16 November 2013

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi – OBERTO (A. Gans, F. Lombardi Mazzulli, M. Custer, N. Reinhardt, N. Intxausti; Oehms Classics OC 959)

Giuseppe Verdi - OBERTO (Oehms Classics OC 959)

GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio—A. Gans, F. Lombardi Mazzulli, M. Custer, N. Reinhardt, N. Intxausti; Chor und Extrachor des Stadttheaters Gießen; Philharmonisches Orchester; Michael Hofstetter [Recorded ‘live’ during concert performances in Stadttheater Gießen, Hesse, Germany, in December 2012; Oehms Classics OC 959; 2CD, 121:53; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, and major music retailers]

With the première of Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio at La Scala in November 1839, the operatic career of Giuseppe Verdi was launched.  The product of four years of work during which the young composer gained vital exposure to the cut-throat politics of opera but also suffered the losses of both his young daughter and his infant son, who died less than a month before the opera’s first performance, Oberto was not an extraordinary triumph, at least not in comparison with an opera like Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, which premièred at La Scala in 1833, but the success of its run of fourteen performances was sufficient to motivate La Scala’s impresario, Bartolomeo Merelli, to commission three further operas from the twenty-six-year-old Verdi; a commission that produced Un giorno di regno, Nabucco, and I Lombardi alla prima crociataOberto also provided Verdi with his first contact with the politically outspoken librettist Temistocle Solera, who eventually provided Verdi with the libretti of five of his early operas, including the reactionary Giovanna d’Arco, Nabucco, and Attila, all of which dealt with struggles for freedom from oppression.  Oberto, too, has its dire situations, but these are the tribulations of individuals within their specific society rather than universal plights of nations.  Though it was performed in a number of Italian theatres in the years immediately following its première, Oberto soon disappeared, overshadowed by the series of mature masterpieces that started a decade later with Luisa Miller.  Interestingly, though, Oberto reveals many of the defining hallmarks of Verdi’s greatest scores, albeit in simpler, less refined forms: the bel canto of Bellini and Donizetti is the mold into which Verdi poured his creative energy, but already the flow of his genius began to overwhelm conventions.  Oberto shares kinship with the Bellini of Il pirata and the Donizetti of Poliuto, but the seeds of Otello and Falstaff are also sown in the pages of Verdi’s inaugural score.  Released in celebration of the Verdi Bicentennial, Oehms Classics’ new recording, taken from concert performances, supplements a strong but sparse discography and provides intriguing glimpses both of Verdi’s raw genius and of the deserved prominence that the composer would ultimately command in the development of 19th-Century Italian opera.

Oberto is a challenge for conductors because it ideally requires a thorough grounding in the art of bel canto and an intimate knowledge of Verdi’s unique style.  Conduct Oberto like Bellini or Donizetti, and there is a risk of robbing a performance of the energy that is emblematic of Verdi’s compositional idiom: approach the score solely from the perspective of Verdi’s later operas, and the opera’s succinct beauty can be obscured.  This is not to imply that Oberto is a ‘difficult’ score, but it is one that subtly asks for a conductor to approach his or her task with comprehension of its places in both the process of Verdi’s coming of age as a composer and the course of Italian opera in general.  As in any of Verdi’s operas, rhythm is the force that drives the score, and the dramatic effectiveness of a performance relies mightily upon the conductor’s success in setting propulsive but appropriate tempi.  Michael Hofstetter derives from his considerable experience with Baroque repertory a reliable skill for shaping musical paragraphs with an ear for the individualities of phrasing, and his pacing of this performance of Oberto is exemplary.  Tempi are quick enough to avoid any hints of falling victim to the temptation to linger sentimentally over the Bellinian melodic lines, but the singers are never left gasping for breath.  Maestro Hofstetter achieves the necessary balance of treading gracefully through the score’s lyrical passages without shortchanging the pages that require greater excitement.  The excellent singing and playing of the Stadttheaters Gießen musicians match the level of Maestro Hofstetter’s alert conducting.  The voices are the focus in a performance of any Verdi opera, and the voices in this account of Oberto are given a consistently impressive musical foundation upon which to build their performances.

The supporting rôle of Imelda, Cuniza’s confidante, is sung by Basque soprano Naroa Intxausti, a small lady with a tremendous talent.  Imelda’s part is small, but Ms. Intxausti’s presence in the performance is large, her singing firm of tone and simmering with dramatic fire.  The histrionic intensity of Ms. Intxausti’s performance is complemented by Norman Reinhardt’s beautiful singing as Riccardo.  Like Radamès’s ‘Celeste Aida,’ Riccardo’s aria ‘Già sorto è il giorno’ cruelly tests the tenor within minutes of curtain-up, with virtually no opportunity for warm-up.  Mr. Reinhardt sings the aria with élan, and his performance builds impressively from this superb start.  The voice is is not of the proportions typically encountered in Verdi’s tenor rôles, even in the early operas, but Mr. Reinhardt proves fearless without forcing the voice, bringing off several thrilling ascents into his light but perfectly-supported upper register.  It is to his credit as a singing actor, as well as to the intrinsic beauty of his voice, that he holds his own so winningly alongside a formidable Cuniza in their extended duet in Act One.  ‘Ciel che feci,’ the romanza in Act Two in which Riccardo reacts with horrified disbelief to the fact that he has killed Oberto, also receives from Mr. Reinhardt a radiant, stirring performance.  Dramatically, Mr. Reinhardt is fully convincing as an inconstant lover without ever seeming truly treacherous, his compact tone palpably conveying youth and emotional sincerity in his moments of greatest distress.

