I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata
Theodossiou; Meli, De Biasio, Pertusi; Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro Regio di Parma, Callegari. Production: Puggelli. C Major 720608 (DVD) or 720704 (Blu-ray), 144 mins. (opera), 10 mins. (bonus), subtitled
I Lombardi (1843) was Verdi's fourth opera and his finest to date, moving a step ahead from Nabucco's raw energy toward Ernani's greater nuance and cohesion. It's also one of his most prodigally tuneful — a treat for the ear, if not so much for the brain, which might well indulge in a good nap as the far-flung, far-fetched scenario unfolds. This story of star-crossed love and would-be fratricide is set against a backdrop of the First Crusade, when medieval Europe's counterpart to the religious right rose in arms to reclaim Jerusalem from Islam. When the opera was new, the parallels between the "liberation" of Jerusalem and the liberation of Italy from its occupying powers were inescapably strong. Nowadays, we're stuck with the more literal read, and the sentiments of Temistocle Solera's libretto can make anyone with qualms about America's dealings with the Mideast, or Israel's with Palestine, a bit queasy.
The tale's mollifying grace is its heroine, Giselda, who's filled with love and forgiveness for everyone — for the murderous uncle she barely knows; for her belligerent father; for her Muslim boyfriend (who, out of love for her, embraces a deathbed baptism); for all the people of "heathen" faith. So much love demands a great many notes, and Giselda is a long role and a challenging one, calling for tender grace, steely resolution and enormous stamina. In this 2009 performance from Parma, she's embodied by Dimitra Theodossiou. Better cast here than she was as Abigaille in Parma's Nabucco, Theodossiou commands the first two acts with a grand manner, a voice of the right weight and a careful balance of delicacy and drive. By Act III, she's wilting, and by Act IV she's clearly winded: embracing the footlights for "Non fu sogno," she grits her vocal teeth and gets the job done.
In the opera's other pivotal role, that of Giselda's killer-turned-holy-man uncle, Pagano, Michele Pertusi is in hearty voice and flaunts it every chance he gets. (In his transformation from baddie to goodie, he somehow loses both his hair and, Wotan-like, an eye.) Roberto De Biasio is a vocally strong and dramatically square Arvino, and as the opera's official tenor hero, Oronte, Francesco Meli mixes vocal metal and miel, his easy smile winning him laurels for charm. Daniele Callegari conducts the Teatro Regio's forces with the right rough vigor and ballabile swing.
Alas, anyone looking for a theatrically engrossing production shouldn't look here. Paolo Bregni's set designs are minimal — changing projections on a basic stone-block wall, with subtle clues such as a giant reproduction of Guernica and supersized Nazi-death-camp photos setting the mood. And Lamberto Puggelli's direction is just plain bad: it's an ineptly old-style stand-and-deliver affair that makes one long for a little Regie rambunctiousness. Thanks mostly to Verdi, the show works enjoyably all the same.
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