Verdi, Giuseppe


Macbeth

Giuseppe Verdi - Macbeth

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2013 | Massimo Zanetti, Martin Kušej, Zeljko Lucic, Goran Jurić, Nadja Michael, Evgeniya Sotnikova, Wookyung Kim, Emanuele D’Aguanno, Christoph Stephinger, Andrea Borghini, Rafał Pawnuk, Iulia Maria Dan, Tölzer Knabenchor | Live Internet Streaming, 11 May 2013

I’ve seen enough serial-killer horror films to know what it means when a room is “decorated” in plastic sheeting. I’ve also seen enough Martin Kušej stage productions to know he likes to mess up the stage with splashes of blood around the place. I also know Verdi’s Macbeth well enough (better than Shakespeare’s original work admittedly) to know that there’s ample opportunity then for the red stuff to flow liberally in the Bayerische Staatsoper’s new production. With promotional images showing a stage filled with 16,000 skulls, it looked like someone was going to have quite a job hosing down the sheeting at the end of this one. So how come this production never quite lived up to its potential?

On paper - and in promotional images - it all looks good. There’s a strong, dark concept here to match the darkness of Shakespeare’s vision and Verdi’s brooding 1847 account of it. “If we can’t make something great out it”, Verdi wrote to his librettist Piave, “let’s at least try to make it something out of the ordinary”. Verdi’s Macbeth is indeed a pale shadow of the original work, but in its own way it is something extraordinary. Martin Kušej likewise looks well placed to bring something extraordinary out if the work, if not indeed something great. His productions, as I’ve noted in the past (in Die Fliegende Höllander, in Genoveva, in Rusalka) are often concerned with elements of class, and there’s plenty of social climbing ambition to be found in Verdi’s Macbeth.

Verdi’s choruses, his placing of the voices of the people up there on the stage, provide a clear dividing line between the machinations of the royal titled nobility and the common people. Kušej acknowledges those divisions, but also recognises that in Verdi’s work the voice of the people is a rather more complex one. They’re the driving force that celebrates the victories of Macbeth and Banquo, are sincere in their outpouring of unrestrained grief at the death of Duncan and, most obviously, are the motivating force that overthrows their country from the repressive regime that it descends into under Macbeth’s bloody reign.

The masses also represent a certain fantastic element in Verdi’s version of Shakespeare’s play, since the witches here are not three weird sisters, but a chorus who determine the direction of fate and the destiny of the major players. There’s a level of complicity then in their actions that endorses, idolises (lighters aloft) and encourages the ambitions of the ruling classes, even turning a blind eye (wearing hoods here) to Macbeth’s crimes. They are no mere background chorus then in Kušej ’s production, and it’s hard not to notice their presence and their hand in the playing out of the drama here.

The foreground characters are however rather less well defined. Partly that’s Verdi’s fault in his reduction of the complexity of Shakespeare’s play and his breakdown of the work into four acts that really never flow in a convincingly dramatic way. Within each of those four acts however there is a wealth of characterisation that can be brought out when attention is paid to the score and the vocal writing, but there was something lacking on that front in this production. Zeljko Lucic, as he demonstrated recently in the Metropolitan Opera’s Rigoletto, has a lovely lyrical Verdian baritone, but he doesn’t have the presence, the steel or the personality to bring something greater to the character of Macbeth.

Nadja Michael, it must be said, is not lacking in personality or presence. Even if her singing performances can lack discipline and attention to detail, that’s not so much of an issue with her character here. Verdi didn’t want a beautiful voice for Lady Macbeth, but someone with indeed the kind of personality to bring dramatic expression to the role. Nadja Michael would seem to fit the bill perfectly then and she was indeed quite formidable in aspect, pacing the stage with determination, her face bathed in dark shadows. Her vocal delivery however left something to be desired. She seemed rather restrained in her ‘La luce langue‘ (1865 revised version of the opera performed here), but her deficiencies became more pronounced in the later acts when she really ought to dominate proceedings.

