Germany Verdi: I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata, Philarmoniker Hamburg, Chor Staatsoper Hamburg, Simone Young (conductor), Staatsoper Hamburg, 13.11.2013 (JMI).
Pagano. John Relyea
Giselda: Elza Van Den Heever
Arvino: Massimiliano Pisapia
Oronte: Dimitri Pittas
Viclinda: Cristina Damian
Pirro: Szymon Kobylinski
Priest: Dovlet Nurgeldiyev
Acciano: Wilhelm Schwinghammer
Sofia: Solen Mainguené
Direction: David Alden
Sets: Charles Edwards
Costumes: Brigitte Reiffenstuel
Lighting: Adam Silverman
Almost every opera house has paid tribute to Giuseppe Verdi on the 200th anniversary of his birth. In Hamburg, the Staatsoper has commemorated the event by offering what one might call Verdi’s “Unpopular Trilogy.” The three operas belong to the so-called “years in the galley” and consist of I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata, I Due Foscari and La Battaglia di Legnano. It is not easy to find performances of these operas, so a visit to Hamburg was more or less obligatory.
I Lombardi is one of Verdi’s least performed operas, and it is not one of his best works either. At the time, Temistocle Solera was Verdi’s usual librettist, and three of his first four operas, including this one, bear Solera’s signature. The libretto is not exactly outstanding, and I Lombardi was their penultimate collaboration. With Ernani, the opera that follows I Lombardi, Verdi had Piave as librettist and things began to improve in dramatic terms. In addition, we cannot consider I Lombardi musically as a masterpiece: it’s rather uneven, with magnificent moments (choruses, duets, Oronte’s aria) and otherwise rather routine music. What is certain here is that Verdi and Solera wanted and knew how to exploit the success of Nabucco, and I Lombardi is probably the most choral opera in the Verdi catalogue.
Hamburg has programmed this rare Verdi trilogy with new productions by David Alden. I Lombardi does not start in the Plaza of St. Ambrose in Milan but in Arvino’s house, where there is a celebration on the reconciliation of the two brothers, Arvino and Pagano. It takes place around the 1930s and, given the setting, one might expect that the departure of the Lombards on the First Crusade was to be replaced by the march of Mussolini in Abyssinia. However, in the second act we meet the crusaders, accompanied by people with hoods and crosses. Perhaps Mr. Alden means to emphasize the horror of religious wars at any time. The sets are not very attractive, and the best is Arvino’s mansion in Act I. From there we move to the East and find Pagano, now a hermit, in a kind of chapel; the last acts unfold in a sandy locale.
The stage direction is somewhat strange, especially in the treatment of the characters. For instance, in the first act Giselda is portrayed as a simple child, and it is difficult to comprehend what she is doing in Act II in the East, considering her circumstances. Only in the last two acts does Giselda assume an important dramatic role for Mr. Alden. The best part of his direction is the movement of crowds, although it is not easy to understand why the choir sings the famous O Signore, dal tetto natio with many of the women in lingerie. I didn’t find it convincing to place the concertmaster, Konradin Seitzer, on stage playing solo violin and accompanying the subsequent action. His performance as violinist was outstanding, but his presence on stage broke the dramatic tension.
Simone Young is probably the leading female conductor in opera today. She has spent eight years as Musical Director at the Staatsoper Hamburg, and she continues to be an exception in a world dominated by men. Ms. Young offered a well-controlled performance, always mantaining the dramatic tension and helping the singers on stage at all times: what we might call a real Kapelmeister. Under her baton was the remarkable Philharmoniker Hamburg and an excellent chorus, though I confess I expected more from them, considering that their director is none other than Eberhard Friedrich.
John Relyea was somewhat uneven as Pagano. When the score requires the middle range things go well, but his high notes are whitish, tight and difficult.
Elza Van Den Heever as Giselda was the best in the cast. I found her performance in the first act unsatisfying, since the prayer requires a lighter voice than hers and she ran into some problems. She clearly improved from then on, and she was again the very promising soprano I have had the occasion to see in the past.
This opera includes two tenors and, unlike in other Verdi operas, both are important here. Arvino has a lot to sing but has no rewarding aria, while Oronte has the most famous aria of the entire opera, La mia letizia infondere, and a beautiful duet with Giselda. Dimitri Pittas’ Oronte was attractive in the middle range, but above that his the timbre loses much of its appeal. Massimiliano Pisapia was Arvino, and he offered an attractive, lyric voice with by far the best diction of the entire cast.
In the supporting cast there was a strong Viclinda from Cristina Damian.
The theater was at about 80% of capacity. The audience offered a warm reception to the artists at the final bows, with cheers for Elza Van Den Heever .
José Mª Irurzun