Verdi, La Battaglia di Legnano: Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro dell’Opera, Rome, 29.5.2011 (JB)
Conductor: Pinchas Steinberg
Director: Ruggero Cappuccio
Sets and Costumes: Carlo Savi with Mimmo Paladino and Matthew Spender
Chorus Master: Roberto Gabbiani
Lighting, Agostino Angelini
Rolando: Luca Salsi
Lida: Tatiana Serjan
Arrigo: Yonghoon Lee
Verdi spoke the language of patriotism well. For someone who worked from a natural musical basis of courage, conviction and geniality, as I tried to show in a recent review of Ernani (1844) ( read it here:) this is not surprising. He had the success of the patriotic Nabucco (1842) behind him and though he was living in Paris at the time of the composition of La Battaglia di Legnano (1848), the librettist, Salvatore Cammarano, was very much in Italy, backing the movement for a united country against the reigning oppressors. In 1848, the political climate was ripe for another patriotic opera. Julian Budden summarises it beautifully in a single sentence: After five days of street fighting, the Austrians were driven from Milan by the citizens in revolt; Venice threw out its Austrian governor and proclaimed a republic; the Duke of Parma fled into voluntary exile; the King of the Two Sicilies was obliged to grant his people a constitution.
Cammarano was a leading poet of his generation, older and more experienced than Verdi in what worked and what didn’t in a theatre. Verdi, for the most part, was a willing pupil. The librettist was not just content to submit words, but rather included suggestions on how they ought to be set to music. Verdi in many cases submitted, but also sometimes went his own way. It was more than politics that united the two men. The opening night of La Battaglia di Legnano at Rome’s Teatro Argentina on 27 January 1849, was a triumph. The Fourth Act had to be repeated in its entirety.
Following their success with Nabucco (my review here) Teatro dell’Opera, in Rome, continue their celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the Republic of Italy with this present opera.
The overture of La Battaglia is regarded by many of his critics as one of Verdi’s finest; they are puzzled as to why it has not found a place in our concert halls. I shall now tell them why it hasn’t. Verdi abandoned the usual binary form of overture with a slow introduction, followed by a lively second and final section for a (then) novel ternary (ABA) form. Yupee! shout the critics, whom I shall forthwith refer to as the Verdi Development Corporation (VDC), who welcome every innovation as progress. Now look and listen closely to what actually happens.
The overture opens with a call-to-arms, given out cleanly and impressively by the brass; this is answered by the woodwind, accompanied by pizzicato strings. You might say that this introduces a suitably mysterious element into the proceedings. (The VDC support that view.) Then there is a suitable crescendo with the involvement of full orchestra. Sudden calm ensues. We are in section two of the ternary: calm, meditative and with a fine oboe solo, which will make its appearance again when Arrigo is writing to his mother. Then a reprisal of section A, but more elaborately worked. The backbone of all this is a military march with a contrasting “prayer” in the middle.
Now take one detail of the overture: the answering of the bold, brass opening with the woodwind. It sounds puny and thin. Good idea: didn’t work. The old Verdi would have stayed with the brass (playing piano as a contrast in the responding phrase, for instance). But the VDC applaud the innovation. Verdi, the adventurous orchestrator, they say. The trouble is when Verdi neglects his basic instinct (which I named previously as courage, conviction and geniality) it is we, the listeners who pay the price. Cleverness is almost always a weakness in Verdi. The music no longer sounds as though it wrote itself; it sounds as contrived as Michael Tippet, and no one has ever sounded as contrived as poor Sir Michael.
I may have the VDC against me in my views, but I am in the distinguished company of Igor Stravinsky, who also saw Verdi as a traitor when he abandoned his own fine instincts. And only the other day at lunch, I enthusiastically refilled the glass of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies when he applauded Verdi’s natural inclinations and said he hoped that he himself had been faithful to his fundamental being in the work he had just completed – a commission for the Last Night of the Proms, which includes a sing-along for the audience. But don’t think that that is easy, he added: it is one of the most difficult things that an honest composer has to do.