Without the necessary personality and singing ability in these critical roles, it’s difficult to make Macbeth work, no matter how strong the concept, but particularly when they are meant to represent a “killing machine” force. Visually, with the performers and the chorus often balanced on top of a mount of 16,000 skulls, the ‘killing fields’ concept was strong and it would be hard to imagine a darker account of ‘Patria oppressa!‘ than the one that takes place here in a slaughterhouse with naked bodies suspended upside-down from meathooks. There were inevitably some curiosities in the actions of the chorus and in the symbolism of a tent on the stage that seemed representative of royalty or just death, but they did have an unsettling character that worked, particularly when the dying bloody Duncan is seen crawling out of the opening of the tent. Overall however, it all felt very detached from the musical drama, with neither the chorus or the principals ever managing to match the force and darkness of the actual work.

The disjointed approach of the staging perhaps reflects Verdi’s piecemeal approach to the work, but it can be overcome with the right production and casting. Unfortunately, the frequent fades to black with brief pauses for scene changes drain all the energy out of the performances and stall the flow of a work that at least has a strong thematic consistency in the musical composition. Some of the work’s potential was realised at the conclusion, which benefitted also from a beautifully sung Macduff (Wookyung Kim), but it was definitely too little and too late. The score was at least given a superb account from the Bayerisches orchestra under Massimo Zanetti, but the production never allowed those essential characteristics that make Verdi’s Macbeth a powerful if flawed work to assert themselves and hold all the various elements together.

This performance of Macbeth was broadcast live on 11th May 2013 via the Bayerische Staatsoper’s own Live Internet Streaming service.

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.

OtelloGiuseppe Verdi - Otello

Opera North, 2013 | Richard Farnes, Tim Albery, Ronald Samm, Elena Kelessidi, David Kempster, Michael Wade Lee, Ann Taylor, Christopher Turner, Henry Waddington, Dean Robinson, Paul Gibson | Grand Opera House, Belfast, 9 March 2013

There are some operas that are so emotionally raw and overwhelming that they are almost too much to bear. Sometimes you wish the singers and the orchestra would just tone it down a little, purely for the sake of those poor souls of a more delicate sensibility. Verdi’s Otello is one of those operas. You go into it knowing what is in store and hope you can get through it relatively unscathed. From the opening moments of Opera North’s new 2013 production, seen at the Grand Opera House in Belfast, with the chorus, orchestra and thunder sound effects resounding around the theatre right from the outset, it was clear that this was not going to be one of those occasions.

Otello is of course one of Verdi’s darkest operas, but I wasn’t aware quite how dark it was until I heard Opera North’s production. It’s a late, mature Verdi work, Verdi doing Shakespeare moreover with a sophisticated libretto provided by Arrigo Boito that is composed to the highest levels of subtlety in the characterisation and in the musical arrangements. It’s a piece of the utmost dramatic integrity, with no overture, no show-stopping arias or interludes for ballets. It’s direct, to the point and, in as far it describes characters capable of the extremities of human feelings, Otello takes no prisoners. That much I already knew and had experienced before.

With the sheer force of the huge choral arrangements, the volume of the orchestration and the thunder and lightning effects accompanying the opening storm, it seemed like Opera North were going to play this mature Verdi like one of his early pot-boilers, full of blood and thunder. There’s nothing wrong with those early works of Verdi, but should Otello not be handled with a little more delicacy than Oberto or even the composer’s earlier Shakespeare adaptation Macbeth? Richard Farnes, Tim Albery and the orchestra of the Opera North show that there is a case for the score of Otello to be thunderously played, for the extreme emotional content to be sung resoundingly, for the dramatic interpretation to be played to the hilt, and every ounce of human emotion to be wrung out of the work. You would expect no less from Shakespeare’s play, so why not Verdi too?

There’s a reason why the delicate sensibility of the listener shouldn’t be spared the ravages of Shakespeare’s ‘Othello‘ or Verdi’s Otello, and that’s because they are works that explore the extremes of love, hatred, jealousy, beauty, compassion and delicacy. Act I of Verdi’s Otello alone is a masterful expression of a whole range of human characteristics, from the fear over the fate of Otello’s fleet in the storm, jubilation at the Moor’s success in battle with the Turks which turns into celebration at the garrison in Cyprus where the boisterous play turns into a brawl. That’s followed by a tender love-scene between Otello and Desdemona. And then Act II has Iago’s famous Credo and the bitter poison of jealousy spreads into every aspect of all those joyous moments of the first act.

