Why go to obscure opera? That's the question I found myself pondering last weekend during Sarasota Opera's opening performance of I Lombardi alla prima crociata ("The Lombards at the First Crusade''), a rarely performed early opera by Verdi. It's the latest installment in the company's remarkable venture to stage every opera by the great Italian composer.
Since Verdi wrote 28 operas, plus several substantial revisions, that is a lot of opera. Probably about 15 of his works are in the standard repertory — Rigoletto, La Traviata, Otello, Falstaff and all the rest that an operagoer will frequently see — but that still leaves plenty that will be utterly unfamiliar. I've heard quite a few of these over the years in Sarasota — Oberto or Alzira, anyone? — and even when they prove to be deservedly obscure, they are highlights of my opera season.
I Lombardi, Verdi's fourth opera, is not totally unknown — there is a sumptuous Metropolitan Opera recording with Luciano Pavarotti in a principal tenor role — but I was still baffled by the convoluted plot, desperately poring over program notes between the acts to try to get my bearings. The word "ramshackle'' was invented for the structure of this opera, which unfolds in herky-jerky fashion over four acts and 11 scenes, lasting more than three hours, including two intermissions.
Set in the 11th century, it involves a pair of Italian brothers, Arvino and Pagano, who are estranged, with Pagano somehow ending up as a hermit in the Holy Land. They are reunited, rather uneasily and improbably, when Arvino leads a band of Lombards on a Crusade to liberate Jerusalem from Muslims. There is a subplot in which Arvino's daughter, Giselda, tagging along on the Crusade, is taken hostage by the Muslims. She has, of course, fallen in love with the son of a sultan, Oronte.
I can't say that the story ever gained much dramatic traction as a whole, and my impressions of I Lombardi are mainly episodic, focusing on individual moments. One of the things I like about the Sarasota productions of obscure Verdi is that the singers are almost certainly playing the characters for the first time, and that often brings out a freshness you sometimes don't find in routine roles.
Bass-baritone Kevin Short is no stranger to Verdi rarities — he played the title role in Sarasota's Oberto in 2001 — but he really outdid himself as Pagano, whose dark-tinged vengeance aria in the first act, Sciagurata! Hai tu creduto ("Wretched woman! Did you believe''), was superbly shaped in his precise phrasing.
Giselda is a fine soprano role, and Abla Lynn Hamza gave a strong performance in a wide range of styles, from the prayerful Salve Maria to her fiery denunciation of the crusaders' violence, No, Dio nol vuole ("No, God does not wish it''). Her coloratura outburst Qual prodigio! ("A miracle!'') during an Act 4 dream sequence brought down the house.
Rafael Dávila sang Oronte, a stock tenor role, and he had several ardent scenes with Hamza's Giselda. Actually, the more interesting, if less flashy, tenor singing is that of Arvino, stoutly performed by Matthew Edwardsen.
The chorus is huge in I Lombardi, with 24 members. One of the opera's most famous numbers is O Signore dal tetto natio ("O Lord, thou didst call us''), a unison chorus in Act 4 where the crusaders, homesick and discouraged by a hopeless war, sing of Lombardy. In an interview, Victor DeRenzi, artistic director of Sarasota Opera, made an astute point that comes from his being steeped in Verdi from decades of conducting with the company. He said the work's chorus is typical of Verdi's principal concern in his early operas — Nabucco also has the chorus of the Hebrew slaves, Va pensiero, which became a kind of Italian national anthem — with a powerful sense of community, while the later operas are more focused on intimate relationships.
In just about every obscure Verdi opera I've heard there is something that is totally unexpected in the score, and in I Lombardi, it is the mini violin concerto that opens and plays throughout the third scene of Act 3. Performed by concertmaster Liang-Ping How, the solo violin came as a brilliant aspect of Oronte's death scene.
The pace of the Sarasota production, directed by Martha Collins, was sluggish, perhaps unavoidably so. It was hampered by the many scene changes, which necessitated an awful lot of lugging of boulders, furniture and other set pieces on and off the stage. Howard Tsvi Kaplan's richly made costumes were dominated by earth-toned hues, except for the crusaders' white uniforms with red crosses, and Ken Yunker's lighting was full of excellent subtle touches.
In the end, what makes seeing an opera like I Lombardi important to me is how it contributes to an understanding of Verdi's entire body of work. I doubt that an opera newcomer would get much out of it, but if you want to understand the dramatic and musical roots of the later masterpieces, then it is an invaluable experience.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.