Giuseppe Verdi: Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio (1839)

Opera in 2 Acts (Running Time: 2 hours 29 minutes, including supplements).

Oberto is a very interesting piece, it was Verdi’s first opera, and although not to the level of most of his later works, it is hardly within his bottom ten either. The plot is a bit silly, but the music demonstrates real inspiration and originality, at least I think so. The recording reviewed here is from 1997 with Samuel Ramey in the title role with Maria Guleghina as Leonora, Stuart Neill as Riccardo, and Violeta Urmana as Cuniza.

PLOT: Count Oberto’s daughter Leonora has been seduced and abandoned by her lover, Count Riccardo, because the latter man is marrying Cuniza, sister of Ezzelino da Romano. One of these men will not be alive at the end of the opera, but I won’t tell you which one yet….

Act 1 (70 minutes)

0: The overture *, starts out with a dramatic tragic explosion, then goes soft with a lovely woodwind (oboe)/string ensemble, watch the brass. Then some standard bel canto-era orchestral flight which will become a sort of leitmotif later in act 2; it dies away and then back to the oboe. Watch for the last minute climax, it is classic early Verdi.

Scene 1: Rural countryside near Bassano, northwest of Venice. (31 minutes)

6: Starts with a totally new flute melody, brass working underneath. The chorus, is sparkling * with bells and flute with trumpet in the background. Then we have the trumpet become paramount in the second half and a little more militancy from the chorus. Peace is to come to the land as Riccardo arrives for his wedding to Cuniza.

9: Riccardo’s aria, a bit stronger than what one might have suspected. The first part is rather Bellini as he sings to choral repeats of the joy of love and is more * but the second part is a rather fetching tenor aria **, the precursor of many tenor arias to come, this one about crushing his enemies. Watch for the hight note at the end and the orchestral banging surprise after it seemingly died away.

14:  The remainder of the scene is occupied by a long aria for Leonora ** and then an even longer duet between her and her father Oberto. The aria fills us in on how she was Riccardo’s fiancee, and now he has dumped her for this peace treaty marriage with the sister of Ezzelino (note: who we never meet in the opera). Around four minutes in the accompaniment is very touching, but most of the melody is in Leonora’s vocal line, and it is rather nice. The last two and a half minutes are a more upbeat melody taken more so by the orchestra, watch for the coloratura bits.

22: The duet starts with woodwinds and strings, almost dancing off into an interesting chromatic melody that never comes to life.  This is at first recitative, and actually Oberto is alone at first, but it has a life to it that one would not expect. Leonora returns and they recognize each other.  Oberto has been brought back from self-imposed by his sister (we never meet her either), and has discovered that Leonora has dishonoured him by her actions (namely her seduction by Riccardo). He can only forgive her if this dishonour is extinguished so she decides to crash the wedding and confront Riccardo for his crime against her. This isn’t exactly the father-daughter relationship we will find in Rigoletto, more like Aida, as honour seems to be more important than the parent-child bond here. There is one other element that I forgot, Oberto is the sworn enemy of Ezzelino, and would probably be killed if discovered in his castle, so what Leonora is planning could cost Oberto his life. The number is sort of all over the place, and there is no constant melody, just a series of start-stop mini-numbers which are agreeable and some like the first recitative for Oberto are good but never awe-inspiring * although watch out for the last minute or so. Interesting fun fact: the original Oberto and Leonora were a husband-wife team and the bass was a week shy of his 28th birthday!

Scene 2: Inside the castle, Bassano. (33 minutes)

36: The longest number in the opera is followed by its shortest, a chorus praising the beauty of the bride Cuniza **. The melody sounds something like a tune from the 1936 film “Lloyd’s of London” but never becomes that.

39: We meet Cuniza *, who is sad because of a premonition that someone in her life (or that she is about to meet is incredibly sad). Riccardo tries to dissuade her notion. What is very interesting is how limited Cuniza’s vocal range is, this is because the role was written for a mezzo-soprano/contralto who had a rather limited range. This means that most of the really melodic music here goes to Riccardo **.