That’s wonderfully presented in Tim Albery’s meticiously pitched production for Opera North which has been updated to what looks like a WWII-era marine barracks. Act I is bustling with life with Michael Wade Lee’s Cassio energetically leaping over tables to take part in a violent brawl, David Kempster’s Iago delivers Act II’s Credo forcefully and without histrionics, while the confrontation between Ronald Samm’s imposing Otello and Elena Kelessidi’s delicate Desdemona is violent and shocking. And it should be when you know what dark passions have been stirred and where they are going to lead. That’s warning enough for you to steel yourself for where Act IV takes us, but the conclusion nonetheless still manages to take you unawares.

That’s down to Verdi’s brilliant scoring of the work, and in this case, a perfect reading of those intentions by Albery, Farnes and the Opera North team, where the perspective and the tone of Act IV is determined by Desdemona. Her beautiful nature, her kindness and generosity towards Cassio, her love for Otello is an antidote to the sentiments and nature that has been twisted in the testosterone-fuelled duelling that has taken place in the previous acts. Rather than lessen the impact of the charged atmosphere that has been created of course, this only makes it more tragic. The finale, like the rest of the performance here, was superbly balanced in this respect, maximising impact, perfectly in accord with the delicate Wagnerian leitmotifs that Verdi employs so effectively at those key moments.

The challenges of playing Otello were compounded by the effort made to perform it at this ultra-charged level of high emotion. The performance of the Opera North Orchestra was a loud and muscular one, yet it was one that was at the same time very carefully attuned to the fluid changes and subtleties of the range of musical expression. That could nonetheless potentially present problems for singers who not only have to match the powerful nature of the sentiments expressed here, but also rise above the sheer volume of sound that was coming from the orchestra pit. Otello is evidently the most challenging role, as much for singing as for making his jealous nature comprehensible if not exactly sympathetic, and Ronald Samm coped extremely well with the singing challenges, but just as importantly succeeded in creating a rounded human portrayal of the devastation a man can wreak upon himself.

A full picture of Otello however cannot be achieved without a sympathetic Desdemona to bring out those human qualities - the noble ones as well as the less admirable ones - and Elena Kelessdi was just such a Desdemona. Any minor concerns at times that she might not be able to hold her own against the forceful delivery of Samm or David Kempster’s Iago were soon put to rest by her spirited performance and an Act IV that really hit the mark in its expression of her character’s nature. Michael Wade Lee’s Cassio was also spot-on in his wearing of his heart on his sleeve, giving an open, unguarded and enthusiastic performance. Special mention should be made of the Opera North’s Chorus and the Children’s Chorus which really punctuated the work with the necessary impact at the critical moments in the drama. I’m sure I’ll see a few more Verdi operas before this bicentenary year is over, but I’ll be surprised if anything forces a reevaluation of one of the composer’s works as much as this muscular and sensitive performance of Otello by Opera North.

RigolettoGiuseppe Verdi - Rigoletto

The Metropolitan Opera, 2013 | Michele Mariotti, Michael Mayer, Željko Lučić, Diana Damrau, Piotr Beczala, Oksana Volkova, Štefan Kocán, Maria Zifchak, Jeff Mattset, David Crawford, Robert Pomakov, Alexander Lewis, Emalie Savoy, Catherine Choi, Earle Patriarco | The Met: Live in HD, 16th February 2013

Diana Damrau and Željko Lučić appeared in one of the promotional slots during an interval in last month’s Met Live in HD broadcast of Maria Stuarda to promote their appearance in the Met’s forthcoming new production of Rigoletto. When asked whether they thought that Verdi’s opera would benefit in any way from an updating of its 16th century Mantua court setting to a casino in 1960s Las Vegas run by members of the Rat Pack, Damrau and Lučić just laughed. Of course not. Verdi’s brilliant work is strong enough to withstand most interpretations, but, who knows?, it might just be fun to see it in the context of the colourful sets and situation developed by Broadway director Michael Mayer and his creative team.

