Tutto Verdi


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.

GiovannaGiuseppe Verdi - Giovanna D’Arco

Teatro Regio di Parma, 2008 | Bruno Bartoletti, Gabriele Lavia, Evan Bowers, Renato Bruson, Svetla Vassileva, Luigi Petroni, Maurizio Lo Piccolo | C-Major

By the time Verdi came to compose Giovanna D’Arco in 1845, the composer was eager to take on more substantial works of literary merit with the kind of romantic scope and emotional range that suited and appealed to his musical sensibility. He had engaged the young poet Francisco Maria Piave to work on his Victor Hugo adaptation, Ernani, and he would soon come to tackle his first Shakespeare work with Macbeth the following year. For Giovanna D’Arco, Verdi found inspiration in Friedrich von Schiller’s story of Joan of Arc, finding material for a true dramma lirico that was a match for his developing talent, but also clearly responding personally to the revolutionary sentiments that echoed with the contemporary reality of Risorgimento Italy.

The grand epic nature of the story and Verdi’s responsiveness towards it is immediately evident in the composer’s scoring for the overture and in his personal reworking of the material. The first Act alone establishes a strong and stirringly emotive context for the drama that unfolds. Set during the 100 Years’ War in 1429, King Charles VII of France (Carlos in the opera) announces - to the dismay of his followers - his abdication from the throne, and the necessity of surrendering to the English in order to spare his people from further suffering. He resolves to lay down his weapons at a shrine to the Virgin Mary that has appeared to him in a dream.

Despite the warnings of his followers that the shrine he describes exists in the nearby village of Domrémy, but that it is a cursed place, Carlos goes to the shrine and is inspired by the passionate figure of Joan he discovers there. Empowered by heavenly spirits to be an emissary for the Virgin Mary, Joan wishes to bear arms against the English in a holy war. Her father however, believes Joan to be in league with the devil, and betrays her to the English by turning her own followers and the King against her. In Verdi’s version of the work - quite different from Schiller’s work and the known historical accounts of Joan of Arc - Joan’s dilemma is depicted as being one of maintaining a sworn vow to remain pure from serving any earthly love, but the young warrior is unable to keep back her feelings for the king, feelings that are reciprocated by an admiring Carlos.

Giovanna D’Arco therefore deals with a classic high Romantic subject in the conflict between love and duty, caught up in a tense dramatic situation that involves war, revolution, family and religion - subjects that Verdi would often deal with, and there’s a similarity between this work and something like La Forza del Destino. While later Verdi would be more refined in characterisation and dramatic development - neither Giovanna D’Arco nor Macbeth are matches for the later Schiller and Shakespeare adaptations of Don Carlos or Otello, nor indeed is earlier Ernani comparable to his work on the later Hugo Rigoletto - but Verdi’s earlier work has its attractions, principally here in the composer’s beautiful melodic line and the consistency of his treatment of the opera’s themes. Broken down into Grand Opéra-like scenes - the King’s vision, the chorus of angels and demons in Act I alone - the construction may be conventional and not exactly inspired but it is exceptionally well crafted, pointing clearly towards the direction and the strengths of the later Verdi.

The quality of this rarely performed and underrated work is made evident here in this 2008 performance at the Teatro Regio di Parma’s Verdi Festival through a handsome production that is sympathetic to the style and nature of the work, and it also benefits from some excellent singing performances. Other than a painted backdrop depicting a Risorgimento cavalry charge - nothing more than a hint of what might have been on Verdi’s mind while composing - the production design and costumes are traditional and naturalistic to the Joan of Arc story itself. It’s beautifully lit and staged, transforming smoothly from one scene to the next, finding an appropriate look and tone that brings out the full impact of each highly charged situation. The placing of the performers - the stage often filled with the huge choruses composed by Verdi - also works to the best dramatic purpose, with little in the way of stagy theatrics or operatic mannerisms.

