Tuesday, April 9, 2013

I Lombardi alla prima crociata: o nuovo incanto

The Siege of Jerusalem, 1099
(from a 12th-century chronicle)
Verdi's fourth opera, written when he was 29 years old, was penned at a time when Meyerbeer's grand operas were beginning to dominate the opera stage, and when resistance to foreign occupation was beginning to dominate Italy's political stage. Both influences are apparent in I Lombardi alla prima crociata, which the composer makes far more interesting and nuanced than Temistocle Solera's libretto, based on an epic poem (!), gives it any right to be. The most striking anachronism of Verdi's opera is its most conspicuous: there was no single word for crusade at the time of the first or indeed the second strange, sweeping, composite movements which would become known by that name (and under that name famously condemned by Steven Runciman as "one long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is the sin against the Holy Ghost.") The libretto for I Lombardi acknowledges the spirit of pilgrimage and the mixed gender of the European hosts; it also, however, claims a mercenary motive which recent historians have noted was implausible in view of the extreme expense and danger involved. Mortgages and wasting fevers were well-known hazards to the Lombard and Frankish hosts, and yet they journeyed to what they called "Christ's land," determined to possess and administer it as faithful vassals of the Lord of Lords. Verdi's music is alert both to the poignancy of pilgrim aspiration, and to the deep tragedy of the perversion of that aspiration into bloodthirstiness. The lovers Oronte and Giselda, often in text he gave them himself, are aware of the contradictions in so-called holy violence: Oronte is convinced of the truth of Giselda's faith because of her own patience and generosity of spirit. In the tremendous finale of the second act, Giselda inverts the cry of the crusaders in screaming against her father's bloodshed: "God does not will this." Michael Fabiano and Angela Meade gave impressive performances in these crucial roles, at the heart of a gratifyingly tight performance from the Opera Orchestra of New York under their respected director Eve Queler.

Queler, conducting, looked sprightlier than I've seen her in some time, and she kept the massed forces moving with a similar energy. It's difficult, at least for me, not to hear the music in terms of Verdi's other operas: the scene in which the patricide of the bass-baritone is condemned as anticipating Simon Boccanegra's council chamber, the soprano's anxious, woodwind-accompanied prayer as containing the first hints of Desdemona's, the chorus anticipating the more nuanced commentary provided by those of Trovatore or Ballo. Many of the scenes feel like the musical equivalent of poetry with resolutely end-stopped lines, crescendos surging to their appointed climaxes. Distinctively Verdian twists in the orchestration, however, emerge in unexpected places, and the wildly inconsistent drama is tinged, at its best, with genuine and unmistakable Verdian irony. Some inconsistencies, however, remain just that: the bass-baritone decides to atone for burning one citadel by burning another, and becomes a hermit only to decide that the real way to demonstrate repentance and earn divine favor is by killing a lot of people. Although the framework of the libretto suggests that the main narrative is the one of rivalry between two brothers for the same woman, Verdi's interest seems to be held by the interracial, interfaith couple in the middle two acts; surely it is they who get his best music. With all their defiance of authority figures--in natal, spiritual, and political communities--it's small wonder he loves them. Their attempts at running away and being together forever are doomed, but gorgeously so. Queler made sure that the parts of Verdi's gargantuan whole were not allowed to get lost in mere noise, and was responsive to the singers throughout.

The New York Choral Society started out with distressingly American vowels and slightly vague diction, but perhaps they had a talking-to, or just needed to settle in, because matters did improve. The demands made on them are considerable--the embodiment of armies, harems, terrified citizenry--and they rose to the occasion. Their best work was in the poignant chorus "Gerusalemme," in which the crusading/pilgrim hosts contemplate the holy and unattainable city. In the small role of Pirro, squire to the perfidious bass-baritone, Brandon Cedel sang solidly and had a good presence, although in the background of the drama. Courtney Johnson, as Oronte's mother Sonia, sang expressively, displaying a distinctive plummy timbre, but with clarity as well as richness. Noah Baetge, a much-awarded young singer, was very impressive as Arvino, with a muscular, ringing tenor. As Pagano, the patricide, hermit, and eventual military hero (it's a long story,) Kevin Short delivered a solid performance in a difficult role. Although he lacked some of the panache of the other two principals, he sang strongly and sonorously throughout.

Michael Fabiano compelled attention from his first entrance to his posthumous, frisson-inducing serenade. The high tessitura and long phrases of "Le mie letizie infondere" apparently held no terrors for him, and he infused them with ardent yearning. This performance marked Fabiano's first major role in NYC, and the audience was enthralled, waiting in electric silence to express their collective enthusiasm in applause. Verdi's tenor roles are not usually notable for nuance, but Fabiano, with warm-toned, fluid, and charismatic singing, made Oronte a magnetic and sympathetic presence. The good chemistry--vocal and dramatic--which he enjoyed with Meade's Giselda was much appreciated by me; I confess to becoming misty-eyed during the duet in which they resolved to face future hardships together, clutching each other's hands. The famous Act III trio was carried off brilliantly; this is the tenor's death scene, and Fabiano's singing built steadily in intensity of fervor, serving the melodrama without wallowing in it.  The sudden movement with which he clutched Giselda's hand, dropping his head to her shoulder in death, caused a collective intake of breath. Angela Meade boasts an unusual combination of vocal agility, flexibility, and sheer power, which she used intelligently in the role of Giselda. Giselda spends much of her on-stage time praying, but Meade made this much more interesting than it might be, spinning out pianissimo yearning (in "Se vano è il pregare") and shrieking her righteous anger (in the Act II finale, most conspicuously) with equal fervor. Meade does most of her acting through the voice (at least in concert) but this was anything but emotionally flat. The transition demanded by the final scene from stunned and solitary grief to incandescent prophecy was handled with remarkable finesse. Plausibility, clearly, is not one of I Lombardi's strengths; but given strong performances, it still has considerable power.

Quickly snuck bows photo:
L-R: Short, Fabiano, Meade, Queler


  1. What about Soprano Elizabeth Baldwin?

    1. She was FABULOUS as Viclinda!!!!

    2. I'm glad you enjoyed! Personally, I found Baldwin's prominent vibrato distracting. Also, I thought she struggled somewhat with intonation. In any case, I didn't want to mention her only to detract, since she has a nice instrument, and the work on her website http://elizabethbaldwinsoprano.com/media.php does show her in better form than I thought she appeared last night.

  2. Were you at the same performance I was at last night? I think you mixed up Ms. Baldwin with Courtney Johnson! It certainly is easy to mix up singers - especially when they were both wearing black dresses. Ms. Baldwin sang a beautiful Viclinda, mother of Giselda who stood next to Ms. Meade throughout the entire first act, her voice was rich and creamy and matched Ms. Meade's perfectly to create wonderful unity.

    1. No, sorry, I'm quite sure I am not mistaken in the identity of the two singers; I'm afraid you're left with no alternative to believing me mistaken in my assessment of them.


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