In the event that’s exactly how the Met’s new production turned out. Rigoletto doesn’t gain anything at all by setting it in Las Vegas in the 1960s, but the idea has a certain merit and fascination in how it aligns characters from the opera to real Rat Pack figures. Here, the Duke of Mantua is a Frank Sinatra-like owner of a casino with a coterie of hangers-on willing to indulge his every whim, while comedian Don Rickles is the basis for the acerbic comedy of Rigoletto - or Rickletto, if you like. With Count Monterone a wealthy Arab sheik backer of the casino, Mayer’s production is as an effective way as any of putting across the glamour and power struggles as well as the respective positions of the characters in Verdi’s mid-period masterwork.

The production’s greatest impact came, not unexpectedly, in the licentious First Act, the Old Blue Eyes Duke in a white dinner jacket, grabbing a microphone to “croon” ‘Questa o quella‘ for his guests, accompanied by Las Vegas dancers with colourful fans. Visually, it looked magnificent, and it did get across all the necessary glamour and cruelty of the situation, with all the back-biting asides and casual sexism generated by the Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin-like members of the pack towards “dolls” anyone outside of their little group. A few subtle tweaks in the subtitles to reflect the swinging sixties dialogue worked well in this context, matching the intent and raising a few smiles without being too far removed from the original.

The setting didn’t over-impose itself however, or else it ran out of ideas, fading mostly into the background after the colourful opening scene, and allowing the mechanics of the drama that is driven by Verdi’s magnificent through-composed scoring and duets to assert its rightful position as the true engine of the work. Nonetheless, all the important dramatic points of the opera were made to fit into the setting fairly well, without too much awkwardness. The abduction of Gilda from Rigoletto’s apartment in the casino’s hotel using a lift worked best, the setting of the tavern in a strip club complete with pole-dancer perhaps a little gratuitous but workable, the dumping of her body into the boot of a Cadillac at the end a little less so. It was a nice touch, but it just made things a little difficult for Diana Damrau to get across the poignancy of Gilda’s final moments in her ‘Lassù in cielo’, and it was hard to feel any sense of remorse in her father either. If that doesn’t work, you’ve got a major problem with your Rigoletto.

It’s the dramatic conviction in the singing that ultimately determines the level of success of any production of Rigoletto, and while it was hard to fault the singing from any of the cast, that necessary commitment and direction wasn’t always there. The Met’s production at least benefitted from casting that mixed youth with experience, often within the same person. It was noted by both the singers and the director that Diana Damrau and Željko Lučić already had considerable experience in these roles and have often even performed them together in their time at Frankfurt. Piotr Beczala too has performed the Duke before - there’s a Zurich production on BD/DVD - and is clearly quite capable in the role as well as being boyishly bright-eyed and charming. It seemed however that for the most part they weren’t directed enough by Mayer - or indeed by the conductor Michele Mariotti - but left to bring their own experience with the characters to this production, with the result that they never seemed entirely comfortable with how that fitted into the Las Vegas setting.

Damrau - recently returning to the stage after giving birth to her second child - seemed to show a little more effort in her singing than before, but with such a wonderful and expressive voice, it was more of a problem that she didn’t really seem to be able to connect with this Gilda and her dilemma come to life. These are relatively minor points since the singing from Damrau, Lučić and Beczala was just superb, but Rigoletto is indeed an opera where such considerations and attention can make all the difference. These are much richer characters than they were allowed to be in this rather superficial production. Curiously, there actually seemed to be more effort put into drawing the secondary roles, Štefan Kocán in particular standing out as the Sparafucile. With a deeply toned and wonderfully controlled bass, he was a refreshingly youthful assassin and consequently even more dangerous in a character role more often given over to veterans. Superficial but fun and wonderfully sung, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the Met’s Las Vegas updating of Rigoletto that a little more attention to the characterisation and a tighter hold on the conducting couldn’t improve.

