on 19 November 2014
Five stars here for the performance -- the opera was Verdi's first, and for a production of a 25 or 26-year-old, it works pretty darned well. There's no doubt in my mind that with a good quartet of singers, it could be very effectively staged. There are places where the vocal writing is reminiscent of Bellini and Donizetti, but in the ways that the ensembles are set up, and in some of the choruses, we hear something distinctive, even if not yet totally memorable. The plot is odd: Riccardo has seduced and abandoned Leonora, the daughter of Oberto, his family's enemy, and he's now seeking to marry Cuniza, who knows nothing about the earlier attachment and betrayal. Oberto and Leonora separately are heading to interrupt the wedding -- Leonora to try to win back Riccardo's love and Oberto to kill him in revenge for the stain on his family's honor. When they get to the court and apprize Cuniza of Riccardo's past, she is appalled and generously insists on renouncing Riccardo and insisting on his marrying Leonora. This isn't good enough for old Oberto, one of Verdi's old bass implacables, like Silva in "Ernani." He's happy to go along with Cuniza's plan because it will give him the opportunity to insult Riccardo and force him into a duel. Riccardo, on being confronted, shows remorse and is willing to accept Cuniza's terms. Oberto, however, provokes the duel, which takes place offstage. Oberto is killed, Riccardo exiles himself, leaving Leonora distraught and comforted by Cuniza. The overall effect is of remarkably generous and forgiving women, and men who seem destructively bound to a code of so-called honour.
Sir Neville Marinner conducts the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields (who knew!!!), and does so with a nice feel for the melancholy atmosphere of the piece. The Philips engineers' sound, (1996 digital) does the orchestra justice. The singers are superb -- they seem fully committed to the drama and sing most expressively. The tenor Stuart Neill and the soprano Maria Guleghina can sound a little raw at times, but the voices are fairly closely recorded, so allowances can be made. They sing securely, phrase sensitively, and rise well to the climaxes. With Samuel Ramey as Oberto and Violeta Urmana as Cuniza we have two exceptional voices, and they sing wonderfully well -- but Guleghina and Neill aren't far behind. To sample, try Cuniza's opening scene in Act 2, including the lovely opening chorus, and for Riccardo's remorse, hear Neill in "Ciel, che feci . . . Dio pietoso, Dio clemente," his aria after he has killed Oberto -- it really could hardly be better sung.
This recording is much better than the Bergonzi/Panerai version on Orfeo, recorded when both singers were well past their best, though it's worth hearing Riccardo's remorse scene sung by Bergonzi in his 1974 set of Verdi Tenor Arias -- there you have the extra degree of refinement and tonal allure that Neill doesn't quite match, but barring a direct comparison, you wouldn't know that. I don't know Neill's other work, but if there were nothing else, we should be grateful to him for this fine assumption. Oberto is an old man, and the other characters are the younger generation. On this recording, Ramey was 54, and the other singers in their mid-30's. Ramey sounds just fine -- the greatest American bass in another distinguished performance.