Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Jérusalem - Opera in four acts (1847)
Gaston, Vicomte de Béarn - Ivan Momirov (tenor); Hélène, his daughter - Verónica Villarroel (soprano); Isaure, her companion - Federica Bragaglia (soprano); Le Comte de Toulouse - Alain Fondary (bass-baritone); Roger, his brother - Carlo Colombara (bass); Papal Legate, Carlo Di Cristoforo (bass); Emir of Ramla - Reda El Wakil (bass)
Chorus, Orchestra and Ballet of the Teatro Carlo Felice, Genoa, Italy/Michael Plasson
Stage Direction: Piergiorgio Gay
Set and Costumes: Danilo Donati
TV Direction: Paola Langobardo
rec. live, Teatro Carlo Felice, 2000
Performed in an edition by Italian musicologist Arrigo Quatrochi based on Verdi's Paris autograph
Sound Format: PCM Stereo, DD 5.1, DTS 5.1. Picture Format: 4:3
Subtitle Languages. French (Original Language), English, German, Italian, Spanish, Chinese
ARTHAUS MUSIK 2DVDs 107 329 [166:00]

Whilst in Milan composing Macbeth, Verdi was visited by Lumley, the impresario and agreed to compose an opera for London. The subject was I Masnadieri, the composer’s 11th opera. Verdi travelled to London via Paris staying briefly and seeing his friend Giuseppina Strepponi who lived and taught there. Verdi conducted the premiere and second performance. Michael Balfe, friend of Rossini and composer of The Bohemian Girl and Maid of Artois, took over as Verdi left for Paris, where, as well as seeing a lot of Strepponi, he agreed on a work for the Théâtre Académie Impériale de Musique, Paris, (The Opéra) to be premiered in November 1847. With its high musical standards and generous fees, composition for The Opéra was considered the ultimate aspiration for all nineteenth century Italian composers.

Given the lack of time, Verdi followed the example of his great Italian predecessors in adapting an existing work. The work chosen was I Lombardi alla prima crocciata of 1843, his fourth opera. This adaptation, Jérusalem, became Verdi’s twelfth opera. The composition kept Verdi in Paris for the next few months during which time his relationship with Strepponi came into full blossom. The French librettists, Royer and Väez, produced a libretto that was no mere translation of the Italian I Lombardi. Although the shape of the plot and the historical period of the crusades remained the same, the Italian crusaders of Lombardy became French … indeed from Toulouse. Verdi wrote a new orchestral introduction to replace the brief prelude as well furnishing the required ballet music. He also composed substantial additions to the score. Importantly, he discarded the rather immature scene in which the deceased Oronte appeared from heaven complete with aria. The changes are sufficient for Jérusalem to be considered a separate entity from I Lombardi.

Jérusalem, featuring the tenor Duprez, creator of Edgardo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, was a moderate success at its Paris premiere on 26 November 1847. Although Verdi had high hopes for the Italian translation, Gerusaleme, these were only partially realised. The changes in Jérusalem from I Lombardi were sufficient for both operas to circulate simultaneously in Italian theatres for some years.

The challenges of Paris and its musical standards kept Verdi interested in The Opéra, whilst Jérusalem was sufficiently successful to keep the theatre management interested in Verdi. Jérusalem was to have been followed by a completely new work by Verdi for The Opéra, but the political upheavals in France in 1848, leading to the abdication of Louis Philippe and the establishment of the Second Empire, made that impossible. Although a regular visitor to Paris, where he saw the play on which he based La Traviata, Verdi did not return to present another opera in Paris until Les Vêpres Siciliennes in 1857

For the present production, the Italian musicologist Arrigo Quatrochi produced an edition based on Verdi’s Paris autograph. Whilst this production by Piergiorgio Gay is fairly traditional and has a French conductor, the cast would have gained by the inclusion of more Francophone singers. The Chilean soprano Verónica Villarroel is a rather stiff Hélène; her vocalisation is careful and concentrated, leaving her little capacity for acting the role with any passion. She improves in scene one of act four (DVD2 CHs 7-8). This is after Hélène laments the threat to Gaston as her father arrives when she manages some more dynamic involvement. Ivan Momirov sings strongly with a not unpleasant plangent tone. Regrettably he often pushes his voice and there is too much can belto rather than elegant phrasing of Verdi’s sympathetic music. This loudness ensures his often-mangled French is ill-disguised (DVD1 CHs.25-26). True Francophone Alain Fondary starts with something of a wobble and tends to over-sing after his re-emergence from being assumed accidentally assassinated by his brother Roger. The latter is strongly sung, again whilst lacking much in the way of expression. The lack of directorial awareness and involvement is particularly evident as Roger sings, as the hermit, about his hair turning white when it is in fact unchanged (DVD1 CH.16). In fact his appearance as a hermit is pathetic and would not confuse a passing child let alone the various other family members and associates who meet him in that supposed state of disguise. Both the second basses, Carlo Di Cristoforo as the Papal Legate and Reda El Wakil as the Emir contribute some of the better singing and committed acting to give significant meaning to their relatively small roles.

The costumes are opulent and in period. The sets are different for each act and scene within the act, seven in all. These are very good and must have cost a fortune. Was the production ever reprised or sold on I wonder? Good and apposite as both are they cannot compensate for the inadequacy of the direction. Piergiorgio Gay is lauded in the notes as a disciple and sometime assistant of Ermanno Olmi claimed as one of the giants of Italian film. That may be so. Perhaps in a film the cast are professional actors who need little direction. This is not so with many singers and this in turn means little dramatic involvement by many of them and sadly this also extends to their singing. This lack is also evident with the chorus who are loudly booed after one contribution. Given that the choruses are in the Verdi Risorgimento tradition, that of the act two O mon Dieu! Vous notre misère! (Oh God look down on our misery, lost in the desert ….your promise was in vain) with its musical echoes of Va pensiero in the earlier Nabucco should have brought the house down (DVD1 CH.21). The ballet is a redeeming feature being well danced and appropriate to the music (DVD2 CHs 2-5).

Michael Plasson does his best to keep the drama alive despite the occasional lethargy on stage and does justice to Verdi’s writing. Therein lies another problem. In trying to blend with the French tradition, some of the composer’s music here is routine, even bland. It lacks the vibrancy of the first version of Macbeth and I Masnadieri its immediate predecessors, albeit the latter did not set London alight at its premiere. This wide-screen film seen on a modern 16:9 TV, or when on auto-setting, chops off some of the subtitles at the bottom of the picture and any timing that the viewer might wish to follow at the top. I found it very satisfactory watching in 14:9 aspect. The stereo sound is clear and atmospheric. I cannot see another performance making it onto film unless it is in some wacky European staging and possibly in 2013, the composer’s bicentenary. As things stand it is the sets and costumes featured on this DVD that will stay longest in the memory. I should add that the set can be had at an alluring price from everyone’s favourite on-line supplier.

Robert J Farr

Some reservations but do not hesitate adding this rarely performed opera to your Verdi collection.