Verdi's first opera, written when he was 26 years old, might lack the musical sophistication and dramatic characterisation of his late masterpieces, but Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio was good enough to open at La Scala in Milan in 1839, where it enjoyed a modest success, and it's a prototypical full-blooded early Verdi work that already has many of the elements that we associate with the composer. Oberto sticks closely to the established format and subject matter of the 19th century Italian number opera, but Verdi's dramatic flair, his ability to underscore those key moments with the most stirring and passionate arrangements is evident nonetheless and those qualities are brought out exceptionally well this production.
There's not a lot of dramatic action as such. Much of the important events have already taken place before the opera even begins, leaving the principal characters involved to fume their displeasure and deep feelings of love, betrayal, anger and desires for revenge through a series of cavatinas and cabalettas. It's pretty standard plotting for the most part, the drama driven by a series of arias/cabalettas, but Verdi brilliantly whips this up into something utterly compelling by adding trios, quartets and choruses to create an explosive atmosphere in manner that makes it impossible not to get swept along.
Recorded in the small, intimate surroundings of the Teatro Verdi di Busseto, this 2007 production settles for a relatively traditional setting that has an appropriately theatrical feel to it. There's nothing too ambitious attempted, the costumes are theatrically period, the sets are confined to backdrops, with minimal use of props and the stage - small as it is - left clear and open for the singers to step forward and let fly. In the absence of any real dramatic interaction, the director Pier' Alli merely gets the performers to stand looking out, look sincere, strike a few dramatic poses and make some curious sweeps of the arms and hand gestures. The presumption - a big one possibly for what is after all Verdi's first opera - is that the music and singing alone will be enough to carry the full force of the work. Fortunately, this turns out to be a not altogether unreasonable assumption.
The singing is generally good, but in such a stripped down production and with the musical arrangements as they are, there's nowhere to hide any weaknesses. There are no concerns at all however with the male tenor and baritone roles. Fabio Sartori gives a gutsy performance as Riccardo, pitching his performance perfectly for the tone of the work and the scale of the theatre, while Giovanni Battista Parodi's Oberto is similarly well-judged, striking the right note as the outraged father looking to restore his dignity without taking it overboard. Mariana Pentcheva also gives a performance of dramatic intensity as the deceived bride-to-be Cuniza, and it's only Francesca Sassu's Leonora that shows any real weakness in the line-up, the soprano unable to bring any depth or drama to the lower end in her opening cavatina, but also fails to hold her own in her Act I duet with Parodi.
When fully supported however, as the opera gathers pace with Verdi works up the musical drama and lightning effects are thrown in for good measure, the qualities of the work and the production become clear. The trio at the revelation of Riccardo's betrayal - resounding with Oberto, Leonora and Cuniza cries of 'traditor!' - is the highlight of Act I, Verdi following it up impressively with a powerful finale, while Act II's quartet has much the same impact, achieving the full Verdi effect. The chorus have an important part to play in this, and do so marvellously, but the main part of the success of this production rests on the driven performance of the orchestra as conducted by Antonello Allemandi that is nicely attuned to the rhythms and dynamic of the work. The sound quality on the Blu-ray disc is simply outstanding. Every instrument is crystal clear, highlighting just how good an account of the work this is.
Released on Blu-ray by C-Major, the image quality every bit as good as the HD sound mixes, Oberto is the first of a series of performances recorded at the Teatro Regio di Parma that will form part of a complete Verdi collection, 'Tutto Verdi', released to coincide with the composer's bicentenary in 2013. Some trailers for other works in the collection are included on the disc, as well as a visual introduction/synopsis for Oberto. The Blu-ray is all-region, with subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Japanese.