Difficult, to be sure. But mercifully, Verdi had not abandoned his basic, fine instincts. There would be another dozen operas where the orchestra tends to sound like what the VDC call a giant guitar. (Why? Because the old gentleman had understood that this carries your opera forward better than almost anything else.) Already in La Battaglia del Legnano he was moving towards Simon Boccanegra and Les Vêpres Siciliennes, both conductors’ operas, but where singers are almost marginalized and audience expectations ignored.
All La Battaglia‘s counterpoints and intricacies of orchestral detail were most beautifully attended to by Pinchas Steinberg and the excellent Rome Opera Orchestra. The Israeli conductor not only strikes a perfect balance between the players of the orchestra themselves, but also between stage and orchestra. And the stage, befitting of a patriotic opera, frequently includes the Chorus. A word of praise here to Roberto Gabbiani in his admirable, detailed preparation of this (augmented?) chorus. They have never performed with such courage and conviction. Quite the old Verdi. Even when the composer had neglected his own finest traits.
Ruggero Cappuccio is happy and skilled in his movements of the Chorus, often helped by Agostino Angelini’s lighting. This is one of those We-the-People operas in which the Chorus can easily become the protagonist. With Cappuccio’s skills, they do. There is a co-production with Barcelona’s Teatre del Liceu, and Carlo Savi, Teatro dell’Opera’s stage manager, with two friends, Mimmo Paladino and Matthew Spender, have signed for the sets and costumes. It all looks distinctly as though they have raided the theatre’s junk rooms. Nothing wrong in that. Theatres’ junk rooms have to be one of the richest sources for set construction possible, providing those choosing have a good eye and these three gentlemen do. Most of the sets manage to be dowdy and dignified at once, with some intelligent use of reproductions of classical paintings. They are also frequently constructed before our very eyes, picking up that strong hint of a work-in-progress, which is one of the themes of Cammaranos’s libretto. For me, only the set at the beginning of Act 3, where, in the crypt of Sant’ Ambrogio, the Knights swear their allegiance to fight to their death for their country, do the designers fail to pick up on the haunting and frightening patriotism, which is one of the great highlights of the collaboration of composer and librettist.
The plot is another reiteration of the classical operatic triangle: Arrigo, a Veronese soldier, is presumed dead in the war, so his beloved, Lida, marries Rolando, a noble leading soldier of Milan. But Arrigo is not dead and upon his re-appearance in Act 1, he is angered and uncomprehending at finding Lida married to Rolando.
The Korean tenor, Yonghoon Lee, (Arrigo) is in possession of a truly fine voice, perfectly placed and never forced. His lack of attention to acceptable Italian diction can sometimes cause his performance to go out of focus. Tall, slender and blithe of movement, he cuts a dashing figure with a stage presence big enough to fill Wembley Stadium. Best of all, he sounds involved in what he is singing. I was hearing him for the first time. I hope it will not be the last.
Luca Salsi’s Rolando was also vocally secure, warm, round-voiced and as genial as the character he so successfully portrays.
I was also hearing Tatiana Serjan (Lida) for the first time. I had the impression that she was holding back a very big voice to give the role more of the vocal hues of Trovatore’s Leonora than Nabucco’s Abigaille. That, I think, was a mistake. I was longing for her to open up, which she never did. But for all my reservations on this occasion, she still made some exceptionally beautiful sounds. And I want to hear much more of her.
On that opening night in 1849, when Arrigo throws himself from Rolando’s castle walls into the moat (a staging trick which Rome fluffed on with their handsome, athletic tenor) a soldier in the gallery of the Teatro Argentina removed his sword and threw himself down into the orchestral pit, miraculously injuring neither himself nor the players. The audience arose as one man and chanted, Viva Verdi! Viva Italia!
Contrarian though I can sometimes be, I applaud that sentiment.