47: A lot of plotting takes place now in recitative. Leonora gains access to Imelda, Cuniza’s confidante and tells her that she has to speak with her mistress. Leonora announces herself to Cuniza and reveals that Oberto is also lurking about, he comes out of hiding and and the two reveal (in a trio) what has transpired to Cuniza, who takes their side as she herself has also been betrayed by Riccardo because he has kept this from her **. The two women hide Oberto in the next room. This is the best and strongest number so far in the opera, but not quite three stars. Watch out for the last 90 seconds.

61: The 8 minute finale **. Cuniza calls in her friends, Riccardo sees Leonora and panics, accusing her of being the one that was faithless and Oberto bursts into the room and challenges him. At first this is all just recitative but then about three minutes in it turns into something very different, a delicate (when it feels like it should be more powerful) ensemble ensues for about 90 seconds followed in the last three minutes by the finale melody taken up first by Riccardo and then the women. It is really very good, but also too happy, or at least not tragic enough, and it never completely satisfies although it is still good.

Act 2 (Running Time: 54.5 minutes)

Scene 1: Cuniza’s apartment. (10 minutes)

0: The introduction starts on low menacing strings rising and then blossoming into a lovely female chorus **.

4: Imelda tells Cuniza that Riccardo wishes to speak to her. Cuniza has already decided that he must return to Leonora and expresses this in an aria with her ladies chorus in the background which makes us start to think: whose opera is this? **.

Scene 2: The castle gardens. (44.5 minutes)

10: The low menacing strings again, this time crescendoing into orchestral fear and then a more bouncy bit then a fade out. Male chorus follows **, very bel canto, and not as charming as the female chorus in the previous scene, but it has greater dramatic power.

14: A melody from the overture comes back briefly. Oberto waits for Riccardo because he has challenged him to a duel. The male chorus arrives to tell Oberto that he has been pardoned by Ezzelino, but he still wants revenge. This is interesting, the chorus briefly acts as a character on its own! Oberto finishes off this number with vows of revenge. It is a rather good bass aria **.

21: Riccardo arrives. He doesn’t want to fight Oberto because he is too old. Cuniza arrives to stop the duel and that Riccardo marry Leonora. Then Riccardo goes off into a really nice melody which dies in its tracks when Leonora accepts the situation (gladly) and we are in a quartet **.  There is a trace of the Muslim prayer in Act 2 Scene 2 of Il Corsaro if you watch for it around five minutes in from both Cuniza and Oberto’s vocal lines. Oberto tells Riccardo to accept, but they will duel later in the forest. Leonora bombs out on the marriage proposal with joy and then all four of them go off as the orchestra crescendos, watch out for the last 70 seconds where this really flies. This along with the trio in act 1 are the first breaths of the Verdi we will know later.

33: The male chorus of knights doesn’t buy this peace between Oberto and Riccardo **. They are proven right by the sound of duelling and a return of that theme from the overture (Is this a pre-Wagnerian leitmotif? Did Verdi actually invent it?, this is 1839 after all!)

36:  Riccardo comes on, greatly regretting that he has just killed Oberto in the duel ***, there is some about this number that is very different from the numbers before it. There is a sort of adult terror about it. It is really emotional and miles away from the frilly number Riccardo sang in act 1 scene 1. And yes, I do get the irony that his two arias frame off the first and last numbers in the opera from the rest of the work and they demonstrate a massive development. Also, this number made me cry.

40: The long finale, 14 and a half minutes, is pure drama throughout ***. Scored for just the three women soloists and the chorus (male/female), the male principals now of course being dead or gone in some other way. Cuniza is informed by the knights that Leonora has just witnessed Riccardo killing her father. Death settles upon the music rather effectively as she is brought in. Cuniza tries to comfort her. Leonora bombs out (again?) this time in despair, she blames herself for her father’s death. Then the five minute play out as the mute messenger arrives with the letter from Riccardo (read by Cuniza). He has fled the country, left his estate to Leonora to do as she wishes, and asks her to forgive him. Leonora has (almost) lost her mind at this point and in the finale three minutes decides to enter a convent and collapses as she and the other two women and the chorus and orchestra crescendo, die down and bang it out two more times.