Traviata

Giuseppe Verdi - La Traviata

La Monnaie, Brussels, 2012 | Ádám Fischer, Andrea Breth, Simona Šaturová, Salomé Haller, Carole Wilson, Sébastien Guèze, Scott Hendricks, Dietmar Kerschbaum, Till Fechner, Jean-Luc Ballestra, Guillaume Antoine, Gijs Van der Linden, Matthew Zadow, Kris Belligh | Internet streaming, 15 December 2012

Let’s not beat around the bush here, because this controversial new production of Verdi’s La Traviata directed by Andrea Breth for La Monnaie in Brussels certainly makes its point directly and in no uncertain terms right from the outset. Prostitution is a nasty business. Courtesans, like Violetta Valéry in La Traviata, may once have had a glamorous allure, but the reality was and is quite different. The ultimate fate of any woman in those circumstances as the years and the lifestyle takes its toll, as they struggle to maintain appearances and simply survive, dependent upon the goodwill of others, is not a pretty one. Giuseppe Verdi acknowledged this as far as censorship allowed in La Traviata - and even then it would not allow the work to be depicted as Verdi wanted as a contemporary drama - showing a ‘fallen woman’ unable to find love and happiness. Director Andrea Breth goes much further.

Violetta’s origins are shown right from the outset of the La Monnaie production during the Overture, the young woman being brought in from some East European country via a human trafficking operation and sold off to a prostitution ring. The opening party scene of the work then retains the forced glamour depicted by Verdi’s setting of the scene, while at the same time showing that the underlying reality is not so pleasant. Semi-naked women pose glamorously from display windows behind a party that seems to be taking place in a high-class brothel, one that does a line in S&M, of which Violetta appears to be the Madame. Amid the drunken revelry, one of the guests, wearing a plaster cast, his trousers half on and half around his ankles, vomits over one of the semi-conscious female guests. At the end of the evening as Violetta ponders the shy advances of a new young admirer Alfredo (’Ah! Fors’è lui…‘), one straggling reveller, in a state where she is unable to find her stockings and shoes, snorts some cocaine in the background.

That’s not a typical way to depict Act I of La Traviata, but the brilliance of this production - a controversial one certainly that has stirred up a great deal of debate and which eventually forced La Monnaie to issue a statement with backing from other artists on the freedom of artistic expression - is that it remains musically and thematically faithful to the strengths of Verdi’s writing and the subject, making it contemporary and realistic in a way that the composer himself was prevented from doing by the censor. It’s not out to shock through a controversial treatment as much as to shock the audience into understanding and relating to the reality that Verdi was trying to get across. It’s a measure of the success of the treatment that this version of La Traviata - a work that unfortunately has all too often become a glamorous star turn for a big-name diva - is one of the most powerful of recent years, revitalised and sparkling, modern and relevant. It’s what La Traviata is all about.

The modern revisionist elements and the controversial sexual content of the production elsewhere similarly manage to strike a near-perfect balance between modern relevance and fidelity to the original intentions of the work. Scene 2 of Act I does little more than show an Alfredo so transported with love that he paints some graffiti love messages on a residence that currently has the workmen in. It’s the depiction of the revelry however in the pivotal Act II confrontation that is the most troubling part of the work - and it should indeed be a troubling scene. Keeping to the theme of the unpleasant reality of prostitution and the exploitation of women, Breth uses strong imagery and behaviour that is reminiscent of Pasolini’s film ‘Salò or The 120 Days of Sodom‘. (No, that’s not chocolate that one of the older guests is smearing over a young under-aged schoolgirl’s face). As a very difficult, near-unwatchable work about the dehumanisation and commoditisation of the human body, the corruption of wealth and power (money speaking just as much in Verdi’s day as in the present), Salò is a relevant work to reference. It isn’t taken to quite the same lengths in La Traviata here, but there’s enough to make a point in the strongest way possible, and enough evidently, to cause quite a stir in the world of opera.

As troubling as all this is intended to be, the ultimate degradation of Violetta and women in her position should be just as forceful in the final Act, as Breth’s vision proves to be quite as perceptive and capable of conveying the full intent and force of the underlying meaning with all the necessary impact. Violetta’s maidservant Annina is forced to pay the doctor through services provided on her knees, out on streets in a dark alley where her mistress is dying, wrapped up in plastic sheeting, as a heroin user shoots up further down from her. It’s as powerful an expression as you can imagine of the abject misery that is more than likely to be the fate of any aging prostitute who is seriously ill and has bills to pay. It may not be the romantic death of a tragic heroine through consumption in the bedroom of an elegant Parisian mansion that is more commonly shown in productions of this opera, but this version gets more directly to the heart of what Verdi was writing about and it is actually relatively mild to the harsh daily reality of the violence, abuse and exploitation that takes place on the streets in real life.

