After treating us to Wagner’s first opera, Die Feen (1833), in March, the Chelsea Opera Group returned to the Southbank Centre to present the eighth, and almost as rarely performed, opera of Verdi, whose bicentenary also falls this year.
Alzira (1845), set in sixteenth century Peru, pits the native tribes against their Spanish conquerors. The Inca Zamoro begins by mercifully releasing the Spanish Governor Alvaro (although he does not realise who he is), but then, upon learning that his lover Alzira and her father Ataliba are being held prisoner in Lima, incites the tribes to rebel.
After the pair are subsequently released, a peace is agreed in return for Alvaro’s son Gusmano (now succeeding him as Governor) marrying Alzira, but Alzira’s refusal to accept this outcome ultimately leads to further fighting. Zamoro finally slays Gusmano at his wedding, but, with his dying words, the latter proves honourable by citing the example of his ( Christian) God and forgiving his killer.
Although in this instance even the opera’s subject matter was chosen by its librettist Salvatore Cammarano, all of the typically Verdian themes are there, such as the conflict between private and pubic responsibility. Alzira cannot comprehend marrying the man whom (at the time she believes) killed her lover, while Ataliba argues it is her duty to make this sacrifice to secure privileges for her people. The parallels with Aida and Amonasro a quarter of a century later are obvious.
The piece also sounds Verdian in every way, but unusually it lasts only two hours, even with an interval. The consequence is that all of the power and emotion we are normally subjected to over three or four hours feel as if they are thrown at us in half the time, and the resulting experience proves both overwhelming and hugely enjoyable.
The Chelsea Opera Group, under the baton of Gianluca Marcianò, proved perfectly suited to embracing this tour de force while the line-up of soloists was strong. The standout performance came from Majella Cullagh as Alzira, who in the dreamy and emotional aria ‘Da Gusman il fragil barco’ brought a truly spiritual dimension to her singing. As Zamoro, Mario Sofroniou’s expansive tenor voice was made all the more engaging by being possessed of some weight. As Gusmano, Mark Holland brought great clarity to his rich and secure baritone sound, and no-one in the entire cast came across as weak.
All of this begs the question, why is Alzira so rarely performed? It has attracted some interest since the 1960s, but may still be recovering from an unenthusiastic initial reception after which even Verdi dismissed the work as impossible to remedy. I suspect, however, that the reluctance of artistic directors to take it on today is simply an unwillingness to risk staging a work by the composer that, at two hours, might be dismissed as slender and slight. This seems the most logical explanation at least, because the quality of some of the arias would certainly justify a fully staged production.
The evening was dedicated to Sir Colin Davis, whose long association with the Chelsea Opera Group included conducting their very first performance in 1950. That was of Don Giovanni, and so it was a fitting way to honour his memory by preceding the Verdi with a rendition of its iconic Overture.
Further details of Queen Elizabeth Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk.