Verdi Champions Chorus Case For His Early Operas

Verdi's 'Jérusalem' demonstrated his early flair for choral writing. (Sarasota Opera)
Verdi’s ‘Jérusalem’ and other early operas exhibited a pronounced flair for choral writing. (Rod Millington-Sarasota Opera)
By Lawrence B. Johnson

SARASOTA, Fla. – The early operas of Giuseppe Verdi, though largely unknown to North American audiences because opera houses tend to view them as a risk rather than an opportunity, in fact hold a wealth of rewards for anyone who takes the pains to stage or hear them.

That message, illustrated by Sarasota Opera’s current production of Jérusalem, also was underscored by Verdi champions who participated in a related symposium at the opera house on March 8.

Victor DeRenzi, artistic director, Sarasota Opera
Sarasota artistic director DeRenzi: “Each early opera is distinctive.”

“The early Verdi operas are not just one big clump” of formative efforts that would lead finally to the creditable likes of Il trovatore and La traviata, said conductor Victor DeRenzi, who for 32 years has served as artistic director of Sarasota Opera and over that time has shepherded the systematic revival of most of Verdi’s works – not just the composer’s operas, but everything he wrote from songs to his sole string quartet. In 2016, DeRenzi and company will complete their prodigious journey.

DeRenzi is not generalizing when he talks about the imagination, skill, and originality of Verdi operas most of us know only by name. With a couple of exceptions remaining to be checked off his to-do list, he has resurrected them all from score to stage. “Each one is distinctive,” he said, “whether it’s I Lombardi (alla prima crociata, 1843, on which Jérusalem, 1847, is based) or Aroldo or Nabucco.

“But the prejudice against early Verdi is still there, the mindset that if you do Traviata, you will sell tickets while the lesser known operas represent risk. We have shown that is not the case.”

Pier Luigi Pizzi designed costume for Renata Scotto as Giselda in I Lombardi alla prima crociata (Samuel Lowry)
On display, a Rome Opera gown for Renata Scotto by Pier Luigi Pizzi.

Joining DeRenzi on the panel were Martha Collins, stage director of Sarasota’s Jérusalem;  Verdi scholar Francesco Izzo, co-director of the American Institute for Verdi Studies at New York University; Francesco Reggiani, director of historical archives at the Rome Opera; and Alessandra Malusardi, co-presenter with him of an exhibit of costumes drawn from a century of Verdi performances in Rome – including a lavish robe designed by Pier Luigi Pizzi for soprano Renata Scotto in a 1969 production of I Lombardi.

The process of actually mounting the obscure as well as the familiar Verdi operas, said DeRenzi, has been an illuminating experience for everyone involved: “You can read the scores and the texts for works like Oberto and Il corsaro, but they only become profound when they’re brought to the stage. Until you see these works, you haven’t experienced them. There are so many beautiful moments in Jérusalem that come to life on the stage.” The luminous pilgrims’ chorus in Act II made DeRenzi’s point.

Still, the narrative progress of Jérusalem, which Verdi fashioned for Paris from the materials of I Lombardi, confronts a stage director with a challenge as the action bounds from Toulouse to the desert expanses of the Holy Land. Stage director Collins acknowledged the importance of telling “a story that makes sense. You need to get into the soul and the emotions of these people and create something that is compelling both musically and dramatically.”

Verdi scholar Francesco Izzo
Scholar Francesco Izzo: “Some called Verdi the Attila of the voice.”

Collins well might have been thinking of Sarasota’s other Verdi offering this season – Il trovatore, whose challenge to the suspension of disbelief is everlasting. Verdi’s often losing battle with librettists is legendary, and the remote Jérusalem proved to be no more problematic than the ubiquitous Trovatore. What lifts both operas to the same elevated plane of appeal, observed scholar Izzo, is the music – already highly developed and personalized in Jérusalem.

“There is a quality in Verdi’s operas that speaks directly to the human heart, and not just in late works like Otello, Aïda and Falstaff, but also in early operas like Oberto, Alzira and Corsaro,” Izzo said in a later conversation. “I think that quality was in Verdi’s nature. He came from the country, and he was attached to the land. If Verdi today were to take a selfie, it would be with tools in his hand.”

Just as Verdi was connected to the soil, Izzo said, he also had his feet firmly planted in his musical heritage, in the bel canto tradition of Donizetti and Rossini. “He was not a radical transformer, but rather he had a creative imagination that observed and adapted. What he demonstrated very early was a flair for writing great choruses. In Oberto (Verdi’s first opera) and Un giorno di regno (King for a Day), you find robust, rousing choruses.  And you can trace that line right up through Nabucco with ‘Va, pensiero,’ of course,  Attila, Macbeth – all the way to Otello.”  (Not to forget the Anvil Chorus in Il trovatore.)

Bass Jeffrey Beruan as the Papal Legate in Verdi's Jérusalem (Rod Millington)
Izzo: “The music of ‘Jérusalem’ is already highly personalized.”

“Verdi came to be known as the father of the chorus. There was at the same time the perception that he was pushing the limits of bel canto, and some referred to him as the Attila of the voice.”

Izzo dismissed a strain of traditional criticism that belittles Verdi’s orchestral writing. From the start, he said, Verdi displayed a keen ear for the orchestra, for accompaniment and for dramatic effect, and he knew just how to get what he wanted.

“He was never interested in the orchestra dominating, but he paid great attention to orchestral color. One of the finest examples is Zaccaria’s prayer in Nabucco, which is accompanied by six celli alone. Even very early his sense of the orchestral palette was highly individual.”

Sarasota Opera’s season, including productions of Jérusalem, The Barber of Seville, and Il trovatore, runs through Mar. 22.

Sarasota Roundup: Read more from critics at events surrounding the Sarasota Opera’s Verdi fest.

Lawrence B. Johnson is editor of the performing arts web magazine  Chicago On the Aisle.

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