The new world

Today’s Final Jeopardy Question: Name a Verdi opera, based on a play by Voltaire, described in the immortal words of the composer as “Questo e proprio brutto.” If you guessed Alzira I doff my hat to your expertise. I wish I could report this opus belongs a place in the neglected gems category but unfortunately, it’s a bit of a stinker (Perdonami, Grand Maestro.)

It premiered in 1845 at Teatro San Carlo, where the main attraction for Verdi was the chance to work with Italy’s premiere librettist Salvatore Cammarano, who provided the libretto for Lucia among others. The first performance in Naples was not a success; neither were subsequent stagings in Rome and Milan. For over a century it disappeared into the libraries of Verdi scholars.

The plot of Alzira could provide a great vehicle for the repairing of Maria Montez and Jon Hall. The story is laid in Lima, where she’s a Peruvian Incan in love with Zamoro, a fiery Incan rebel recently captured by Spanish Conquistadores and, in fact, already presumed dead in the opera’s Prologue. The plot thickens as Alzira also manages to catch the eye of the son of the Spanish Governor of the province. Gusmano. Alzira’s father Atiliba urges her to marry Gusmano, but then Zamoro reappears in her boudoir, alive (obviously) and having somehow escaped his captors.

Gusmano finds the couple and orders the Incan taken and executed. In order to spare his life, Alzira agrees to marry Gusmano. Finally, an Incan rebel stabs Gusmano in the fracas. During his death throes, the Spaniard admits to those assembled she only agreed to marry him to spare her lover.

Musically, the work suffers from an oddly homegenous quality: it’s fiery almost all the time, with precious few moments of real lyricism. It is perhaps of most interest as a “study guide,” that is, many of Verdi’s most powerful mature effects are evident here in embyronic form.

For example, Alzira and Gusmano have a duet structurally almost identical to that of the Count di Luna and Leonora in Trovatore, in which she begs for Zamoro’s life to be spared. Atilaba and daughter Alzira have a tender father/daughter dynamic remniscent of Rigoletto and Gilda. And the meaty part of Gusmano includes an extended death scene that echoes Nabucco.

Alzira seems to need a cast of iconic singers with real Italiate style to bring it too life—an ideal cast might read something like Scotto, Bergonzi, Milnes with OONY at Carnegie Hall.  That sort of star power this DVD fails to deliver.

The role of Alzira is sung by a Japanese soprano named Junko Saito, who lacks both the voice and temperament to bring this to life. She has coloratura to spare—an Olympia kind of voice—but it lacks spinto quality, tending to spread under pressure.

Tenor Ferdinand von Bothmer displays a pleasant lyric tenor as Zamoro but he lacks fire. I kept wishing he was Richard Tucker.  In the central role of Gusmano Thomas Ghazeli forces vocally and strikes poses mostly unseen since the publication of the 1923 edition of the The Victor Book of the Opera. The semi-staging offers the jarring visual of Incan warriors and Conquistadores in natty black tie. The supporting cast is adequate, the Orchestra Haydn di Bolzano e Trento, conducted by Gustav Kuhn, is excellent.

I wish I could recommend this one but it’s highly unlikely to end upon anyone’s list of great Verdi evenings. If you’re the type who simply has to hear all the works the The Great One, there are much better alternatives, including a studio recording featuring Cotrubas and Bruson on CD.