Saturday, 21 July 2018

Lithe & musically engaging: Verdi's I Lombardi from the Heidenheim Opera Festival

Verdi: I Lombardi - Leon de la Guardia, Pavel Kudinov, Daniel Dropulja - Heidenheim Opera Festival (photo Oliver Vogel)
Verdi: I Lombardi - Arvino and his supporters with the hermit
Leon de la Guardia, Pavel Kudinov, Daniel Dropulja - Heidenheim Opera Festival (photo Oliver Vogel)
Verdi I Lombardi; Pavel Kudinov, Ania Jeruc, Marian Talaba, Leon de la Guardia, dir: Tobias Heyder, Cappella Aquileia, cond: Marcus Bosch; Heidenheim Opera Festival
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 July 2018 Star rating: 4.0
A musically lithe and engaging performance, in production which side-steps the work's problems

Verdi: I Lombardi - Ania Jeruc, Marian Talaba - Heidenheim Opera Festival (photo Oliver Vogel)
Ania Jeruc, Marian Talaba - Heidenheim Opera Festival (photo Oliver Vogel)
The Heidenheim Opera Festival is working its way chronologically through early Verdi operas, having given us Oberto (in 2016) and Un giorno di regno (in 2017, see my review), this year it was the turn of Nabucco and I Lombardi.

We caught the second performance of Verdi's I Lombardi at the Heidenheim Congress Centre on 20 July 2018. Directed by Tobias Heyder with costumes by Janine Werthmann and lighting by Hartmut Litzinger, the cast featured Leon de la Guardia as Arvino, Pavel Kudinov as Pagano, Anna Werle as Viclinda, Ania Jeruc as Giselda, Daniel Dropulja as Pirro, Christoph Wittmann as the prior of Milan, Andrew Nolen as Acciano, Marian Talaba as Oronte, Kate Allen as Sofia and Klaus Peter Preussger as Folco. Marcus Bosch conducted the Cappella Aquileia with the Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno. As with previous productions, Heidenheim takes a more intimate, chamber view of Verdi's operas, with a chamber orchestra in the pit and more lyric voices, thus restoring the operas more to the scale of the early performances.

Verdi wrote I Lombardi for La Scala in 1843, a follow up to Nabucco and with the same librettist, Temistocle Solera. As with Alzira (written two years later, and recently revived at the Buxton Festival, see my review), you sense Verdi experimenting. I Lombardi takes the feud between two brothers and spreads it across Italy and the Middle East during the First Crusade, mixing in religion and redemption.

Verdi: I Lombardi - Leon de la Guardia, Anna Werle - Heidenheim Opera Festival (photo Oliver Vogel)
Leon de la Guardia, Anna Werle - (photo Oliver Vogel)
In many ways, the opera explores themes which Verdi would return to in La forza del destino, the workings of fate, family feuds, the dramatic possibilities of co-incidence, religion and religious conversion. But whereas La forza del Destino sprawls, I Lombardi is highly compact. In four acts, with 11 scenes, it forms more of a series of tableaux, rather than worrying about narrative development. Verdi seizes some strong situations, without bothering about how the characters got there.

Though there is a large cast, the focus is very much on a few characters. The result is tight and fast paced, lots of emotions and drama. And this production, with its lively tempos, lithe textures and impulsive drive really went with the flow of the drama, successfully carrying you along.

Tobias Heyder directed with economy and clarity, using colour to indicate the different factions, red for Arvino, blue for his brother Pagano (turning to neutral when he became a hermit), green for the Muslims. The production used plain colour projections for the back-drop and, with a superb economy of means, relied simply on a table and chairs for all the scenes. Costumes were all modern dress. What the production lacked though was a sense of who these people were and what the 'crusade' really was.

Verdi: I Lombardi - Daniel Dropulja, Pavel Kudinov - Heidenheim Opera Festival (photo Oliver Vogel)
Daniel Dropulja, Pavel Kudinov (photo Oliver Vogel)
Rather worryingly, the staging side-stepped the opera's most complex issue. Heyder simply depicted warring factions without examining what it means today to depict Christians fighting Muslims. To Verdi and his librettist, writing an opera for Milan which was still occupied by the Austrians, the idea of the Crusade probably had strong contemporary relevance. For a modern audience, it means something different and it is either naive or lazy to simply ignore the issue, particularly as Heyder's production made firm use of Christian symbolism, though thankfully the Muslims were completely non-specific.

Pavel Kudinov made a powerful Pagano, his lithe bass voice fitted the production's relatively small-scale ethos with a chamber orchestra in the pit.  I enjoyed his way with the bel canto elements of his aria, and the intensity of his performance brought a unity to a role split between disparate elements with Pagano's change into a hermit. The other significant role was Pagano's niece (Arvino's daughter) Giselda, played with firm conviction by Ania Jeruc. This was confident and stylish performance, with a nice warm tone to the bel canto line, and an emotional commitment which carried the character forward. Giselda's love interest is the Muslim prince Oronte, played by Marian Talaba. Oronte plays little dramatic role in the opera but gets some lovely music which Talaba sang with fine Italianate tone.

Giselda's father Arvino is an important dramatic role, though he does not get an aria, and Leon de la Guardia played him with real commitment, making the feud with Kudinov's Pagano entirely believable. Arvino's squire Pirro also has an important role in the drama, and though Daniel Dropulja looked the part he rather under projected his voice.

The remaining roles are all rather small but each singer provided strong support, with Anna Werle very elegant as Arvino's wife Viclinda, and Kate Allen as a warm presence with Sofia, Oronte's mother.

The chorus has an important role to play in the opera, and the Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno impressed both with their warm flexible tone and their commitment to the drama, and this was particularly true in the important choral finale which brought the opera to a thoughtful close.

Verdi: I Lombardi - Heidenheim Opera Festival (photo Oliver Vogel)
Verdi: I Lombardi - In Acciano's Harem - Heidenheim Opera Festival (photo Oliver Vogel)
Marcus Bosch conducted a lithe account of the score, encouraging crisp attack and lively rhythms from the orchestra and providing an account of the music which was engagingly immediate. Musically this was a performance which impressed, and you only wished that the dramatic approach had been a little more thoughtful.

The performance was preceded by a pre-concert event, the Quartet of  the Critics in which four distinguished German music critics, Eleonore Büning (former Frankfurter Allg. Zeitung), Jürgen Kesting, Albrecht Thiemann (Opernwelt), and Markus Thiel (Münchner Merkur) discussed the opera and compared recordings of arias. It was fascinating to hear such different approaches, comparing Renata Scotto with Maria Callas, Luciano Pavarotti with Piotr Beczala and early recordings with piano. One of the fascinations with such events was the way that the critics themselves did not agree, and we could hear how approaches to Verdi had changed over the years, something reflected in the style of Heidenheim's performance.

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