Sassu, Pentcheva; Parodi, Sartori; Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Regio di Parma, Allemandi. Production: Pier'Alli. C Major 720104 (Blu-ray) or 720008 (DVD), 124 mins. (opera), 10 mins. (bonus), subtitled
Verdi's first opera kicks off C Major's bicentenary series Tutto Verdi, which promises chronological releases over fifteen months of "all twenty-six of Verdi's operas," plus the Requiem, on Blu-ray and DVD. A boxed set of the entire series is also part of the plan. The performances are from the Festival Verdi by, but not necessarily at, the Teatro Regio of Parma, twenty-six miles from Busseto, which was more or less Verdi's hometown. Oberto was recorded on the small stage of Busseto's 300-seat Teatro Verdi in 2007.
Oberto (1839) seems much more primitive than Nabucco, which followed it by only three years, but the early-Verdi virtues of melodic facility, forward drive and sheer energy are clear even in this creaky melodrama. On the eve of Riccardo and Cuniza's wedding, Leonora tells how Riccardo seduced and abandoned her. Incredibly, Cuniza gives Riccardo back to Leonora, whose father, Oberto, insists on avenging her honor anyway and fights a duel with Riccardo. Proud Oberto is slain, remorseful Riccardo flees, unhappy Cuniza is left alone, and miserable Leonora heads for a convent.
Mezzo-soprano Mariana Pentcheva, as Cuniza, offers sumptuous tone and, in her Act II aria, good trills. Tenor Fabio Sartori, as Riccardo, has an appealing timbre, fine legato and an occasional sob. Visually, they are stolid, stand-and-sing performers. In contrast, bass Giovanni Battista Parodi, as Oberto, is a nimble, persuasive actor, but his voice is thin and sounds congested at two entrances. Soprano Francesca Sassu as Leonora is lovely and expressive, but her light lyric voice is small for the role, which has many con forza markings. The chorus sounds woolly and ragged. The orchestra and Antonello Allemandi's propulsive conducting are excellent. But something's wrong when the best part of a Verdi performance is the overture.
The stage director and set, costume and lighting designer is Pier'Alli. He seems a better designer than director: the costumes are elegant, the lighting evocative, but the staging is stylized and largely static.
Most striking is the use of hand gestures. It's not Sellars-style semaphoring, choreographed to and reinforcing the music. It's a hand language that is exaggerated, clichéd and often risible. When a messenger enters, all extend a hand to him. When someone thinks "no" or "stop," out shoots a stiff palm like a traffic cop. Want something? Hold out an open hand. Don't want it? Turn the palm down. Viewers may find their own hands stifling laughter.
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