Opera in Four Acts. Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes. This is possibly the most nationalist opera Verdi ever wrote. It is also one of his shortest and least well known, and yet some of the music here is among the most dramatically convincing that Verdi wrote.
PLOT: In and around Milan and Como, 1176. A Milanese commander, Rolando’s wife Lida was once the lover of Arrigo, a soldier from Verona. The people of Milan have joined the Lombard League to combat the invading Teutonic forces of Barbarossa. Arrigo was thought dead, but was nursed back to health by his own mother after a battle and has since reenlisted. In the mean time, thinking Arrigo dead, Lida married Rolando, who is also Arrigo’s best friend. Arrigo also joins up with a certain Knighthood/Brotherhood of Death who vow to die in battle rather than be taken captive.
ACT 1: 42 minutes.
Scene 1: Milan, by the city walls.
0: The overture is Verdi’s best after Les vepres siciliennes ***. It starts with what I suppose is the Legnano theme. Then there is some menacing music and then quiet stillness. This is followed by even more dramatic menacing and then some melodic floating with the woodwinds and strings then a return of the Legnano theme in multiple guises ranging from a solo oboe to a menace variant. There is also a good bit with some descending strings to watch out for before we get one last galop from the Legnano theme and it blows up to late-period Tchaikovsky as the theme gets blared out once again.
13: Military music, great crescendo. For an opera that is less than 1 hour and 50 minutes, it takes 10 minutes before we hear a single human voice, but at last we hear an a cappella male chorus to the Legnano theme, the women pop up. Arrigo arrives and brings us up to date. He was left for dead on the battlefield but nursed back to health by his mother. The cavatina is okay *. A repeat of the a cappella Legnano theme chorus, this time with a brief ending orchestral accompaniment, strings racing about rapidly for a while, somewhat franticly.
16.30: Rolando embraces Arrigo to a rather sweet melody which rapidly turns patriotic but then it comes back. It is all of two minutes but while it lasts this romanza is worth **.
20: The Milan City Consuls arrive and led by Arrigo they vow to repel Barbarossa, mostly a cappella. Then there are some underlaying strings that sound a little like the end of scene 1 of Rigoletto with the similar male chorus *.
Scene 2: Ramparts of the city walls.
24: Woodwind/string/brass preluding leads to a chirpy female chorus. There is some interesting modulation towards the end for which it earns **. Lida comes on and tells us first her life story: both parents dead, all her brothers died in battle against the Germans, now she mourns her beloved Arrigo.
26: Second: Lida’s mourns for Arrigo in a touching if somewhat wondering cavatina **.
30: Lida is harassed by German POW Marcovaldo, and then her maid Imelda tells her that Arrigo is alive. Third: At first she is overjoyed and goes off into a canny cabaletta con coro **.
35: Rolando arrives with Arrigo and the fact that her former lover is alive finally angers her. The feeling is mutual and Rolando is called away with news that Barbarossa is on the move. Arrigo confronts Lida and declares her unfaithful for marrying his best friend, although she tries to soften what has happened because she did believe he was dead. He doesn’t buy it but the individual melodies of this number, Arrigo’s raging, Lida’s pacifying, are all fine **. Good duetting as Arrigo decides to go die somewhere and Lida is despondent to the end of the act.
ACT 2: 15 minutes.
5: Stately mood music leads to stately and then patter male chorus with a rowdy bit towards the end. Rolando and Arrigo arrive to the Legnano theme music from the overture. They seek the help of Como because it lays between Barbarossa’s forces and Milan. But the city has already been forced to sue for peace with the German emperor. Rolando and Arrigo have an agreeable duet * to light accompaniment. Barbarossa shows up and terrifies everyone.
9: There is a quartet which soon involves the chorus as well that is rousing * and has some nice high bits for Arrigo. Then there is some Barbarossa theme? music, all militant.
12: Barbarossa tells Rolando and Arrigo to go back to Milan with a whirlwind tune that is a first cousin to the second act finale in Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux **. Crescendo as the men call for war and the curtain falls.
ACT 3: 38.30 minutes.
Scene 1: Underground of the Basilica of San Ambrogio.
0: Scary moodiness and then something a bit honourable *.
2: The Chorus of the Knights of Death (!). It is as grim as it sounds but not so deadly **.
4: Arrigo is inducted into the Brotherhood of the Knights of Death ***. Something about this sounds like it was a first draft for the original ending of Don Carlos. It has a slow build up but it crescendos terrifyingly and then fades away.
Scene 2: A room in Rolando’s castle.
