makes a good overall impression. Susanna Branchini’s technique could do with some refinement and doesn’t have the smoothest legato, but she also gives Odabella all the force and character required. No problems however with Sebastian Catana, who makes a fine Ezio, but this is perhaps the only convincing character in the drama.

The Blu-ray here is part of C-Major’s ‘Tutto Verdi’ collection. The quality of transfer is reasonably good. There’s a little bit of flicker in the image but it’s generally stable and detailed. The audio doesn’t quite have the pristine clarity we expect from High Definition and there’s very little surround presence on the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix, but it’s fine and it gets across the forceful delivery of the opera as conducted by Andrea Battistoni. The BD is all-region, BD25, with subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Japanese subtitles.

ObertoGiuseppe Verdi - Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio

Teatro Regio di Parma, 2007 | Antonello Allemandi, Pier’ Alli, Mariana Pentcheva, Fabio Sartori, Giovanni Battista Parodi, Francesca Sassu, Giorgia Bertagni | C-Major

Verdi’s first opera, written when he was 26 years old, might lack the musical sophistication and dramatic characterisation of his late masterpieces, but Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio was good enough to open at La Scala in Milan in 1839, where it enjoyed a modest success, and it’s a prototypical full-blooded early Verdi work that already has many of the elements that we associate with the composer. There’s a historical subject based around war and revolution and an arranged marriage - but it’s not Don Carlos by any means - there’s a young woman whose father is outraged that she has been seduced and abandoned by a rakish noble - even if it can’t stand up alongside Rigoletto or Simon Boccanegra or any of the other Verdi operas that deal with the father/daughter relationship. Oberto rather sticks closely to the established format and subject matter of the 19th century Italian number opera, but Verdi’s dramatic flair, his ability to underscore those key moments with the most stirring and passionate arrangements is evident nonetheless and those qualities are brought out exceptionally well this production.

There’s not a lot of dramatic action as such in Oberto. Much of the important events have already taken place, leaving the principal characters involved to fume their displeasure and deep feelings of love, betrayal, anger and desires for revenge at the start of the opera through a series of cavatinas and cabalettas. At the centre of the drama - like many of Verdi’s works - is a father/daughter relationship that has been affected by war and revolution. Oberto, the Count of San Bonifacio, has been driven into exile, leaving behind his daughter Leonora. Leonora in his absence has been seduced by Riccardo of the Salingherra family - Oberto’s sworn enemies - under a false identity. With Riccardo about to be married now to Cuniza, the sister of Ezzelino, an influential ally, Leonora bemoans her shame and Riccardo’s betrayal. Her father Oberto however has secretly returned and incensed by what has happened, he urges his daughter to go speak to Cuniza and avenge her honour, turning up before the wedding to resolve the matter himself in the traditional fashion of a duel. It’s pretty standard plotting then, the drama driven by a series of arias/cabalettas, but Verdi brilliantly whips this up into something utterly compelling by adding trios, quartets and choruses to create an explosive atmosphere in manner that makes it impossible not to get swept along.

Recorded in the small, intimate surroundings of the Teatro Verdi di Busseto, this 2007 production settles for a relatively traditional setting that has an appropriately theatrical feel to it. There’s nothing too ambitious attempted, the costumes are theatrically period, the sets are confined to backdrops, with minimal use of props and the stage - small as it is - left clear and open for the singers to step forward and let fly. In the absence of any real dramatic interaction, the director Pier’ Alli merely gets the performers to stand looking out, look sincere, strike a few dramatic poses and make some curious sweeps of the arms and hand gestures. The presumption - a big one possibly for what is after all Verdi’s first opera - is that the music and singing alone will be enough to carry the full force of the work. Fortunately, while it’s not left to rest entirely on the shoulders of the performances - the lighting and setting providing an effective and appropriate mood for the work - this turns out not to be an entirely unreasonable assumption.

The singing is generally good, but in such a stripped down production and with the musical arrangements as they are, there’s nowhere to hide any weaknesses. There are no concerns at all however with the male tenor and baritone roles. Fabio Sartori gives a gutsy performance as Riccardo, pitching his performance perfectly for the tone of the work and the scale of the theatre, while Giovanni Battista Parodi’s Oberto is similarly well-judged, striking the right note as the outraged father looking to restore his dignity without taking it overboard. Mariana Pentcheva also gives a performance of dramatic intensity as the deceived bride-to-be Cuniza, and it’s only Francesca Sassu’s Leonora that shows any real weakness in the line-up. The merciless acoustics of the small theatre and the opera’s musical arrangements will quickly reveal any weaknesses, and in this context Sassu sounds unable to bring any depth or drama to the lower end in her opening cavatina, but also fails to hold her own in her Act I duet with Parodi.

