Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
I Lombardi alla prima crociata - Lyrical drama in four acts (1843)
Arvino, son of Falco - Roberto De Biasio (tenor); Pagano, Arvino’s brother, later the hermit - Michele Pertusi (bass); Viclinda, Arvino’s wife - Cristina Giannelli (soprano); Giselda, Arvino’s daughter - Dimitra Theodossiou (soprano); Pirro, Arvino’s squire - Roberto Tagliavini (bass); Acciani, tyrant of Antioch - Jansons Vadis (bass); Oronte, Acciano’s son - Francesco Melim (tenor)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Regio, Parma/Daniele Callegari
Directed: Lamberto Puggelli
Set Design: Alessandro Camera
Costume design: Santuzza Cali
Video Direction: Tiziano Mancini
rec. Parma Verdi Festival, 15, 20 January 2009
Sound Format: DTS-HD MA 5.01 PCM 2.0.
Filmed in HD 1080i. Aspect ratio 16:9
Booklet languages: English, German, French
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Japanese
C MAJOR BLU-RAY 720704 [144:00 + 10:00]
I Lombardi alla prima crociata (The Lombards of the First Crusade) was Verdi’s fourth opera. It was premiered at La Scala in February 1843, ten months after the great success of Nabucco. It is appropriately numbered 4 in this series of recordings from the Parma Verdi Festival. Issued under the title Tutto Verdi this series of all twenty-six of his operas plus The Requiem is issued to celebrate the bicentenary of the composer’s birth. Each opera in the series has a ten minute narrative introduction to the work concerned, in English if required and using visual snippets from the performance. In the case of the complexities of this story, and the switches of venue involved in this dramatic and melodic opera, I strongly recommend viewing it.  

After the massive success of his third opera, Nabucco, at La Scala in 1842, Verdi was quick to realise that the Italian audience related their situation, under Austrian occupation, with the oppressed Jews of the opera. Any subject which showed Italians united against a common enemy would be off to a flying start in occupied Milan, albeit with the Austrian censor likely to be a stumbling block. However, in this case it was the Church that took exception to the subject of the opera. Fortunately, the police chief, a music-lover, let the libretto pass with only minor amendments, Salve Maria instead of Ave Maria and as much for form’s sake as any other.
A great success in Milan, I Lombardi quickly spread to the rest of Europe, not least helped by Verdi himself. At Venice he insisted on a production to go along with the commission for the opera Ernani. Such was Verdi’s growing stature as a composer that Merelli, intendant at La Scala asked Verdi to name his own fee for I Lombardi. Uncertain, the composer sought the advice of Giuseppina Strepponi, creator of Abigaille in Nabucco and later his mistress and wife. She advised him to ask what Bellini asked for Norma (Budden. The Operas of Verdi. Vol. 1. Cassell 1973. p.115). 
I Lombardi dispenses with an overture, and opens with a short prelude which leads straight into the first of several choruses spread throughout the work (CHs.2, 14, 22 and 26). The chorus are major players in this opera. The strong vibrant tones and Italianate squilla of the Teatro Regio forces have a significant part to play in all these early Verdi recordings; none more so than in this opera. The women of the chorus are tasteful, full-toned, and particularly affecting in the Act 1 Chorus of Nuns (CH. 6).
Only three of the opera’s characters are listed as ‘prima’ voices, Pagano, Oronte and Giselda. Somewhat strangely, the substantial role of Arvino is listed in the original libretto as tenore comprimario; the role certainly involves a very big sing indeed and any weakness of casting of this part can seriously undermine any performance of the opera. Perhaps it is due to the fact that Arvino does not get a solo aria, merely featuring in duets and ensembles. In this performance Roberto De Biasio, who sings the principal tenor roles in several of this Tutto Verdi series, does so here with the bright forward tone that I have admired. This is coupled with his ability to sing softly, at least occasionally. Add his ability to act the role as well as express emotions in his singing and there is no chance of his being over-parted, as can be the case.
As the brother who commits parricide in the belief that it is his sibling, the physically imposing Michele Pertusi acts well and sings with steadiness and good characterisation. That said, I would like a little more sonority in his tone. As his squire Pirro, Roberto Tagliavini in a secondo bass role also has the requisite tonal security allied to clear diction. The Giselda of Dimitra Theodossiou is also worthy. She has become more a lirico spinto soprano since her earlier days in bel canto. Her quick vibrato is more in evidence and she has moments of wavery tone. Importantly she holds the line well in her Act 1 prayer (CH.11) where she is expressive and involved. She has sufficient vocal heft to ride the chorus and orchestra at climaxes. Elsewhere her characterisation is good although her coloratura and trill could be better.
The primo tenor role of Oronte, son of the Tyrant of Antioch who in his love for the captured Giselda converts to Christianity, is taken by Francesco Meli who has sung at the best operatic addresses and recorded on major labels (see review 1 and review 2). He sings with vocal strength, some elegant phrasing and a keen sense of words, not least in his duet with Giselda from heaven following the chorus of the celestial spirits (CH. 34).
If one component of this performance stands out it is the singing of the chorus, whether as crusaders or pilgrims. It is outstanding and fitting that the chorus master and they should take the first bow (CH.41).
With many small scenes requiring quick changes it is difficult to comment in respect of how the sets and changes came over in a live performance. Alessandro Camera’s sets, involving large blocks of movable wall are flexible and are particularly effective as they open to reveal the vision of Jerusalem to the crusaders and the mortally wounded Pagano. The mise-en-scène of the final act is particularly effective. Lamberto Puggelli’s direction is efficient albeit with the silly gimmick of having Jews, dressed in modern day clothing and complete with the hats of their particular sect, pray at the wall of Jerusalem! Otherwise the costumes are in period and appropriate.
The conductor paces the work well and has a good feel for a Verdian phrase. He is not afraid to play the rum-ti-tum Verdian beats of the Crusaders for all they are worth. He allows the chorus time for the lovely phrases of Gerusalem (CH.26) and O Signore, dal tello natio (CH.36) in particular to soar. One can but imagine how the words of the latter O Lord, Thou didst call us with holy promise from our native hearths went down in Austrian occupied Milan!
On DVD the only quality rival is the spartan staging from La Scala in 1984 featuring Carreras as Oronte and Ghena Dimitrova as Giselda. Jerusalem, the version that Verdi produced for his French début at the Théâtre Académie Impériale de Musique, Paris, (The Opéra) in November 1847, and which will not feature in this Tutto Verdi series, is available on a year 2000 recording in 4:3 aspect from the Teatro Carlo Fenice in Genoa (see review). On CD there are excellent performances from Decca featuring Pavarotti (455 287-20) and from Philips, in one of their first early Verdi recordings, with Domingo (422 420-2).
Robert J Farr 

A lively performance of this rarely performed work should thrill the heart of every Verdian. 
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