While the dramatic and thematic concept has been carefully thought through and put across with fidelity and a sense of purpose, that’s only half the battle with putting on La Traviata. The singing and performance of the work itself needs to be just as considerate of the work, and fortunately the casting and the conducting of the La Monnaie orchestra by Ádám Fischer were perfectly in accord with the staging. Early on, I liked how rhythm and tempo employed during Violetta’s ‘Sempre libera‘ matched Violetta’s tentative exhilaration at the discovery of love, tempered at the same time by the first signs of her illness. The judgement of each of the subsequent scenes however is just as sensitive and precise to the characterisation and the content, while also finding a way to make those diverse scenes and emotions flow naturally one after another. A most impressive account.

The singing is more of a mixed bag, but by and large it worked hand-in-hand with the drama. I always find it difficult to adjust to a new singer in one of the most famous roles in opera, but if Simona Šaturová didn’t have the force or technique of some of the more notable sopranos who have sung the role, she nonetheless made a deep impression and gained greater credibility and strength as the work progressed. All the roles were well-cast from the point of view of age and looks - that doesn’t often happen - and if Sébastien Guèze wasn’t the strongest singer who has ever sung the role, he reflected Alfredo’s youth and inexperience well, and with some degree of distinction and personality. Scott Hendricks wouldn’t be my ideal Giorgio Germont, but he also fits in well with the production. He can be a bit wayward and over-enthusiastic, but here he was relatively restrained, if still a little mannered and imprecise. In his ‘pura siccome un angelo‘, there’s a neat twist where the father uses its seductive appeal as a come-on to Violetta - another instance of the abuse of power - and Hendrix makes it work. It’s just one example of how the relationships have been thought through here - the father/son relationship between Hendrix and Guèze also works well - creating a convincing and realistic dynamic, showing a fine and considered understanding of the characters and the situations they find themselves in.

There’s a reason why La Traviata is the most performed opera in the world. Verdi’s magnificent writing is of course the primary reason.  The composer’s later works are more sophisticated with greater dramatic expression and through-composition, but La Traviata is unmatched for the brilliance of melody and situational invention that brings its drama to life. But it’s also notable for the universality of the uncompromising sentiments the work and the music expresses on human relationships, on love, betrayal and mortality that still have the ability to reach us and touch us through their relevance. La Traviata was designed to show off Verdi’s brilliance as a composer - and it does - but it was also intended to create a scandal in its frank depiction of the attitudes of a corrupt and hypocritical society towards “fallen women” who strayed outside the boundaries of what was deemed respectable. This scandalous production at La Monnaie is a thrilling reminder of just how vital a work La Traviata remains.

The live broadcast of the 15th December performance of La Traviata is still available for free viewing on the ARTE Live Web site, without subtitles. La Monnaie’s recording of the production, taken from performances of 15th and 18th December, is also available for free viewing from their own website, with French and Dutch subtitles only.

RigolettoGiuseppe Verdi - Rigoletto

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, 2012 | Marco Armiliato, Árpád Schilling, Joseph Calleja, Franco Vassallo, Patricia Pettibon, Dimitry Ivashchenko, Nadia Krasteva, Tim Kuypers, Dean Power, Christian Rieger | Live Internet Streaming, 30 December 2012

Despite appearances, with a production that made use of some eccentric touches in each of the scenes, the Bayerische Staatsoper production of Verdi’s Rigoletto didn’t really seem to have anything new or even meaningful to add to a popular and brilliant work from the composer that will surely have more memorable outings in the year of his bicentenary. Better sung ones too, undoubtedly, but that might have been a problem with the failure of director Árpád Schilling to give the fine singers here any meaningful characterisation and direction to work with.

