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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
I Lombardi
Arvino, son of Lord Folco – León de la Guardia (tenor)
Pagano, brother of Arvino – Pavel Kudinov (bass)
Viclinda, wife of Arvino – Anna Werle (soprano)
Giselda, daughter of Arvino – Ania Jeruc (soprano)
Pirro, Arvino’s squire – Daniel Deopulja (bass)
Pirot of Milan – Christoph Wittmann (tenor)
Acciano, ruler of Antioch – Andrew Nolen (bass)
Oronte, son of Acciano – Marian Talaba (tenor)
Sofia, wife of Acciano – Kate Allen (soprano)
Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno, Cappella Aquileia/Marcus Bosch
rec. live, Festspielhaus Congress Centrum, Heidenheim, 15-20 July 2018
Italian libretto with English and German translations enclosed
COVIELLO CLASSICS COV91901 SACD [62:20 + 47:21]

Half a year ago I reviewed a live recording of I Lombardi on the Dynamic label and found very little to admire, besides some good choral singing. This is not unimportant, since the role of the chorus is just as essential in this opera as it is in its immediate predecessor Nabucco. But any opera performance, where the main soloists are fallible, is prone to be a flop, so I had high hopes that this latest essay would be more successful. My prayer was only partly granted, but there are gleams of light. I’ll be back on this within a couple of paragraphs. But let me first give some general comments on I Lombardi, which I have copied from my previous review, since they are as valid here.

“The score of I Lombardi is like a waterfall partially hidden by rocks and various obstacles, whose stream gushes forth at some points but is obscured at others, never flowing evenly and distinctly.” Those are the words of one of Verdi’s biographers, Gino Monaldi, as quoted by Charles Osborne in his monumental The Complete Operas of Verdi” (Gollancz, 1969), who adds: “This is a fair comment. The finest pages of I Lombardi have that melodic beauty and creative energy which, by the time of Il trovatore, were to become Verdian characteristics. But much of the opera merely matches the crudity of Solera’s historical imagination.”

Other comments are along the same lines, and the work has been rarely performed. But at the premiere at La Scala on 11 February 1843 it was a great success and several of the numbers had to be encored. The enthusiasm of the audience was roused, however, more by the topic than the music itself. The tremendous success with Nabucco the previous year, where those who struggled for the Risorgimento, the liberation of the Italian people from the Austrian rule and the wish to create a united Italy, felt they had got an ally in Verdi. Not least the prisoners’ chorus became a symbol for this aim. In this new opera, dealing with the Lombards’ Crusade to recapture the Holy City, which they do in the last scene, the people saw another parallel to their situation, more far-fetched perhaps, but the last act chorus O Signore, dal tetto nation (CD 2 tr. 11) is a kind of sequel to Va, pensiero, sull’ ali dorate – melodically enticing, sung predominantly in unison. I have always liked it but Osborne dismisses it as speculative, and he has little positive to say about the other great chorus Gerusalem! Gerusalem! (CD 2 tr. 1), but at least he admits that Toye* found it impressive. [Francis Toye (1883-1964) wrote Giuseppe Verdi: His Life and Music (1931).] I am more prone to share his opinion of Giselda’s prayer in the first act, Salve Maria (CD 1 tr. 12), which he compares favourably with Desdemona’s Ave Maria in Otello. And he points out several moments of great beauty and individuality and summarizes the Verdi of “his years in the galley”: His standard of achievement varied widely during these years; even within individual operas passages of superb invention alternate with scenes that are crudely and hastily concocted” and adds “… Verdi was almost incapable of writing a dull page.” It may be added that even the worst pages can be refined through outstanding playing and singing, and there are moments where this happens in the present recording.

I have already commented on the good choral singing here, and this comes as no surprise when it is the Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno in action. They constitute the Festival Choir of the Opera Festival Heidenheim, from where this live recording stems, and the Cappella Aquileia, which is the house orchestra of the festival, are also a force to reckon with. So far so good. After the choral opening of the opera we meet the two brothers Pagano (bass) and Arvino (tenor). The former, sung by Russian born Pavel Kudinov, sports a sonorous basso cantante and sings with a good legato. In his aria & cabaletta in the first act (CD 1 tr. 8 & 10), he sounds slightly worn but is much more than acceptable. He has an aria in act 2 as well (CD 1 tr. 21) and it is also good. His counterpart on the Dynamic recording, Alex Esposito, was possibly more involved and utterly expressive, but his tone was grey and worn. León de la Guardia as Arvino is more problematic. From the photo in the booklet he seems to be a fairly young singer, but his tone is also worn and he sings with a lot of strain, which makes him sound older than he is. It suits the role but isn’t very attractive to listen to. The third male role of importance, Oronte, is taken by Ukrainian tenor Marian Talaba, who was a member of the ensemble at the Vienna State Opera and has appeared as guest in several important opera houses, including the outdoor arena at Dalhalla in Sweden, where he sang Don José in Carmen. I saw the performance back in 2007 and was basically very impressed by him. He is careful over nuances also in I Lombardi but his voice production has become tight and he often squeezes the higher tones. His great aria La mia letizia infondere and the following cabaletta Come poteva un angelo (CD 1 tr. 18-19) go acceptably well but later on the strain is too pronounced to be enjoyable. On the distaff side Anna Werle’s Viclinda is vibrant but good – she is no wobbler – and Kate Allen is a very good Sofia. This is a small role and it is indeed luxurious casting to have her here.

However, the great star of the performance is Polish soprano Ania Jeruc as Giselda. This is a big role with many opportunities to expose the talent of a good lirico-spinto – and she does so with knobs on. Her first solo, the beautiful Salve Maria in the first act (CD 1 tr. 12) is sung with great feeling and beauty of tone. There is some minimal unsteadiness but this is negligible considering how well she sings. And she grows throughout the performance. Just listen to O madre, dal cielo (CD 1 tr. 25) and even better in the final act Quel prodigio (CD 2 tr. 10). This is glorious singing that should appeal to any admirer of great singing!

Whether the recording as such is recommendable is a matter of taste. The recording was made live between 15 and 20 July 2018 but there is no sign of an audience – although there are some stage noises – but no applause anywhere and the silences between scenes are almost ghostly silent. The recording is SACD but I have heard it in regular 2-channel stereo; it is very good.

Competition isn’t very keen, although I still recommend either of Lamberto Gardelli’s studio recordings – personally I prefer the Hungaroton with Sylvia Sass as a superb Giselda, but Ania Jeruc runs her very close and Verdi enthusiasts should at least sample this latest incarnation of I Lombardi – a flawed opera and hardly a masterpiece, but still a valuable opera in the Verdi canon.

Göran Forsling

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