Giuseppe Verdi: I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata (1843)

Opera in four acts. Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes.

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The recording under review here is the 1971 Gardelli Philips release with Deutekom, Domingo, and Raimondi.

SETTING: Milan, Antioch, and Jerusalem, 1096 and 1099. After a failed reunion between brothers ending in the accidental murder of their father by one of the brothers, the entire opera shifts to the Middle East where the daughter of the family converts a Muslim prince to Christianity before losing him for the second time. But he then appears to her in a dream and tells her how her father’s crusaders can achieve victory via a special kind of water.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1

Scene 1: Before Milan Cathedral, 1096.

7: The orchestral introduction is a two and a half minute collection of random musical ideas, none of which return really nor have much relation either to each other nor to the opera as a whole. It can’t even properly be termed a prelude, although it is in the score, because it has no coherent idea nor is it even consistent (twice the orchestra just randomly bursts with holy odour). Basically its sole purpose is to avoid beginning the opera immediately with an opening chorus. When the action finally starts we get some off-stage band and then a series of choral numbers, first an action précis from an in-unison chorus of tenors and basses set to a fairground tune. The women come on asking for even more details, they get it from them. The sons of Lord Falco, Arvino and Pagan come on for the peace ceremony and finally something remotely of interest pops up: a quintet * in which the three main characters, plus Viclinda and the City Prior, make comments amid chorusing. The next chorus, a crusader number, is very tuneful but rather propagandistic. It is followed by a yet another chorus, this time nuns praying.

18: Pagano plots to have his brother killed in an okay cavatina * in which he relays instructions to his second Pirro. Pagano’s thugs have a very brief chorus which is interrupted by the nuns again. Pagano’s cabaletta which follows is rather standard if upbeat.

Scene 2: A room in the home of Count Falco.

27: After a brief domestic recitative among the three family members, Giselda’s prayer to the Virgin Mary * is a mild little divertissement with a cute flute accompaniment.

36: The six minute long act finale * moves from murder/kidnapping to the two women declaring just who got killed (Count Falco, not Arvino), to everyone freaking out over how horribly Pagano has acted, to Arvino deciding to execute his brother on the spot to Giselda demanding that no more blood be spilt because of the brothers rivalry over her mother. Watch for a brief second in which Giselda’s coloratura bit from the next day pops up.

ACT 2

Scene 1: A hall in the palace of the King of Antioch.

0: A chorus of ambassadors leading to a prayer to Allah * (incidentally the King never appears again).

4: Oronte’s cavatina and cabaletta set are very dapper and frankly the best number in the first two acts of the opera **. It is interrupted by the wily Christian proselytizing of his mamma Sofia. I personally prefer a more upbeat setting of the cabaletta than the slow one on this recording.

FASTER CABALETTA sung by Gustavo Gallo (From Audioteca): http://www.liberliber.it/mediateca/musica/v/verdi/i_lombardi_alla_prima_crociata/rai/verdi_i_lombard_18_come_poteva.mp3

Scene 2: Outside a desert cave, somewhere in the Holy Land.

13: Pagano (who I can reveal now as the hermit because no one except the other characters in the opera are stupid enough to ever be fooled by this) feels really guilty and repentant about the whole trying to kidnap his brother’s wife and accidentally murder their father thing. He expresses all this in a frustrated and long aria *. In some recite he meets up with Pirro (who doesn’t recognize him and gives him his confession). Pirro has apparently sided with the King of Antioch but has decided to return to the Lombardi. As penance, Pagano orders him to open the doors of the city to the crusaders. They then show up themselves to a starchy march. Although Arvino doesn’t recognize him because opera, he does tell him some rather vital information that we already know, namely that Giselda is held in the palace of the King of Antioch. The scene ends on a militant, jingoistic, and very Islamophobic chorus which is only mildly tuneful and is rather starchy as Pagano/Hermit tells Arvino he will get his daughter back and take Antioch by that evening (insider information).

Scene 3: The harem of the King of Antioch.

28: After one of those “exotic/Turkish” preludes which Verdi would improve on slightly when he wrote Il Corsaro and a female chorus which probably proved to be a first draft of the similar scene in act 2 of the other opera, we have yet another prayer from Giselda, this time for her mum *. At this point, Giselda is the unchallenged female lead of the opera.

