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The Anti-Bellicist Crusade

01/19/2019 -  & January 22, 25, 28, 2019
Giuseppe Verdi: I Lombardi alla prima crociata
Ekaterina Metlova (Giselda), Roberto Tagliavini (Pagano), José Bros (Oronte), Sergio Escobar (Arvino), Rubén Amoretti (Pirro), Jessica Stavros (Viclinda, Sofia), David Sánchez (Acciano), Josep Fadó (A prior)
Coro de Opera de Bilbao, Boris Dujin (chorus master), Euskadiko Orkestra Sinfonikoa, Riccardo Frizza (conductor)
Lamberto Puggelli (stage director), Grazia Pulvirenti (updated staging), Paolo Bregni (sets), Santuzza Cali (costumes), Andrea Borelli (lighting)

(© Enrique Moreno Esquibel)

The Bilbao Opera, ABAO, is approaching the end of its grand “Tutto Verdi” project, presenting all the composer’s operas. Only Alzira and Jérusalem (Verdi’s French reworking of I Lombardi alla prima crociata for the Paris Opera) remain. Laudable as it may be, this project also means presenting some weak works. Though not Verdi’s lowest point, I Lombardi is nonetheless an unconvincing opera.

The music is typical of the young Verdi, this son of a bandmaster and with a fondness for vulgar Umpapa and tempo di Walzer who eventually and miraculously transformed himself into a serious, mature composer with his triumphant trio of Rigoletto-Il Trovatore-La Traviata. Hearing the music of I Lombardi, it is hard to imagine that the same composer would one day write Don Carlos, Otello and Falstaff. Even weaker than the music is the libretto by Temistocle Solera, who had written the lyrics to Verdi’s first success and his previous opera Nabucco. In an attempt to build on the success of the patriotic elements of the latter, he concocted a love story in the middle of the First Crusade, glorifying the Lombards in order to rouse the Milanese public. The main problem is that the love story is hardly credible, and the subplot of the treachery of Pagano towards his brother Arvino and his eventual redemption supplants the love story. For Verdi, an avowed anti-clerical artist, it was undoubtedly difficult to compose compelling music set to such a confused plot, replete with messianic tendencies.

The leads are Giselda, daughter of Arvino, the Milanese leader of the Lombard Crusade; her treacherous uncle Pagano; and the Muslim Prince of Antioch, Oronte, with whom Giselda falls in love. It is somewhat pathetic that Solera could not find a more appropriate name for the latter, opting for the name of Syria’s main river instead. Until recently a mezzo, Russian Ekaterina Metlova, playing Giselda, is working on becoming a dramatic soprano. Hers is a powerful voice, with technique on the whole solid, but as is often the case with big voices, her timbre is metallic. Her largest impediment was sloppy phrasing and poor diction. At moments, it was hard to understand a single word, making one question whether the Bilbao Opera had opted for a Basque adaptation or if Metlova was singing in Moldavian. Of course, this renders the acting unconvincing. But we mustn’t be too harsh, as this is a demanding role and vocally she aced it. The weak plot completely relies on an astounding Giselda to come through, and to be honest, in this production she managed to. Though her Act 1 aria “Salve Maria!” was tepid, she was both convincing and moving in her Act 2 aria “O Madre! Dal ciel!” and in the opera’s finale.

Italian bass Roberto Tagliavini impressed as the villain Pagano. The timbre of his basso cantante is appropriately dark and virile. His diction was superlative, jarringly contrasting that of his co-stars. He made the most of this anti-hero role, a precursor to Verdi’s more profound Macbeth and Attila. His Act 2 aria “E ancor silenzio... Ma quando un suon terribile” was noble and poised. He excelled in the opera’s most beautiful moment, the Act 3 trio “Qual voluttà trascorrere,” without overpowering his two partners.

Spanish tenor José Bros was however miscast as Oronte. Once a brilliant bel canto interpreter, his voice has been damaged by straying into heavier repertoire. His once sweet voice has become too nasal, ideal for interpreting old men and evil plotters, not ardent lovers. The high notes are strained, and acting was frankly never his strong suit. In the Act 3 duet, he jumps on Giselda and barks his line “Giselda!... Ah no d’Oronte! Stai fra le braccia.” Common sense would dictate a more sensitive approach, lest the heroine’s heart-attack is the intention, especially that she thinks him dead. Giselda’s father, Arvino, is usually sung by a lighter tenor to contrast with Oronte, but here Sergio Escobar easily stole the show from José Bros. The supporting roles were well sung, especially bass Rubén Amoretti’s Pirro. Conductor Riccardo Frizza, a bel canto veteran, was well-suited for this early Verdi opera and did his best to make it work. The highlight of the show was the well rehearsed chorus, who were brillant in the Act 4 “O Signore, dal tetto natio,” a poor man’s “Va pensiero” (Nabucco).

Given the poor quality of the libretto, Lamberto Puggelli’s staging was crucial to render the opera credible. He adopted an anti-bellicist interpretation which is supported by Giselda’s Act 3 aria condemning her father following his victory and her belief that he has killed her beloved Oronte, “No!...giusta causa non è d’Iddio.” The first two acts were visually pleasant thanks to projections of realistic period drawings of Sant Ambrogio’s Church in Milan, the interior of Arvino’s castle and the Harem in Antioch. In the last two acts, Jerusalem’s Wall of Lamentations was constantly projected, with superimposed projections of corpses of war victims, images of contemporary (Syrian) refugees and Picasso’s Guernica. Santuzza Cali’s costumes were aesthetically appealing, especially for the Lombards; they were cleverly inspired by paintings from the Early Renaissance, which took place some 300 years after the opera’s setting. The costumes for the Syrians too, were inspired by Orientalist paintings (David, Ingres). The women in Antioch’s Harem were dressed in arch conservative garb, worthy of matrons, not concubines. Act 3 opened with present-day Ashkenzi (European) Jews at the Wall of Lamentations which is anachronistic, but perhaps period-Sephardic (Spanish) or Mizrahi (Oriental) Jews’ clothing are not recognized by most. The praying Jews were somewhat ironic, as the First Crusade butchered almost all Jews and Eastern Christians in the cities they conquered. In Act 4, the two sides battle each other and are dead by the end of the chorus “Te lodiamo, gran Dio di vittoria.” For the opera’s finale, the dead on both sides are resuscitated, embracing for a final message of peace.

Ossama el Naggar



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