When fully supported however, as the opera gathers pace with Verdi works up the musical drama and lightning effects are thrown in for good measure, the qualities of the work and the production become clear. The trio at the revelation of Riccardo’s betrayal - resounding with Oberto, Leonora and Cuniza cries of ‘traditor!’ - is the highlight of Act I, Verdi following it up impressively with a powerful finale, while Act II’s quartet has much the same impact, achieving the full Verdi effect. The chorus have an important part to play in this, and do so marvellously, but the main part of the success of this production rests on the driven performance of the orchestra as conducted by Antonello Allemandi that is nicely attuned to the rhythms and dynamic of the work. The sound quality on the Blu-ray disc is simply outstanding. Every instrument is crystal clear, highlighting just how good an account of the work this is.

Released on Blu-ray by C-Major, the image quality every bit as good as the HD sound mixes, Oberto is the first of a series of performances recorded at the Teatro Regio di Parma that will form part of a complete Verdi collection, ‘Tutto Verdi’, released to coincide with the composer’s bicentenary in 2013. Some trailers for other works in the collection are included on the disc, as well as a visual introduction/synopsis for Oberto. The Blu-ray is all-region, with subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Japanese.

BohemeGiacomo Puccini - La Bohème

Den Norske Opera, Oslo, 2012 | Eivind Gullberg Jensen, Stefan Herheim, Diego Torre, Vasilij Ladjuk, Marita Sølberg, Jennifer Rowley, Giovanni Battista Parodi, Espen Langvik, Svein Erik Sagbråten, Teodor Benno Vaage | Electric Picture

The first notes you hear in this 2012 Den Norske Opera production of Puccini’s La Bohème are the beeps of a heart monitor on a life support system that Mimi lies attached to in a hospital bed. The beeps take that familiar flatline tone as Mimi breathes her last and doctors rush in to the opening chords of the score proper in a vain attempt to resuscitate her, while Rodolfo looks on aghast, completely lost in his own grief. This evidently isn’t a traditional way to start La Bohème, but it is very much a typical Stefan Herheim touch where the standard linear approach is just not an option. As a director, Herheim is clearly interested in getting into the minds of characters whose actions and motivations we can take for granted from over-familiarity, and La Bohème is a very familiar opera. Not here it isn’t.

Having established that Mimi dies - which, let’s face it, even if you weren’t familiar with the opera, it’s a fate that is signalled clearly enough by Puccini right from the moment she totters and stumbles into Rodolfo’s garret, often with a hefty tubercular cough for good measure - Herheim is more interested in the impact her death has on Rodolfo after the opera ends, considering the times and the troubles they have shared together. Here then, viewed in flashback, La Bohème becomes a study of grief and bereavement that Rodolfo struggles to work through and eventually come to an acceptance of his loss through his poetry and his friends. If anyone can make such an idea work, working within the fabric of Puccini’s scoring without necessarily contradicting sentiments that are implicitly there in the nature of the music itself, it’s Herheim. Whether you think there’s any value in distorting the work to that extent is of course debatable, but there is certainly more intelligence in this thoughtful and considered approach than your average straight production that merely “performs” the work, Herheim taking into account the very real emotions and troubles of characters whose lives are played out in art and poverty. It’s certainly at least a refreshing alternative for anyone who is more than familiar with the long-running Copley and Miller productions of the work at the Royal Opera House and the Coliseum in London.

His grief played out in flashback then, the past and the present coexist simultaneously for Rodolfo, who has no means of pulling them together. The hospital ward seen at the start then opens up to a more traditional view of the past in Rodolfo’s Parisian garret where he and Mimi first met, the cleaner, surgeon and nurse taking up roles as the other characters (introducing Musetta into the process rather earlier too). The sense of perspective however shifts in a subtle way to tinge the meeting with that sense of grief for the inevitability of what has happened/will happen. When Rodolfo poses the question ‘Qui sono?‘ to himself here then - looking thoroughly confused - it takes on an entirely different meaning, one that involves real soul-searching, as well as a certain existential dilemma. Compressing and overlapping time in this way simultaneously concentrates all the joy and happiness of that fleeting moment of beauty, while forcing one to consider how brief and vulnerable are the flames of love on those candles that are so soon to burn out. The same flames of love will burn Rodolfo as well as provide warmth through the winter. Rather than contradict the emotions of a beautiful piece (Act 1 of La Bohème is for me something incredibly powerful), this production genuinely enhances what is already there.

