C Major presents a world première on Blu-ray of Verdi's La Battaglia di Legnano
. It’s part of their Tutto Verdi series which issues all twenty-six of Verdi’s operas, plus his Requiem
. This is to celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of Italy’s most celebrated composer. Two additional titles, Jérusalem
, represent re-writes using some of the original music. The former was derived from I Lombardi
), the composer’s fourth opera and can well be considered a distinct work. Written to a French libretto it follows I Masnadieri
) numbered eleven in this series. The series is available on DVD as well as Blu-ray.
Some claim that Verdi was the inspirational opera composer of the Risorgimento - the fight for Italian unification as a nation in its own right, free from foreign occupation or domination. They claim that operas as early as Nabucco
, premiered in 1842, were vehicles used to rouse Italian nationalism. Recent scholarship has discounted that theory whilst not decrying that later performances did arouse nationalistic response in audiences who clearly identified with the Hebrew slaves in their yearning for their homeland. What is indisputable is that La Battaglia Di Legnano
specifically set out to arouse such feelings of nationalism.
1848 was a year of revolution and political unrest in Europe. In February bloody street fighting in Paris led to the abdication of Louis Philippe, ‘the citizen king’, and the establishment of the Second Empire. In April occupying Austrian troops in Milan fired on a crowd precipitating the building of barricades in the streets and five days of street fighting known as the Cinque giornate
. The Austrians withdrew to defendable fortresses between Verona and Mantua rather than destroy Milan. The states of Parma, Modena and Tuscany drove out their rulers. Venice declared itself once more an independent republic. The Pope escaped from Rome disguised as an ordinary priest. However, it was a false dawn. Internecine squabbles and the defeat of Alberto of Piedmont, who had supported the rebels, allowed the Austrians to pick off each state in turn. A year after the Cinque giornate
the Pope was back in Rome and the Austrians were again in control in northern Italy and would remain so for a further decade.
In April 1848 Verdi had returned to Milan from Paris and saw the gigantic barricades. To give succour to his fellow radicals he composed the hymn Suona la Tromba
and expressed the hope that it would be sung amid the guns on the plain of Lombardy. In reality, by its completion the guns were already silent. Verdi’s prime purpose in returning, and one that was to dominate his future life and actions, including his compositions, was the purchase of the Villa Sant’Agata near Busseto. In due course he set up house there with Giuseppina Strepponi. After completion of this business Verdi returned again to Paris.
Political events in Italy turned Verdi’s mind back to a plea he had received from the poet Giuseppe Giusta, a supporter of the liberal and nationalist political movement, in the immediate aftermath of Macbeth
. Giusta castigated Verdi for immersing himself in subjects unrelated to contemporary political life in Italy. After the staging of Il Corsaro
Verdi began to cast around for a suitable concept. He was still contracted to supply an opera for Naples and the house librettist, Salvatore Cammarano, came up with the suggestion of the 1176 battle of Legnano when the Lombardy League defeated Frederick I Barbarossa. It would, as Cammarano argued, stir every man with an Italian soul. With the historical background not troubling the censors and with accommodation of Verdi’s suggestions, the outcome was a taut melodrama of patriotic sentiments and violent action. The political upheavals of 1848 did however give the censors of Naples second thoughts and Verdi’s contract to present the opera in that city fell by the wayside. In the event his patriotic opera La Battaglia di Legnano
, not for the last time, moved north and was premiered in Rome conducted by the composer.
At the time of the premiere Rome, minus the Pope, was about to declare itself a Republic. The republican leaders Mazzini and Garibaldi had arrived and the city was electric with excitement. On the night of the premiere, the Teatro Argentina was packed out. At the first words of the opening chorus Viva Italia! Sacro un patto tutti stringe I figli suoi
(Long live Italy! A holy pact binds all her sons together. CH.3) there were cries of Viva Verdi
and Viva Italia
. The fourth act, where the news of the triumph of the Lombardy League soldiers was revealed with cries of Vittoria! Vittoria
and the following grand scena, trio and Hymns of Victory,
had to be encored in its entirety at every performance of the season (CH3.37-39). The audience knew full well what they were cheering and it had more relevance than a battle seven hundred years before or the personal circumstances of the relationship of the Milanese leader, Rolando, his wife Lida and the Veronese warrior Arrigo! The cries of Viva Verdi
referred to the acronym for King Victor Emmanuelle, as well as to the composer. The King was seen by Royalists, and eventually Republicans, as a figure to bind a unified country.
