Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Oberto: A mystery that the Chelsea Opera Group delights in revealing

3 April 2022

The earliest of Verdi’s operas enjoys a rare outing at Cadogan Hall.   

Anush Hovhannisyan

Anush Hovhannisyan (Photo: Jane Hoban)

Verdi’s first opera Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio, which premiered at La Scala in 1839, retains a certain air of mystery. The Italian libretto was written by Temisticole Solera (who was also responsible for Nabucco), and was based on an existing libretto by Antonio Piazza that was probably called Rocester. That much seems clear but, as Dr Bruno Bower explained in a highly informative pre-concert talk, there is much evidence to suggest that Verdi actually wrote an opera entitled Rocester first. What we do not know is if Oberto is essentially Rocester only with an Italian setting, an adaptation in some way of that work or a completely different creation, although the last of those three options seems the least likely.

It is easy to forget today that operas that were set at a specific point in the past, but not ancient times, were still rare when Oberto premiered. In this respect, the piece might be seen as responding to a trend set by such works as Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux in that they are all based on real events, but play fast and loose with historical facts in order to create an emotional and compelling story.

Set in Bassano in Northern Italy in 1228, it sees Riccardo, Count of San Salinguerra, attempt to marry Cuniza, sister of Ezzelino da Romano, who has recently been victorious in battle. Riccardo had previously seduced and then abandoned Leonora, who is the daughter of Oberto, Count of San Boniface, who Ezzelino has just defeated. When the two women manage to speak with each other, Cuniza takes Leonora’s side and moves to insist that Riccardo admit his infidelity and return to his former love. Oberto, however, is still bent on vengeance for the insult dealt to his daughter, and extracts an agreement from Riccardo that they will meet in the woods. In the subsequent duel, which is not seen but can be heard offstage, Riccardo kills Oberto, prompting the remorseful ‘victor’ to go into exile. In a letter that he sends, he leaves all of his possessions to Leonora, who concludes that with her father dead and all hope gone the only option left is to enter a convent.

Listening to the score for the first time, it is possible to hear traces of many of Verdi’s later works, and musicologists who have studied it closely have come up with some highly interesting and often diverse views on what exactly can be found within it. It has even been suggested that the seeds of elements to Falstaff, written over fifty years later, are detectable. Judged on its own terms, however, it is easy to see why contemporary critical reactions to the piece were quite mixed.

“…it is possible to hear traces of many of Verdi’s later works…”

Nevertheless, while the score does have its more prosaic and pedestrian moments, the writing for several wind instruments is far more sophisticated than that to be found in most opera scores of the period, while the brilliance of many sections shines through. For example, Act II begins with a sensitive women’s chorus before Cuniza sings the beautiful aria ‘Oh, chi torna l’ardente pensiero’. The quartet that is an undoubted highlight of the second half sees the exquisite soprano line seemingly rise above the ‘throng’ in an extremely effective fashion. The highly emotive ending is also interesting as it only involves the three female principals, since the two male characters are either dead or have gone into exile by this point.

The Chelsea Opera Group’s concert performance saw some excellent conducting from Matthew Scott Rogers. He elicited a beautifully rounded, balanced and precise sound from an orchestra that put sufficient energy into the playing while still allowing all of the lines to be delineated clearly. The chorus played its part to the full, while the soloists delivered some highly committed and memorable performances. Anush Hovhannisyan was an extremely accomplished Leonora, with her soprano being notably rich, powerful and full when required, but also capable of delivering a very clean and sweet line that could rise above anything else going on around.

As Riccardo, tenor Peter Auty may have initially seemed more comfortable in his lower than his upper register, but he delivered a highly impassioned performance across the evening, while as Oberto Stephan Loges revealed an exceptionally warm and assertive bass-baritone. As Cuniza, Carolyn Dobbin’s mezzo-soprano was both secure and vibrant, while the only problem with Eirlys Myfanwy Davies’ Imelda was that the part of Cuniza’s confidante is not a bigger one, meaning we did not get to hear more of her highly persuasive mezzo-soprano.

The Chelsea Opera Group will perform Giordano’s Andrea Chénier on 29 May at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice on 29 October at Cadogan Hall. For further details of all of the company’s future events visit its website.

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Oberto: A mystery that the Chelsea Opera Group delights in revealing