Appendix (!) (24.5 minutes)

This is an interesting little treat, three (3) numbers that were added to various revisions of the original opera written in the early 1840s, all of which expand the role of Cuniza. 

Appendix 1: Alternate N.11 Scena e Duetto per Cuniza e Leonora: Leonora confirms to Cuniza that Riccardo’s accusations of her infidelity are false and the two women unite in friendship and mutual understanding **. Around six and a half minutes in you have a variation on that theme from the overture again.

Appendix: 2: Aria for Cuniza as she anticipates in Act 1 her wedding to Riccardo. I suppose this would be inserted either before or after her duet in the same scene with Riccardo. You think it is going to go into that theme from the overture, but it doesn’t. Unlikely the contralto role in the opera proper, this music was not written for the rather limited range of the first Cuniza and is more melodic and daring with high notes **. Watch for the chorus close to midway through, they will be with us for the rest of the number.

Appendix 3: Duet for Cuniza and Riccardo. This number is a bit more complex in that Riccardo is at once convincing Cuniza that their marriage will be a success and expressing his guilt and remorse regarding Leonora ***. In spite of some slow patches in the beginning the middle and the end of it is the best, classic vintage Verdi gold on par with Luisa Miller.

Oberto is a very good opera, and in its finale 19 minutes it very well lifts its head enough to become a great opera, but it isn’t. What is it however is not an imitative work, the inspiration truly is solidly Verdi and in spite of traces of Bellini or Donizetti (or what sounds like them) this really is Verdi coming out for the first time. The tinta, or character of the work as Verdi would have classified, is very interesting, the dramatic power of the work (on stage acted out and musically) builds with each number. The least effective music is at the beginning, in the first scene especially the Leonora-Oberto father-daughter duet that one would expect to be Verdi’s stronger inspiration, alas no. Yet everything falls into place at the end with two truly worthy numbers which are as good as anything Verdi wrote up until Macbeth eight years later. The most striking thing about the work, apart from the last two numbers and the trio in Act 1 Scene 2 would be Verdi’s usage of several melodies from the overture in the opera. I do not know of an Italian opera this early which was utilizing repeated melodies like this, especially after their total absence from the rest of act 1, but they are important in act 2, and are rather effective dramatically as well.  I don’t even know if this can be considered leitmotif or not, but it does make a case for Verdi being just as innovative as Wagner, just in his own Italianate way which was as conservative as Meyerbeer, but when has this been a bad thing except to the “revolutionaries” like Wagner and his followers? The music is very effective after the first scene and is well worth a listen in spite of its rather bare bones plotting and to some extent silliness. It is a basic romantic tragic story, not much more, the most interesting element being the immense strength of the two female principals and how weak (or rather stereotypical) the two men are. Riccardo is a leach, but he has some lovely music to sing. Oberto is perhaps too bent on honour, but the mental decline of Leonora is very effective as is the strength of character of Cuniza who seems to have total control when she is on. Imelda is dramatically unimportant, and serves as a go between unlike the chorus which act as a sort of character on their own forwarding the plot in places, especially in terms of informing the other characters as to what has transpired such as when the chorus of knights tells Oberto that Ezzelino has pardoned him at Cuniza’s request. This is the first time Verdi uses the chorus as a character on it’s own, and it is effective, albeit not to the extent as later such as in Nabucco. Although not an ‘A’ piece by any means and very much a “first-timer” opera,  Oberto is a very strong ‘B+’. It is a very good opera with a consistently very good score and the music is worth a listen and some of it more than once or twice, I know I will be listening to it again very soon!




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