Verdi did not long adhere to the models of Bellini’s Norma and Adalgisa and Donizetti’s Rosmonda and Eleonora, ultimately preferring to contrast his leading female characters more along the lines of Leonora and Azucena in Il trovatore and Élisabeth and Eboli in Don Carlos, but in Oberto he created a pair of wonderfully vibrant leading ladies.  The long-suffering Leonora is sung by soprano Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli, whose vibrant voice moves through Verdi’s melodies with relative ease.  Ms. Lombardi Mazzulli’s voice is small even for early Verdi, and despite her earnest efforts at artfully adapting her voice to the music there are passages in which she is audibly over-parted.  However, there are also passages in which Ms. Lombardi Mazzulli’s lovely tone and excellent technique produce impressive singing, particularly in Leonora’s florid music.  ‘Oh potessi nel mio core,’ Leonora’s cavatina in Act One, inspires Ms. Lombardi Mazzulli to an especially fine stretch of singing.  She capably—if not always comfortably—takes the high lines in ensembles, and her singing in the Rondo Finale brings the opera to a rousing close.  There are moments in which the music demands more voice than Ms. Lombardi Mazzulli can supply, but there are far more moments in which her singing succeeds on its own terms.  She is partnered by the Cuniza of mezzo-soprano Manuela Custer.  Early Verdi is not the repertory for which Ms. Custer is most renowned, but she has never sounded better on records than in this performance.  Ms. Custer’s extensive experience in Baroque and bel canto repertories tells in every phrase that she sings in Oberto, her command of coloratura and mastery of phrasing providing minute after minute of superb singing.  She sings top As and B-flats that any Amneris might envy, and though her voice is also slightly smaller than what the listener acquainted with Verdi’s operas might expect to hear in the music she is the complete mistress of her rôle.  Fine as she is in Cuniza’s duet with Riccardo and the subsequent trio with Leonora and Oberto in Act One, it is in ‘Oh, chi torna l’ardente pensiero’ in Act Two that Ms. Custer’s performance reaches its zenith.  Her artistry encompassing an unyielding grasp of bel canto style and precisely the sort of graceful abandon required for early Verdi, she gives an account of the aria that is a veritable masterclass in the singing of Verdi’s music, her expertly-judged cadenza crowning an incredible display of musicianship.  Ms. Custer’s Cuniza is one of the dishearteningly few tributes to the Verdi Bicentennial truly worthy of that honor and the reason why this Oberto should be heard by every listener with an affection for the composer’s music.

The title rôle, the first of Verdi’s great parts for the bass voice, is energetically sung by Adrian Gans.  There are occasional suggestions that Mr. Gans is consciously endeavoring to emulate the larger sound of a singer like Samuel Ramey, but he mostly adapts his own voice—slightly more baritone than bass in basic timbre—to the requirements of Verdi’s music.  In both the duet and trio in Act One, Mr. Gans sings powerfully, employing the conversational nuances of the text to convey dramatic purpose.  In his aria in Act Two, ‘L’orror del tradimento,’ Mr. Gans expresses the full emotional impact of Oberto’s desire to enact vengeance on Riccardo.  Ignazio Marini, the bass for whom Verdi composed Oberto, also created the title rôle in Verdi’s Attila, and there is a close kinship between Oberto and the better-known operatic leader of the Huns.  The kind of snarling grandiloquence needed for an ideal portrayal of Oberto does not come as naturally to Mr. Gans as the aristocratic reserve by which it is tempered, but his singing grows more assured as the performance progresses.  Ultimately, Mr. Gans’s firm, focused singing proves very satisfying, and he is a subtle but credibly formidable Oberto.

Verdi was not a Wunderkind like Mozart or Mendelssohn, but Oberto proves that he had honed his craft to a remarkable degree by the time of the première of his first opera.  Indeed, Oberto is more recognizably Verdian than Die Feen, Wagner’s first completed opera, is Wagnerian.  The influences of earlier generations of Italian bel canto are identifiable in virtually every page of the score of Oberto, but the opera is unmistakably the older brother of Nabucco, Attila, and even Simon Boccanegra and Falstaff.  This performance of Oberto aptly approaches the opera from the perspective of its origins in the traditions of bel canto but also explores the headwaters of the rivers of inspiration that Verdi would sail throughout his career.  Musical history lessons are important and sometimes enjoyable, but the proof in the Verdian pudding is in the singing.  This Oberto is a feast for the operatic palate, each member of the fresh-voiced cast utilizing every ingredient of his or her respective technique in order to prepare a gourmet performance, and it preserves in Manuela Custer’s Cuniza one of the finest examples of Verdi singing recorded in recent years.