There are lots of touches however that aren’t going to be to everyone’s liking. Already in this First Act, Mimi collapses, her wig is removed to reveal a bald head that bears the signs of chemotherapy (this Mimi is dying from the rather more contemporary killer of cancer rather than the traditional old-fashioned disease of tuberculosis), and she is ushered back into that modern hospital bed that looms at the corner of Rodolfo’s consciousness. The shifting of the off-kilter sets from one ‘reality’ to the next - incredibly well designed to transform so smoothly - have an unsettling effect not only on Rodolfo but on the viewer also, leaving them unsure at times about what exactly is going on, and why the familiar figures in the work don’t behave in character in the way that we expect. Mimi “dies” again at the end of Act II, for example, and her medical chart is added to the Café Momus “bill” that has to be paid at the end. I think the implication is clear enough. Unwilling to “pay the bill” however the near-demented Rodolfo here is so impassioned that you get the impression he believes he could bring her ghost back to life by the end of the opera. Wouldn’t that be something? But no, Herheim stays faithful to the intentions of the work. “Per richiamarla in vita non basta amore” - “Love alone will not suffice to bring her back to life”, he says in Act III. It’s all there in the libretto if you want to look for it.

The absurd modern twists on an otherwise faithful staging can be a little off-putting - or will be simply intolerable to some viewers - but they can also be extremely powerful. If you consider that Puccini’s writing here is extremely manipulative and has a tendency towards heavy pathos, sentimentality and schmaltz, Herheim’s staging forces you to listen to the music in a different context, and the effect is phenomenal. Puccini, like the listener, knows Mimi’s fate from the outset, and doesn’t pretend otherwise. The tragedy isn’t so much that Rodolfo doesn’t know it, or that he is unwilling to face up to her flirtatious and mercenary nature, or even the realisation that she’s seriously ill and going to die, but rather, that he is on some level aware of it, but still loves her despite it all. All those implications are there in Puccini’s score and brought out in the development of the opera if you want to explore them, and Herheim does. Using Rodolfo’s inability to come to terms with his grief as a means of showing his struggle to deal with the inevitability of what must occur not only makes this almost indescribably sad, it’s also an effective way of dealing with some of the problematic issues surrounding Puccini’s generously expressive scoring.

Aside from the technicalities and impressions created by Herheim’s direction and Heike Scheele’s set designs, the performance of the work itself is overall very good. The added dramatic twists moreover rather than getting in the way of the performances only seemed to intensify their impassioned delivery. More so Rodolfo than Mimi, it has to be said, Diego Torre singing the role superbly, with consideration for the different nuances of meaning applied to his character. By focussing the attention on Rodolfo’s state of mind and resigning Mimi to little more than a ghost however, the consequence is that it weakens Marita Sølberg’s contribution to the work, but she sings it well in the context. The subjective view of Rodolfo also has a consequence of reducing the relevance of the other characters to relatively minor roles, but even if it loses some of the contrasting elements of the nature of relationships that is brought out by the Marcello and Musetta pairing (adequately sung by Vasilij Ladjuk and Jennifer Rowley), the tightening of the focus isn’t necessarily a bad thing in this work either. Svein Erik Sagbråten’s recurring Death-like presence as the landlord Benoît, Parpignol, Alcindoro and a Toll gate keeper could also be seen as bringing more of a consistency to the colourful but marginal episodes of the work.

On Blu-ray, the production looks and sounds as good as you would expect from a recent HD recording. The singing sounds a little echoing in both the PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes, but I found that the stereo track sounded much clearer through headphones. The recording and mixing of the orchestra however is gorgeous, with lovely tone and detail in the orchestration. It’s a good account of the work - Eivind Gullberg Jensen directing the opera for the first time - attuned to the performances and only slightly adjusted in one or two places for the tempo and tone to match the production. There are a few very short interviews on the disc (around a minute each) with the director, conductor and cast, done backstage in the intervals presumably during a television broadcast of the live performance. The BD is all-region, with subtitles in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Korean.