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First steps

There’s something charming and almost irresistible about early Verdi opera. I always equate it to seeing a grade school test from Albert Einstein. All of the genius is there, but it’s just starting to take root and thrive.

Oberto, being Verdi’s first opera, is just about as early as early Verdi gets. Written in 1839, the opera is abundant with  ensembles, choruses, duets and arias to keep audiences simulated. You can even hear the snippets of music that would a few years later become La traviata or Il trovatore or Aida. It’s unmistakably Verdi and 100% original.  

Verdi is not always known for his plots’ being easy to follow, and like Puccini’s Tosca, this opera requires a lot of political background to set the scene. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but after research it appears that Oberto was never a real person, so it makes the war fought between him and the real historical figure Ezzelino da Romano and his real sister Cunizza (called Cuniza in the opera) even more confusing to work into the plot.

The story-set in 1228 in Northern Italy- chronicles Oberto’s return from exile after losing a war to Ezzelino, but he runs into his daughter who is seeking revenge on Riccardo, a man who seduced and abandoned her.

They learn that Riccardo is to marry Cuniza, and they decide to be thirteenth century wedding crashers to seek revenge. Riccardo and Oberto get into a duel, Oberto dies and Leonora vows to become a hermit. That’s the gist of Oberto, minues two or three other confrontation scenes between characters.

Verdi’s music is served well in this DVD presented by the Teatro Regio di Parma, but it is performed at the Teatro Verdi di Busseto. This performance marks another installment in the “Tutto Verdi” series celebrating the composer’s birth, but the lazy, uninspired and nearly absent directing makes this performance pretty hard to love.

The production, by Per’Alli is nearly non-existent, doing little to drive the drama or enhance the story. The few times this production does rear its invisible head, it confuses the viewer and frankly, makes a very talented cast look downright stupid.

The perpetually dark stage is also sort of a letdown and the costumes are mostly to period but sometimes confusing such as the crazy padded shoulders on all the dresses and the preoccupation with capes and long jackets. But, hey, what did you expect? Both were designed by Pier’Alli as well.

The sets, textured walls with a tower and a banner or two thrown in as a backdrop were also designed by, you guessed it, Pier’Alli. This production doesn’t really have a clear concept or direction. In our visually-driven age, we have come to expect opera that is marketed as complete theater to actually be complete theater. It’s certainly all right to depend on the music to convey the drama, but as masterful as Verdi is at this stage in his career, his music does not tell the complete story here. There needs to be some direction and that’s lacking.

In some scenes, Pier’Alli fiddles with symbolism, like when he has the two swords for the duel placed in the ground by courtiers at the beginning of the scene. Then he casts an eerie shadow over them so they look like two crosses as if we are supposed to immediately understand the deep metaphor he is making about the Church… Or is it King Arthur?

As I mentioned earlier, the vocal element of this opera is quite strong. Leading the pack is mezzo-soprano Mariana Pentcheva as the princess Cuniza. Her deep and lusty low notes and dramatic presence make her a pleasure to watch and a dominating character.

As Leonora, Francesca Sassu is done no favors by this production. The agile, technically sound soprano with a shiny timbre has the dramatic and vocal chops to make this a signature role, but she is bogged down my ridiculous hand gestures. And a Princess Leia wig. In a way, she’s like Pavarotti in recital mixed with Lydia Callis.

The ardent and thrilling Fabio Sartori plays Riccardo, former love of Leonora to perfection with his “Ciel, che feci” being a high point of the entire opera.

As the title character, Giovanni Battista Parodi lacks the depth and intensity required of this role. His diction is right on, but his voice has a metallic quality and because of its inability to play on some of the ardency and intensity so characteristic of Verdi bass roles, fails to convince us of a powerful count and disposed war leader. That being said, his “L’orror del tradimento” was intense and thrilling.

The conductor Antonello Allemandi leads a thrilling if not overly bombastic reading of Verdi’s first score. Many conductors generally relate Verdi to bombastic and “oom pah pah” readings of scores, and many Verdi operas contain a wide diversity of musical styles not even cloe to being related to the “oom pah pah” style. Fortunately, Allemandi is not conducting other Verdi operas on this DVD. The Orchestra del Teatro Regio di Parma is in great form as well.

The Coro del Teatro Regio di Parma directed by Martino Faggiani is also in very good condition, and in this production some choristers are placed in boxes and around the extremely small (300 seat) theater for an effect that must have been thrilling in-house.

The DVD is a release of Unitel Class and is available in a box set with the company’s other Verdi centennial works. It’s region free and offers subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Japanese. The picture format is NTC 16:9 and the HD video “mastered from an HD source” is very clear. Sound formats are PCM Stereo and DTS 5.1 and the sound is very good.

Oberto is a very good opera. It’s not too long and the cast is relatively small. The roles wouldn’t be too hard to cast andit;s sure to be a complete and riveting night of drama if done correctly. It’s being produced at La Scala for the Verdi centennial where it had its world premiere next spring. If the musses join hands for this presentation, Verdi will definitely be happy with this birthday gift.

2 comments

  • phoenix says:

    Most comprehensive review of this recording I’ve encountered yet -- thanks also for including the extra tip about the Scala revival later on this season.

  • warmke says:

    ” I always equate it to seeing a grade school test from Albert Einstein.”

    Wow. Shame Slonimsky isn’t around to admire your handiwork.