The singing of all three lead roles is excellent. Svetla Vassileva’s performance - as it ought to be for a figure like Joan of Arc - is powerful, impassioned, lively and precise in delivery, working fully in the spirit of the work itself. If there are any reservations about Evan Bowers’ performance as Carlos, they are only in respect of the writing for the role itself. It’s a similarly committed performance, well sung and acted, that works marvellously in the context of the work. Renato Bruson sounded a little unsteady in his first scene, but is solid where it counts later in the opera, as vocal challenges rise correspondingly with the emotionally charged dramatic developments. The orchestra, conducted by Bruno Bartoletti, and the chorus are also in fine form here, the cast and production working in common accord to present about as good an account of this rare Verdi work as you could imagine.

This recording of Giovanna d’Arco is released here on Blu-ray as part of the ‘Tutto Verdi’ series from C-Major, a collection that is made up of performances of all Verdi’s opera work recorded at the Teatro Regio di Parma. Some trailers for other works in the collection are included on the disc, as well as a visual introduction/synopsis for Giovanna d’Arco. The quality of the HD image is excellent, with good detail even in the darker scenes. There audio tracks are PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and both give a warm, clear account of the invigorating music, chorus and singing. The Blu-ray is all-region, with subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Japanese.

ErnaniGiuseppe Verdi - Ernani

Teatro Regio di Parma, 2005 | Antonello Allemandi, Pier’ Alli, Marco Berti, Carlo Guelfi, Giacomo Prestia, Susan Neves, Nicoletta Zanini, Samuele Simoncini, Alessandro Svab | C-Major

George Bernard Shaw may or may not have had Ernani in mind when he came up with the generic definition of an opera plot as being about a tenor and a soprano who want to make love but are prevented from doing so by a baritone, but Verdi’s opera matches this description remarkably closely. Based on Victor Hugo’s historical drama, ‘Hernani’, Verdi’s Ernani is very much a product of its time, seeped in arch-romantic sentiments of honour, nobility, love, duty, betrayal and revenge, and Verdi’s musical treatment of the subject can be seen as somewhat academic, adhering closely to the Italian operatic tradition of the time, writing for particular voices in certain roles. It’s how the voices are used in this work however that makes all the difference.

What distinguishes Ernani from other historical romantic dramas of this type, and provides a degree of variation from the GB Shaw template, is that there is not just a tenor and a baritone competing for the hand of the soprano in question, but Verdi also makes use of a bass as an extra cog to his musical wheel. What makes Verdi’s handling of the subject interesting in this early work of the composer however is not so much the apportioning of those characters to the conventional singing roles, but in how Verdi develops the musical expression of those types in a way that would determine and set archetypes that he would often come back to over the years, particularly in how he manages to brings them together into a single musical and dramatic unit.

Essentially then, for all the romantic exoticism of the Spanish setting, with Don Juan of Aragon forced into hiding and taking the disguise of the bandit Ernani, his romance with Elvira under threat not just from her impending marriage to Don Ruy Comez de Silva, but from a rivalry with king in waiting Don Carlo, Ernani fits very much into the mould of the by-the-numbers romantic melodrama. It would be certainly lacking in any kind of dramatic credibility that would engage a modern-day audience where it not for Verdi’s skilful writing for the voices. Working for the first time with the poet Francesco Maria Piave, Verdi taking the upper hand with a clear idea of how he wanted to express the drama, Ernani is consequently wonderfully structured and skillfully arranged, the scenes played out with musical consistency and fluidity that doesn’t call for the action to be halted in order for the singers to step forward and do their singing pieces.