La Battaglia di Legnano
received a few performances elsewhere in northern Italy but succumbed to Austrian censorship as they once again took over the region and its states. There were some attempts at revivals with the venue and situation changed. Later, the opera came to be thought of as a pièce d’occasion
and passed into oblivion. As the bonus introduction of this issue tells, the work comes twenty-fifth in the total performances of Verdi’s operas and over fourteen hundredth in performances of operas overall. Opportunities to see a performance of La battaglia di Legnano
are very rare and have never come my way.
What is notable here is that Verdi’s music takes a significant step forward in its construction – this in what is the last of the grandiose operas of his early period. Not only is the grandiosity more focused, but Verdi also shows that he is more easily able than previously to give musical dimension to the personal relationships in the story. These were qualities that were to take a further gigantic step with his next opera Luisa Miller.
This is evident in the intimate duet between Arrigo and Lida (CHs.13-16) whilst the duets of act three between Arrigo and Rolando (CHs.28-31) have many echoes in Verdi’s more mature later works such as La Forza del Destino
and Don Carlos
Knowing the responses of the Rome audiences, and also the vibrancy of the two recordings I have, that on Fonit Cetra (8573 82710-2) and Philips (422 435), I sat back and waited to be emotionally stirred as I am every time I hear Nabucco
and I Lombardi
for example. It just did not happen. Nor did it for the audience in the Trieste theatre named after the composer, the applause being tepid to say the least. I attribute much of this to the conductor Boris Brott whose CV includes having served as Assistant Conductor to the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein, and Music Director and Conductor for the Royal Ballet. His tempi are flaccid with a general lack of vibrancy, dynamic or forward thrust. Nor does the insipid singing of the chorus enhance the performance. Their motley costumes, with gabardines and trilby hats predominating for the men look like the products of a jumble sale. Some of the women wear what I think were called snoods. They and the calf length skirts date this motley garb at around the nineteen-fifties. The sets are skeletal and incomprehensible in respect of the plot, with an artist working on paintings, including one of a woman with one capacious breast bared, or on a representational lattice cross. At least the male principals carry swords not armalite rifles or pistols - one has to be thankful for small mercies.
I am also thankful that the solo singing, particularly of the principal men, is distinctly better than the setting or orchestral support. As Arrigo, the soldier Lida believed dead, American tenor Andrew Richards certainly has the figure du part
. Tall and slender, his tenor has adequate heft, albeit his singing would benefit from more variation of colour and even of dynamic at times. Nonetheless he has good diction and conveys the character of Arrigo well. I would be very happy to meet him in a live production; his strong singing and acted interaction with colleagues are big pluses in this otherwise characterless set (CHs.4-5 and in duet). As his friend Rolando, who at first feels betrayed when Arrigo’s love for Lida is revealed, the Argentine baritone Leonardo López Linares sings with strong virile tone. His variety of vocal colour and variation in dynamic add to his acted characterisation. The duets between these two male principals, particularly that in act three are vocal highlights (CHs.28-31). As the woman who has married Rolando believing Arrigo, her lover, was killed on the battlefield, Dimitra Theodossiou’s strong voice and committed acting have their virtues. However, time has taken its toll on her singing. She looks rather matronly and her singing, whilst having a variety of colour, cannot be said to be ideally steady, her legato line is distinctly wanting at times (CHs.10-11). As Federico Barbarossa Enrico Giuseppe Iori is adequate in his brief scene (CHs.21-22) as is the acting and portrayal in all the minor roles.
My colleague reports on performances of the same production in Rome in 2011 that elicited something of the spirit and audience response I had hoped for and expected here (see review
). This performance is a disappointment and no advert for the strong virtues of the work. It would have received something approaching its due with a more imaginative staging alongside the vibrant chorus of the Teatro Regio in Parma where many of this series have been recorded.
None of the set, orchestra or chorus do justice to this opera. I know from audio recordings that this work has so much more vitality than is revealed here.
Robert J Farr