A bit of East End bovver: UC Opera stages I Lombardi

Verdi: I Lombardi alla prima crociata 

UC Opera, Bloomsbury Theatre, 18th March 2013

Pole-dancing in early Verdi? Things are clearly looking up in the world of Regietheater! A red telephone box parked stage right in University College Opera’s annual production indicated that this wasn’t going to be your traditional I Lombardi alla prima crociata, Verdi’s fourth opera. In fact, strike the ‘alla prima crociata’. For reasons expounded by both director and producer in the programme, the Lombards weren’t launching a religious crusade in Jerusalem in this production, but were instead involved in a spot of 1960s East End gang warfare, with the fraternally fractured clan less Lombards, more Kray twins. Pagano, having knifed his pa instead of brother Arvino, turns into a hippy peace warrior residing beneath a railway arch. And the infidel enemy which has captured his niece, Giselda? Well, she’s been kidnapped by a gang running a lap-dancing club. Roll over, Giuseppe.

A key reason cited for not presenting the opera in Verdi’s original context was the reluctance to offend religious groups. There are many good reasons for updating operatic plots; this is dubious and if such political correctness were applied to the entire operatic canon, I can think of a number of works which would never see the light of day again. Indeed, there’s an argument for placing a work such as Lombardi in the contemporary Middle East; political crusades in the Holy Land and the conflict they bring surely have a greater relevance today than religious ones in the mid-nineteenth century. A 1960s setting is far enough removed from 2013 as to lack meaningful resonance with the audience.

Jamie Hayes describes how they were seeking to replace the Lombards and Muslims with a ‘warring houses scenario’. The Montagues and Capulets gain an honourable programme mention and in the T-shirted gang holding Giselda captive, there are hints of West Side Story. Indeed, Act I works rather well, with Pagano reunited with his gangster clan, but secretly intent on doing away with Arvino, who’s just been appointed to Godfather status by their dad. However, Hayes’ argument that adopting a different scenario gives the audience a better understanding of the original story fails to hold water beyond Act I, when it’s not made clear what the issue is between the two warring gangs. Religion is never at stake, which makes Hippy Pagano’s peddling of the cross irrelevant.

There were moments which made me smile, although whether the humour was intentional is debatable. In Act I, the chorus prepare fire bombs which one henchman ‘lights’ only to stand around for Pagano’s cabaletta (surely never a good move), while the Hippy’s solution to water from the Jordan with which to baptize the dying Oronte is to administer a swift injection, ensuring he enters the afterlife (which turns out to be a balcony in the Bloomsbury Theatre) in some sort of delirium against a white backcloth.

Despite cavils about the appropriateness of the updating, the performance was massively enjoyable and done with the sort of relish rarely witnessed. Scene changes are swiftly managed thanks to Will Bowen’s strong, simple designs.

Casting was strong. Giselda is a difficult role to fill and ideally you need a soprano with plenty of years singing Verdi under her belt before even attempting it – sopranos like Dimitra Theodossiou or Lyudmila Monastyrska spring to mind. Katherine Blumenthal is more of a Gilda, to be fair, so was stretched by some of the demands Verdi cruelly places on his leading lady, but the top to her voice is pretty and agile and she threw herself into the cabalettas quite fearlessly. A bright future beckons.

Much of the dramatic weight of the opera rests on the shoulders of Pagano, one of Verdi’s most satisfying early bass roles. John Mackenzie sang his “Sciagurata! hai tu creduto” aria well, while his cabaletta “O speranza di vendetta” was delivered with malevolence. Pagano conversion from bad guy to repentant hermit is a difficult one to bring off, not helped by the production, but Mackenzie’s contribution to the magnificent trio at the end of Act III (the opera’s most famous number in the early days of the gramophone) was rock solid.

Perhaps one of the reasons I Lombardi doesn’t get much of an outing is the requirement for two leading tenors. UCO came up trumps here with two tenors very different in timbre but both making excellent contributions. Arvino was sung by the experienced Jeff Stewart, bringing dramatic tension to the role, while Adam Smith’s gleaming tone was perfect for Oronte, the youngster from the opposing gang with whom Giselda falls in love. His Act II aria, the delightful “La mia letizia infondere” was all the more impressive given the competing distractions caused by Annie Miles’ athletic gyrating. (Pole-dancing was apparently part of the Met’s recent Rigoletto. Perhaps it’ll catch on…)

Sally Harrison made one regret that Verdi didn’t write more for Viclinda, Arvino’s wife but object of Pagano’s passion. Smaller roles were enthusiastically taken.

Verdi’s choral writing is daring and plays a big role in the opera. The student chorus, although profligate in English consonants and understandably unable to pack the weight of an adult professional choir, nevertheless impressed with its sheer commitment. The chorus “O signore, dal tetto natio” was hugely popular with the Milan audience at the 1843 premiere where it aroused the same sort of storm of political approval that the ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ did in Nabucco the year before. Here, it was presented simply, facing out into the audience, and sung with sincerity. Goosebumps. You couldn’t ask for more.

In the pit, Charles Peebles set very decent tempi and his orchestra responded brilliantly. They were at their best in the rabble-rousing choruses and bandas which proliferate Verdi’s score – music-making of the toe-tapping, infectious kind. Letitia Lee contributed an excellent violin solo in the concertante Act III prelude, mimed on stage as a street fiddler. It’s Verdi’s attempt at Paganini and is an excellent pastiche.

Ultimately, to see a student performance of young people singing and playing Verdi with such gusto is heart-warming and as moving a tribute as you’re likely to encounter at any of our opera houses this year.

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