Or at least, ideally, that’s how Ernani ought to be played. With the right kind of singers and direction, it shouldn’t be as dramatically rigid as it is presented in this 2005 production for the Teatro Regio di Parma, but unfortunately, neither the singers nor the direction are fully up to the task. Directed by Pier’ Alli, the set and costume designs are old-fashioned and period - which is fine and suits this particular work - but there’s no reason why it should also be presented in the old-fashioned ‘park and bark’ style, the singers all standing, looking out, gesturing and delivering the lines as if there were asides to the audience rather than directed towards the other characters in the drama. In some cases the drama can indeed to be rather expositional and declamatory, but through duets, trios and choral arrangements, and in the very tone and blending of the voices, Verdi strives to make it much more interpersonal - but in order to achieve that, you don’t just need stronger direction and some dramatic input from the cast, you also need good singers.

It’s for this reason that I used the term ‘park and bark’ above rather than ’stand and deliver’ to describe the performances, because, unfortunately, there’s more barking than nuanced or even accurate delivery of Verdi’s vocal writing, and the weakest elements are actually the roles where it really needs to be tighter and more expressive - Elvira and Ernani.  Marco Berti and Susan Neves both have their moments - Neves notably in the highly-charged third scene where she holds steady alongside the imposing Carlo of Carlo Guelfi and the grave intonations of Giacomo Prestia’s Silva, but elsewhere they are terribly uneven. Guelfi is undoubtedly the best there is here, bringing a real sense of the power, danger, nobility and clemency that his character proves to be capable of, but alone and under this stage direction, it’s never enough to convey the true worth of the arrangements.

The singing and the staging leave something to be desired, and unfortunately the musical presentation under Antonello Allemandi is similarly uneven. This is certainly disappointing and surprising, as the Allemandi and Alli team work much better together in the Teatro Regio di Parma recording of Oberto that is also available on Blu-ray as part of this collection. This isn’t entirely a bad performance of Ernani, just a rather uneven one that at its best never really rises above merely average. Ernani however, for all its flaws as one of Verdi’s earliest works, surely deserves more than that.

This recording of Ernani (previously released on DVD by Dynamic) is released here upgraded to HD in a Blu-ray release as part of the ‘Tutto Verdi’ series from C-Major, a collection that is made up of performances of all Verdi’s opera work recorded at the Teatro Regio di Parma. Some trailers for other works in the collection are included on the disc, as well as a visual introduction/synopsis for Ernani. The quality of the HD image is generally very good, although one or two scenes lack the same kind of detail that can be seen elsewhere and some of the camerawork is a little bit rough in places. There are no problems with the audio tracks, both the PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 sound clear and strong. There are however one or two curiosities in the English subtitles, but nothing significant. The Blu-ray is all-region, with subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Japanese.

GiornoGiuseppe Verdi - Un giorno di regno

Teatro Regio di Parma, 2010 | Donato Renzetti, Pier Luigi Pizzi, Guido Loconsolo, Andrea Porta, Anna Caterina Antonacci, Alessandra Maranelli, Ivan Magri, Paolo Bordogna, Ricardo Mirabelli, Seung Hwa Paek | C-Major

Popular wisdom would have it that Verdi was not entirely at home in the genre of comic opera, and history more or less backs this up. You could say that it took him all his life to get to the stage where he was capable of bringing the full wealth of his talent and ability to the genre in his magnificent final work, Falstaff. It’s possible also though that it took that length of time for Verdi to get over the abject failure of his first attempt at comic opera writing with his second work, written when he was 26 years old - Un giorno di regno.

A ‘melodramma giocoso in due atti‘ - a comic melodrama in two acts - there are indeed some operatic conventions found in Un giorno di regno that one would not associate with the typical Verdi opera (harpsichord-accompanied recitative!), but unfortunately - in as much as they prove to be inappropriate for comic writing - there are also touches that are very much characteristic of the composer. In Verdi’s hands neither prove helpful to the making the opera work, but a strong stage production and good singing at this very rare performance of Un giorno di regno at the Teatro Regio di Parma make this a fascinating experience even if it can’t quite go as far as rescuing the reputation of Verdi’s early failure.

