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Dream of the Red Chamber in San Francisco

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Teatro Verdi, Busseto
11 Nov 2007

Verdiland Revisited

Since his appointment as general manager of Parma’s Teatro Regio in August 2005, Mauro Meli didn’t conceal his ambitious plans for growth.

Giuseppe Verdi: Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio
27 October 2007, Teatro Verdi, Busseto
A Fondazione Teatro Regio (Parma) production

Teatro Verdi, Busseto


‘My presence here — he declared on entering office — is linked to Parma’s ongoing process of internationalization [as official seat of the European Union’s Food Authority]. It’s high time that Parma, by merging its many resources, does for Verdi what Salzburg did for Mozart or Bayreuth for Wagner. The Regio will spearhead the building of a cultural district of international appeal’. Besides the regular Winter season, since 1913 a highlight in the billboard is the Festival Verdi, named for Parma’s illustrious son and usually running in late Spring. For organizational reasons, this year it was postponed by a few months, thus allowing to center its timeline around the Maestro’s birthday anniversary (October 10), and to recruit into the project such neighboring towns as Modena, Reggio Emilia and Busseto under the logo ‘Le terre di Verdi’ [Verdi’s lands]. Number of events and attendance both profited from the innovation; as to artistic quality, new entries like Riccardo Muti, Yuri Temirkanov, Denis Krief, witness enough to the festival’s productive effort.

In the same vein of Salzburg and Bayreuth, the Parma series embraced the philosophy of completism, aligning established masterpieces alongside rarely performed works. Is the young Verdi underrated? Even among the composer’s staunchest fans there is a feeling that some apology needs to be made for such early operas as Alzira, Stiffelio or Giovanna d’Arco. However, this is hardly the case for Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio, the 1839 opera marking Verdi’s debut at La Scala. It lacks neither memorable tunes, nor a surprising instinct for drama, nor the depiction of strongly individualized characters. Also a towering father’s figure — a feature due to acquire so much momentum in Verdi’s later dramaturgy — is already there. Sure, the dark color of cloak-and-dagger drama is a bit conventional and less psychologically nuanced than — say — in Simon Boccanegra or Don Carlo; yet, compared to the average output of Mercadante or Donizetti in the same genre and at approximately the same time, Oberto can stand up to the benchmark — maybe a few inches above it.

Anyway, offering a run of seven nights for Oberto (nowadays mostly a fare for CD collectors) sounded all too confident, particularly considering the venue: the cosy Teatro Verdi in Busseto, a small town some 40 kms northwest of Parma, roughly midway between the roadside inn at Roncole, where Giuseppe saw the light of day, and Sant’Agata, the country estate he built out of his musical industry. In the event, all of the house’s 307 seats were regularly sold out, with standing rooms impartially used to accommodate those local socialites, globalized opera tramps and critics from far-away places who had failed to make timely reservations.

The Florentine director Pier’Alli, also in charge of sets, costumes and lighting, is reputed as the ultimate Oberto specialist worldwide. His new production, adapted to fit the small stage, stems from those already seen at Macerata in July 1999 and at Genua in October 2002, whose basic concept may be summarized as ‘moderate disbelief’. The characters’ geometric and emphatic gesticulations, not unlike a Greek tragedy staged at Epidaurum by some Balinese coreographer who earned his master from the Comédie Française, are less and less impressive as time goes by, since he tends to peruse them in any possible context. However, his sets are both simple and effective: a semicircle of rotating panels showing in turns tainted mirrors, walls, gilded hyper-baroque friezes, castle gates and more. As to the costumes, their dominant note points towards the 1830-40s, which could possibly amount to a (once more) ‘moderate’ updating from the original 13th century to the score’s time of composition. We have already seen such and worse applications of the time-machine gimmick — once in a while not without arguably good grounds. A judicious use of extras, as well as the choir’s partial displacement in a number of front boxes and in various locations within the hall so to provide stereo effects, were also to be counted as added value.

Despite the house’s crisp acoustics (highly defined, with a fast decay not giving approximation the slightest chance) the said choir and the forty-odd Regio instrumentalists squeezed into the pit delivered a flawless performance under the lively and finely-tuned tempo choices of Antonello Allemandi. He and the Bulgarian mezzo Mariana Pentcheva, impersonating Cuniza, reaped salvos of applause from an enthusiatic audience. Having not heard Pentcheva for quite some time, I was apprehensive about how she might curb her powerful and owerflowing (once Soviet-style) organ in such belcanto highlights as the Rossini-like cabaletta ‘Più che i vezzi e lo splendore’ at the beginning of Act II. Well, I gladly avow that I was wrong. Without losing anything of her usual firm intonation, polished dark color and authoritative acting, she seems to have now acquired a more mature style awareness and all the desirable fineries in utterance.

The same is unfortunately not true for Fabio Sartori as the treacherous (but in the end repentant) count Riccardo, although his beefy tenor and sustained clarion notes provided elementary excitement. He might well aspire to heavier roles, provided he refines his dynamics — and loses some weight. Soprano Irene Cerboncini’s undeniable acting sophistication doesn’t match her poor breath control, sometimes leading her astray in phrase endings. Her Leonora featured an irritating mixture of natural talent, good looks and imperfect pitch in the lower range. With imposing physical vigor and uncommon accuracy in arioso and recitative passages, Paolo Battaglia (Oberto) made up a noble loser; a defiant old gentleman-cum-bass partly in the mould of Mozart’s Commendatore. But the company’s strong point was indeed in their ensemble numbers: the finale of Act I, starting in a menacefully subdued tone and developing in continuous crescendo through multiple twist and turns, ended in a stormy stretta of wild energetic impact, arguably beyond the composer’s intention, yet much appreciated by the audience.

Carlo Vitali

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