There’s little doubt about where the focus of interest in the opera is from Verdi’s perspective. It’s not about the King’s or, in this case, the Duke’s amusements (the work derived from Victor Hugo’s ‘Le Roi s’amuse‘), as much as the dilemma of the little man, Rigoletto, his court jester, who is caught up in the intrigues and less capable of dealing with the fall-out that results from the Duke of Mantua’s wilder and more licentious activities. What’s intriguing about the work is how Rigoletto is not entirely a sympathetic figure (and the Duke is not entirely without some redeemable features either), and that he is in many ways the agent of his own downfall - even though he can’t see that as being anything more than the curse of one courtier, Count Monterone, whose daughter has been seduced by the Duke.

That much is retained in Schilling’s version for Munich, and it would be hard to present Rigoletto in any other way, such is the precision of Verdi’s structuring of the work and his purposeful musical arrangements, the opera driven by a series of duets that establish the characterisation and the relationships between each of the figures. Rigoletto is indeed shown - perhaps through no fault of his own having been born a hunchback and otherwise unable to attain love and acceptance through ordinary means - to be a lapdog to the Duke of Mantua, complicit in his schemes, believing himself secure in his favoured position. He’s not completely naive however. He knows the true nature of the Duke and looks to protect his own little idealised existence - his daughter - from the kind of corruption that he himself is party to. Rigoletto is “an amoral petty bourgeois man” according to Schilling, “who dreams of innocence”, and who in the end is destroyed by his own attempts to defend this untenable position.

That’s fine as far as it goes, and if it doesn’t present any new ideas on the nature of Rigoletto, it at least adheres to Verdi’s dramatic and musically astute depiction of this intriguing figure. There’s no necessity either for Rigoletto to be dressed as a court jester or bear his deformity in order to draw his character - Verdi has it so well written in his musical arrangements. If the costume designer chooses to dress him in a shirt, chinos and a neckscarf, changing to a white bow-tie, top-hat and tails for the final scene, that’s just as fine a way of distinguishing his social aspirations. And if the Duke slums around in slacks, a chunky cardigan and vest shirt, and Gilda wears a jumper and jeans or a bathrobe, well, it doesn’t look like much, but Rigoletto need not be as much about class and clothes as personality and love. And since Gilda loves Gualtier Malde whether he is a poor student or a nobleman, there’s no need here for lavish period costumes.

It still doesn’t look like much. What passes for distinctiveness in the production in the absence of any social or period context however is unfortunately rather odd. In Act 1, the court of the Duke is represented by a stepped platform, a viewing gallery from which the courtiers watch the proceedings. In the second scene, the assassin Sparafucile’s weapon isn’t a sword, but a wheelchair with oversize wheels - or more precisely, a flick-knife and a tin of black paint that he uses on his victims having lured them to sit in the strange wheeled apparatus. A huge statue of a rearing horse is wheeled out briefly as the climax to Act 2 for no apparent reason or significance, and Act 3 brings back the steps for the inn scene. It’s all very representational - if the meaning isn’t entirely clear - but it doesn’t unfortunately create the necessary impression.

In such a context, neither unfortunately does the singing. Joseph Calleja sings well enough, but his Duke lacks regal arrogance and boyish charm and there’s a curious lack of feeling in his delivery. There’s a little more urgency to Franco Vassallo’s Rigoletto and Patricia Pettibon’s rather more sympathetic Gilda, but the direction never allows them to express the roles with any sense of feeling for the drama. One other curious touch in the casting that might have significance is the duality or contrast made by casting Dimitry Ivashchenko as both Monterone and Sparafucile and having Nadia Krasteva play Maddalena and Gilda’s maidservant Giovanna - but again, what this adds exactly to the work remains elusive. Still, despite the best efforts of the production design and direction to undermine it, the Bavarian State Opera production of Rigoletto benefitted from reasonably good singing performances, and ultimately won through by virtue alone of the wonder of Verdi’s score and its performance by the Munich orchestra under Marco Armiliato.

Rigoletto was viewed via live Internet Streaming from the Bayerische Staatsoper.TV website. The next free live broadcast will be Janáček’s Jenufa starring Karita Mattila on 9th March 2013.

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.

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