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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Recording Review: There Will Be Blood

Oberto, Verdi's first opera indicates great things to come.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The young Giuseppe Verdi. He started work on Oberto when he was 23.
Oct. 10, 2013 marks the 200th birthday of composer Giuseppe Verdi. To celebrate that birthday in style, Superconductor will offer in-depth coverage of Verdi's long career and vast catalogue in coming months.

We start at the beginning, with Oberto.

Verdi's long career as a composer began with Oberto, Comte di San Bonifacio which had its debut at La Scala in 1839. He was 26, and had worked on the opera for three years.

According to Julian Budden's excellent The Operas of Verdi, this work may have originated under the title Rocester, a libretto by Antonio Piazza. He also hints at a libretto called Lord Hamilton that was making the rounds before Verdi settled on Oberto. Both of these earlier works are either lost or integrated into the structure of Oberto.

Although this opera has been filmed twice and will be staged at La Scala in 2013, Oberto has long toiled in the shadow of Rigoletto, Aida and La traviata. Budden himself (after an exhaustive, entertaining analysis of the opera's history and music) dismisses the work completely. He writes:

 "In no circumstances could Oberto enter the general repertory....if Verdi had died after writing it, he would not be remembered today for there is nothing here of that finite achievement to be found in the work of certain younger geniuses."

A listen to Oberto (thanks to the recently reissued 1996 recording led by Sir Neville Marriner) reveals an opera that has many of the musical and dramatic fingerprints that would make Verdi the most important Italian composer of the 19th century. The opera has many "Verdian" elements are already in place.

The opera has many characteristics of the composer's main body of work:

  • There are two strong female leads in dramatic conflict. (One is named Leonora, which is also the name of the heroine in Il Trovatore and La Forza del Destino.)
  • Oberto and Leonora sing a father-daughter duet. Their relationship, like that of Rigoletto and Gilda or Simon Boccanegra and Amelia, drives the plot.
  • Oberto's patriotic "O patria terra" echoes later Verdi arias and choruses dealing with nationalism: "Va, pensiero" in Nabucco, "Patria oppressa" in Macbeth and "O patria mia" in Aida.
  • The tri-partite "town band" rhythm is prevalent in the score. (Granted, Verdi didn't invent that.)
  • The strong choral writing and orchestration have that Verdian sound and rhythmic drive.
  • At the opera's end Leonora chooses to become a hermit, another echo of Forza.

  • Sir Neville Marriner's recording was made in a time when conductors with contracts from big labels (in this case, Philips) could record pretty much whatever they wanted. (The Dutch label had recorded many of the early Verdi "galley years" operas with conductor Lamberto Gardelli, but the Italian conductor's series ignored Oberto. The original 1997 pressing was never released in the United States catalogue, although it was available as an (expensive) import.

    In this case, the British conductor and his Academy of St. Martins-in-the-Fields turned their attention from Mozart to the thunder of early Verdi, and the results are crisp and cleanly played, if a little stiff and mannered. Best of all, this two-disc set supplements the short opera with scenes and arias written by Verdi for the work's  revival at La Scala.

    Veteran bass Samuel Ramey has a vast experience of early Verdi operas (having sung and recorded a number of the lesser known roles: Nabucco, Pagano in I Lombardi and the title role in Attila.) He portrays the aging Count as a complex, conflicted figure and is at his most moving in the scenes with his daughter and in "O patria terra."

    Tenor Stuart Neill has the unenviable task of playing the villain. But he's pretty good as  Riccardo, a love-'em-and-leave-'em type who also happens to be the leader of a rival noble family. Maria Guleghina and Violeta Urmana are featured as Leonora and Cuniza (respectively) with fiery results in their Act I duet. It is moments like this that make Oberto more than an historical footnote: it is an opera that is compelling on its own merits and enjoyable in its own right.

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