11: Lida orders Imelda to take a note to Arrigo. She knows about his induction into the Death Brotherhood and has a brief emotive bit that isn’t a number but does pick up the recitative a little *.
13: Lida, still in recitative, goes into a bizarrely lovely bit of arioso **.
14: Rolando arrives and presents Lida with the most Classic scene in the entire opera ** in which he tells her to instill in their son a love of Italy: “Remind him that he is of Italian blood”. It reminds one too much of classical Roman or Greek literature.
18: Watch for this crescendo in the music when Lida promises, it is almost divine ***.
21: Rolando has Arrigo promise that if he dies (Rolando that is) Arrigo will take care of Lida and their son. Given Arrigo’s vow to die rather than be captured in the previous scene, this poses a problem but the melody is great **.
25: Marcovaldo, that German who wanted to seduce Lida in act 1, comes on and tells Rolando that Lida has betrayed him with Arrigo and gives him the note Lida had entrusted to Imelda to give to Arrigo. Rolando is enraged and vows revenge **.
Scene 3: A room in the tower which is Arrigo’s apartment.
32: Arrigo is confronted by Lida (there is a bit from the overture here). Rolando arrives at the door and Arrigo hides Lida on the balcony. Rolando confronts Arrigo sinisterly. Lida is discovered by her husband and Rolando goes off on the two **. Lida declares that she is the guilty one, Arrigo confesses his love for her, Rolando locks the two in the room so that Arrigo will be dishonoured for not showing up to fight in the battle against Barbarossa. Alone with Lida, he decides to jump into the moat in order to get to the battle as he shouts “Viva Italia” in the most Les Huguenots sort of way imaginable.
ACT 4: 13 minutes.
A Square in Milan.
0: The act begins with the most Germanic sounding music Verdi ever composed, three simple chords repeated twice and then quiet, a cappella male chorus at prayer. Lida above everyone prays for both of her men **. Imelda announces that the battle is won! Everyone is overjoyed but Lida sees that the Knights of Death are bringing in a mortally wounded Arrigo, who wounded Barbarossa. He has cleared things up with Rolando.
11: The last six minutes of the opera consist mostly of Arrigo’s dying moments, Lida and Rolando’s reconciliation and the finally choral moment as the couple mourns, the chorus is excited about Italy, and Arrigo crying out “Italy is saved!” as he dies with one last golden tenor melody ***. Curtain.
This opera has some glorious music, much of the score is absolutely beautiful and more advanced than anything Verdi had written to date (1849) with the possible exception of Macbeth (1847). The orchestration is much richer, almost Germanic, and this perhaps reflects the influence of Meyerbeer and French orchestration on Verdi following Jerusalem. On this recording, Carreras as Arrigo and Ricciarelli as Lida are wonderful, although he is slightly thin at times, and Ghiuselev’s cameo as Barbarossa is a highlight. However, the plot is just awful. The most glaringly obvious problems are the late introduction of the Brotherhood of Death (in Act 3!) and the fact that the opera is really just a patriotic rant with a rather idiotic love triangle. Lida is obviously in love with Arrigo and only his death in battle saving Italy solves her problematic marriage to Rolando, who in turn stupidly locks Arrigo and Lisa in a tower overlooking the moat, seriously you didn’t think he would jump? Marcovaldo is a minor character but his overall contribution to the plot is as a linchpin forwarding the bizarre romantic situation. Arrigo is a bit of a mama’s boy (mama mia, we never meet her!) but this is acceptable because this is, after all, an Italian opera. The opera was initially a big success for Verdi but after the fires of independence finally died down Bataglia was one of the first Verdi operas to mostly disappear from the stage. There are reasons for this. One: the thing is just too patriotic and what isn’t about patriotism here is rather ornery even if set to tuneful music. Two: the plot is too simple and similar to half of Verdi’s other operas, basically the only difference between this and Trovatore is that here two of the three sides of the triangle are married to each other and instead of generic opera gypsies we have the (historical) Knighthood of Death (what a mood killer!). Three: The second and fourth acts are far too short, although act four is a musical triumph, and could be attached to the first and third acts respectively and performed as a two act, less than two hour long opera. And yet, Verdi gave this dim thing some of his greatest early music, which says more about his love for the idea of Italy than it does his taste in libretti. So what we have here is a work with traces of the medieval and the classical along with a preoccupation with death (including its fan society), an odd love triangle, a mommy complex, patriotism up the gah-zoo, and some of Verdi’s lushest early music. It must be a B+.