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09 Jun 2013

Alzira by Chelsea Opera Group

“I wrote it almost without noticing.” So Verdi declared when reminded of his eighth — and perhaps least frequently performed, opera, Alzira. One might say that, since he composed the work, no-one else has much noticed either.

Alzira by Chelsea Opera Group

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Majella Cullagh [Photo courtesy of Chelsea Opera Group]


This concert performance by the Chelsea Opera Group offered a rare opportunity to judge the work, which was allegedly described by the composer in later life as ‘ugly’, on its own merits.

Commissioned at the height of the frenetic activity which Verdi later termed his ‘galley years’, the premiere of Alzira on 12 August 1845 at the San Carlo Theatre, Naples, received a mixed reception. Verdi anxiously anticipated a hostile press, but hoped for a favourable reaction from the public: in the event, as Vincenzo Torelli reported at the time in the Neapolitan newspaper Omnibus, exaggerated applause for the overture by Verdi’s supporters goaded those less sympathetically inclined to an ever more cool response. Torelli urged Verdi to consider whether he was writing too much, too fast: “No human talent is capable of producing two or three grand operas a year.” Indeed, overwork had precipitated a breakdown of health which necessitated the postponement of the opening night; and, Verdi might have feared the fates were against him when his preferred soprano, Erminia Frezzolini, withdrew from the season to give birth.

If Verdi’s speed of composition was precipitously swift during these years, so is the action of Alzira. Salvatore Cammarone’s libretto attempts to whip Voltaire’s play, Alzire, ou les Américains — a largely philosophical dialogue — into an operatic love triangle, set in 16th-century Peru at the time of the Inca-Spanish conflict, complete with the mandatory mixture of passion, sexual rivalry, vengeance and death.

Alvaro, the Peruvian governor, is on the point of death at the hands of Otombo, when Zamoro — a Peruvian chieftain who had been believed dead — returns and grants the release of Alvaro, before urging his tribe to set forth for Lima to rescue his beloved Alzira, who, along with her father Ataliba, is being held captive by Alvaro’s son, Gusmano. The latter, promoted now by his father to the top job, falls for Alzira too; when Zamoro is seized in battle, she succumbs to Gusmano’s marriage proposal in exchange for preserving her true love’s life. Believe that she has betrayed him, a bitter Zamoro thunders into the matrimonial ceremony and stabs Gusmano. With his dying words, the young governor reveals his true nobility: explaining that Alzira acted to save Zamoro’s life, with his final breath he blesses the couple.

Gianluca Marciano.pngGianluca Marcianò [Photo courtesy of Chelsea Opera Group]

Unfortunately, the plot goes round in circles; the hero is captured and condemned, then he is spared and freed, then seized once more, then released, and so on. The ‘baddie’, Gusman, declares, ‘È destin ch’ei mora,/ né mai destin cangiò’ (He is designed to die, he cannot again escape death), but by the end one is tempted to retort, ‘Oh yes he can!’. A similar lack of genuine forward motion characterises the music too; there are no real moments of dramatic revelation propelling the action forward, and thus the scenas feel a little static and self-contained.

But, the score has a heart-on-sleeve approach to charting the emotional waters. The overture sets the tone: frothy woodwind curlicues give way to tempestuous tutti, serene strings are superseded by a romping conclusion. It’s so Verdian it’s almost self-parody. But, it’s also rather good. While there are none of the elaborate choruses, complex ensembles and elaborate orchestration that mark Verdi’s finest works, there is much melodic beauty, vibrancy and vigour.

Mario Sofroniou was an earnest Zamoro, producing afine display of strong, muscular singing. If he could relax a bit more, he would achieve a greater sense of openness and spontaneity, but he the shaped lines well — particularly in his Act 2 aria, ‘Irne lungi ancor dovrei/ carco d’onta e fuggitivo?’ (Must I drag out my days as a fugitive, bowed down with shame?). He had the stamina for his extended scenas and was an appealing stage presence, winning the affection of the audience.

As Zamoro’s rival in love and war, Mark Holland’s Gusmano began a little cautiously but grew in confidence. Initially, his baritone, while attractive, seemed quite small and somewhat tight, but in Act 2 he engaged more assuredly with the drama, especially in his duet with Alzira. His final Act aria of forgiveness was most touching, the tone soft but centred.

Irish soprano Majella Cullagh was magnificent in the title role. The shimmering string tremolo which presages her first aria, ‘Da Gusman, su fragil barca’, set a suitably expectant mood after the exclusively male voices of the prelude and Act 1 opening (wrongly labelled in the programme, Acts 1 and 2); and, from these first moments Cullagh spun a gorgeous bel canto thread, gleaming and bright. Her cabaletta was nimble. Occasionally, in the more delicate, sustained moments one could sense Cullagh working hard to maintain secure intonation; but she demonstrated a sure sense of the overall formal shape of the scenes, and clearly knows how to use dynamics to create drama. Her Act 1 duet with Sofroniou was finely judged.

Both the female cast members outshone the men in one specific regard: namely, they were less bound to their vocal scores: indeed, as Zuma, Alzira’s maidservant, Lithuanian Liora Grodnikaite was alone among the cast in having fully memorised her part. Consequently, she was able to concentrate on developing character and situations, her creamy mezzo soprano both sensuous and decorous.

Paolo Battaglia never wavered as a stentorian Alvaro, tempering his authoritative stance only at the close in a moving display of grief upon his son’s death. The declamatory pronouncements of Francisco Javier Borda’s Ataliba were rather inflexible and monotonous of tone, but like all the cast, the words were clearly audible. Tenors Jorge Navarro-Colorado (Otumbo, an Indian warrior) and Paul Curievici (Ovando, a Spanish officer) made up the fine cast.

The Chelsea Opera Group Chorus could not quite summon the force required to project from the back of the hall over the instrumental forces massed before them. The handmaidens’ chorus in Act 1 was pretty enough, and the soldiers’ chorus which opens Act 1 was, despite being rather stale and hackneyed stuff — sung with energy and vigour. The orchestra was occasionally bombastic in the big numbers, but elsewhere conductor Gianluca Marcianò graded the dynamics sympathetically in the arias (aided by Verdi’s scoring). It took the strings a little while to settle (the overture to Don Giovanni, a tribute to the late Sir Colin Davis, which preceded Alzira was decidedly ragged in ensemble and passagework) but once they found their feet they produced much warmth and richness to complement some excellent woodwind playing. Without undue haste, Marcianò kept things moving; he was a bundle of energy on the podium whose enthusiasm coaxed evident commitment and enjoyment from his players.

One of few Verdi operas where the lovers are both alive and together at the close, this performance proceeded to its happy close and was greeted with much appreciative applause. So, is this an opera deserving of the neglect it has suffered? When, many years after the premiere, Countess Negroni reminded Verdi of the work he reputedly replied: ‘That one is really hideous.’ Clearly memories of the Neapolitans’ snub ran deep. Chelsea Opera Group made a convincing case for an opera which is short, punchy and full of melodic charm. Let’s hope someone ventures a fuller staging before too long.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Majella Cullagh: Alzira; Mario Sofroniou: Zamoro; Mark Holland — Gusmano; Paolo Battaglia: Alvaro; Francisco Javier Borda: Ataliba; Jorge Navarro-Colorado: Otumbo; Liora Grodnikaite: Zuma; Paul Curievici — Ovando; Gianluca Marcianò: conductor; Chelsea Opera Group Chorus and Orchestra. Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, Sunday 2nd June 2013.

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