Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Project Verdi

It's a year of anniversaries. Two hundred years of Verdi and Wagner. One hundred years of Britten. One hundred years since The Rite of Spring. Peter Cushing, the gentleman of horror, would have been 100 on May 26th. Doctor Who is 50.

There was, I thought, a little side-Project in one of these. There's something about the nature of anniversaries which appeals to me in a very blokey way. A sense of completeness, of ticking things off.. Which to choose though?

Strangely, Wagner was the obvious one to decide against. Now, I bow to no-one in my admiration for The Master of Bayreuth. I have more recordings than is sensible. I spent my fortieth birthday watching Gergiev conducting The Ring. I have been fortunate enough to go to Bayreuth. I have been known to refer to him as The Master, which is possibly going a bit far. But for precisely these reasons, a Wagner Project seems unnecessary. Yes, it would be fun to listen to every work in chronological order, but I've done that in the past and will do so again. Quixotically, a Wagner-light year might be a good break.

I actually started trying to watch every episode of Doctor Who, but by the end of February I'd not even reached the end of William Hartnell's first year. The remaining 30-odd seasons wouldn't leave much time for other things. Like sleeping. Or eating. Not without a certain amount of regret, I abandoned the idea.

Every Cushing movie and surviving TV appearance, then? The trouble is that, even in these days of nearly everything being on YouTube, I didn't want to get halfway through and find that there were recordings I just couldn't get hold of. And, let's be honest, I probably don't need to see Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires again.

That left Britten and Verdi. Well, of the two, I suspect I might find a year working through Britten to be the more interesting. But, crucially, there are huge swathes of Verdi that are completely unknown to me. Now some of what I've heard is fantastic (Don Carlo, Simon Boccanegra) and some leaves me a bit cold (never managed to understand all the fuss about Falstaff). But it's a big old gap in my musical education that needs to be filled, and, besides, we're in Italy.

So Project Verdi it is then. Every opera, in order, by the end of the year; and hopefully the Requiem and the Quattro Sacri Pezzi as well. Why am I blogging this? For the simple reason that I'll give up if I don't write about it.

So here we go. Verdi's first opera, Oberto, Conte di Bonifaccio

The recording I used is Sir Neville Marriner's with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields; with Samuel Ramey, Maria Guleghina, Violetta Urmana, and Stuart Neill.

Leonora, daughter of Count Oberto, has been seduced by Riccardo; soon to marry Cuniza, the sister of Oberto's great enemy Ezzelino. Oberto swears terrible vengeance, but Riccardo kills him in a duel. Cuniza is broken-hearted. Riccardo realises he has done a great wrong and goes into exile, leaving all he possesses to Leonora, who renounces it all in order to become a hermit. There's no happy ending to speak of.

Verdi was in his mid-20s when he started work on Oberto, and it took him nearly four years to complete. It was first performed at La Scala on 17th November 1839 and met with a modest amount of success.

Oberto rarely gets a run-out these days, which seems a bit of a shame as it's actually rather good. What's surprising, perhaps, is how instantly Verdian it all sounds. It took Wagner three operas to find his voice, but Verdi seems to have known what he wanted right from the great opening four chords of the overture. There are plenty of good tunes and shouty choruses; although it's not short of a bit of note-spinning, or what I like to call "going to the shops" arias. It's a bit insubstantial perhaps, but not short of rousing moments. Very enjoyable, and worth checking out. A good start to the Project.

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