There’s not much one can do however about the fact that the comedy element of Un giorno di regno is really not that funny in the first place. Set in France, around 1733, the Chevalier Belfiore is staying at the Château of Baron Kelbar in the guise of Stanislas, King of Poland, while the real Stanislas secretly leaves the country to return to defend his throne. Belfiore wants to drop the disguise as soon as possible, since the baron is about marry his widowed niece, the Marquise del Poggio, to Count Ivrea. Belfiore is in love with the Marquise, but since he has disappeared to take on the role of Stanislas, she believes that he has abandoned her - although the king looks strangely familiar to her. To add further confusion to the romantic complications, the baron has planned for a double wedding to marry his daughter Giuletta to the Treasurer, La Rocca. Giuletta however is in love not with La Rocca, but with his nephew Edoardo, who loves her in return, but is poor and therefore an unsuitable match.

It’s a standard comic set up of the romantic complications that arise from arranged marriage mismatches and secret or hidden identities of characters in disguise. The twist in Un giorno di regno, which could be translated as ‘King for a Day’, is that Belfiore realises that he can take advantage of the powers that he has been temporarily gifted with on the blessing of Stanislas, and has the ability to make some royal commands and appointments that will sort out the business between Giuletta and Edoardo. As for his own romantic situation, well, he can only hope that his “reign” will end in time for him to reveal his true identity and claim the hand of the Marquise.

It’s not a plot that is entirely bereft of comic potential. Rossini had to make much out of thinner material than this, and Verdi seems to have at least learned that much from Rossini, scoring with vigorous arrangements that build in tempo towards explosive ensemble finales. Verdi however lacks Rossini’s lightness of touch, and what would be an amiably riotous situation in a Rossini opera, rises into a rousing bombastic declamation in Verdi’s hands. While it’s fascinating to see just how Verdi develops those situations in his own distinctive way - particularly with a view to what comes later in the composer’s career - they prove however to somewhat work against the comic potential. In one scene, for example, where the young love has been frustrated by the plans of others for personal and political gain, you can hear Verdi straining for the melancholy tragedy of Don Carlos or La Traviata, instead of playing up the comic element of the contrast between La Rocca drawing up military plans while the real “enemy”, Edoardo, woos his intended Giuletta. The music is gorgeous and cleverly arranged, but it doesn’t really establish the right kind of buffo tone that is required by the situation.

Neither really does the stage direction. The best thing you can say about Pier Luigi Pizzi’s direction is that it is unobtrusive and doesn’t draw attention to itself in any way that detracts from the musical drama. It’s generically ‘opera’ period in design and costumes, with columns, bookcases and tables that reflect the mansion locations and gardens, and it’s well arranged as far as putting figures into the right places and keeping the dramatic action flowing without too much standing around going on. It doesn’t however attempt to add anything to the comic situations that might enhance or even improve the weaknesses in Verdi’s musical direction. The stage direction gets the balance right to the extent that it flows along wonderfully without it ever jarring in any way, taking you along with the flow, but it’s not particularly adventurous and this opera could use an injection of a little more humour.

Fortunately, the singing is all-around terrific, giving as fine an account of the work as you could hope for. The younger singers come over best, Alessandra Maranelli’s sweet sounding mezzo-soprano and Ivan Magri’s strong but lyrical Edoardo working well together, finding a good balance between the Verdi sound and the Rossinian. The others however are just as good - Guido Loconsolo as Belfiore, Andrea Porta as Baron Kelbar, Anna Caterina Antonacci as the Marquise and Paolo Bordogna as La Rocca, all managing to bring a degree of character to their roles, singing well, working with each other and with the comic-timing of the piece.

Un giorno di regno is the second release in the ‘Tutto Verdi’ series from C-Major, a collection that is made up of performances of all Verdi’s opera work recorded at the Teatro Regio di Parma. Some trailers for other works in the collection are included on the disc, as well as a visual introduction/synopsis for Un giorno di regno. The quality of the HD image and sound - in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 - is marvellous. The Blu-ray is all-region, with subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Japanese.

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.