32: After a bit of a scramble on stage in which the crusaders invade almost without warning, Sofia comes on in a mad panic telling Giselda that her husband and son have been slain by the crusaders, and Giselda is unhappily reunited with her father (Verdi really makes a mash up of this), we get the mad scene to end all mad scenes * for Giselda as she declares that God is against the crusade and will destroy them for the “impious holocaust” they have subjected the Muslims to. Among things she prophecies is that God is deaf to human suffering and that Europe will be drowned in a sea of blood when the Muslims invade in retaliation, but ultimately she resigns herself to the idea that God calls only for peace. She does this in a very random way (the number has no grounding tune, consisting entirely of a series of repeated fragments of melody) but the one thing that stands out are a series of random high coloratura triplets which she produces on the words “sdegno/deaf” and “parlar/speak”. A bizarre and rather haphazard end to the act.

{NOTE: I have to admit that I do agree with Giselda’s sentiments in this scene, it is just musically fragmentary and not as effective as it could have been. Taken from a dramatic standpoint, the scene is noteworthy in the fact that it is anti-crusader and has been utilized effectively in productions to capitalize on this. Most of the elements are here, we see the subjugation of the city from the perspective of the palace women and Giselda, who at this point, although still making references to the incarnation of Jesus, from a moral point of view has sided with her Muslim captors. If the music were of a higher quality it would actually be a very effective scene.}

ACT 3:

Scene 1: Near the Mount of Olives.

0: As with act one, it is chorus time again, although this time some of them are actually rather good and do not last for even half as long. The first is probably the best and seems to be trying to mimic Va pensiero **.

8: Giselda comes on, quite sane, and vents her frustration at the whole dad killing her Muslim lover thing. But lo! Oronte shows up, alive! Oronte goes into details and declares his love for her in an aria that takes a while to flower but when it does and he interacts with Giselda it is rather nice ** if brief. The remainder of the duet consists of an arioso for Giselda and then some more loverly duetting before they run like mad from the distance shouts of crusaders. Although the number is not consistent, the best parts raise it to the two-star level.

Scene 2: Arvino’s tent.

Technically there is an aria here but it really isn’t of any musical interest. The only plot development is that Arvino vents his anger of Giselda and the crusaders come on to tell their leader that Pagano has been seen lurking about. In all honestly, what is the point of this scene other than loud opera seria-type  filler?

Scene 3: In front of a cave near the River Jordan.

20: Now, if this opera couldn’t get any more strange, Verdi had the bright idea of incorporating a mini violin concerto at this point in the score. It is rather nice * and interestingly connects the entire scene together as a constantly stream of music. The presto section in particular is entertaining.

28: The lovers come on again, Oronte conveniently (or perhaps not) mortally wounded (although Giselda is fine?). They meet up with Pagano/Hermit just as Giselda is about to turn atheist. No number in all opera is more of a contrast than this. Divided into two parts of approximately four and a half minutes each, the first is almost meaningless apart from Giselda getting very angry with the Almighty for taking her man from her again! Pagano offers to bless their marriage, but only if Oronte is baptized, towards the end of the first section the violin returns and we enter the second half of the trio which is freaking amazing given the surrounding music ***. Oronte is baptized with River Jordan, Giselda has her faith renewed but Oronte quickly dies, promising to meet her again in heaven. The violin flies up as the act ends with the soul. In spite of what we today would probably see as the cultural insensitivity of this scene, it is very touching.

ACT 4

Scene 1: Another random cave, no hermit living in this one though.

4: More heavenly chorusing, Giselda has a dream in which Oronte appears to her and tells her about a certain spring of Siloam with miraculous powers which will bring the crusaders victory *.

6: Giselda’s oom-pah aria ** has a nice coloratura bit for which it gets two stars. She finishes well, but it is a rather low end two star item.

Scene 2: The Lombard Camp.

10: The Lombards pray to the Almighty alright *, but this really is just another Va pensiero knock off. Giselda and Arvino come on and tell everyone about the Siloam spring Giselda’s dead hubby told her about from beyond the grave.

16: The Lombards go into a war chorus which is effective but patterned on the same chorus as in act 2 scene 2 *, although this time it is more of an ensemble number with the three remaining principles. Verdi then includes an orchestral interlude, consisting of a return of half the tunes from the opera like a mini post-emolation scene at the end of Gotterdammerung. 

Scene 3: Arvino’s tent.

21: Given that the characters other than these three are either dead or disappeared an hour ago, the opera ends with a trio con coro * for Giselda, Arvino, and Pagano as all three are reconciled and Pagano dies looking at Jerusalem from his brother’s tent.

COMMENTS:

I Lombardi alla prima crociata is a mess of sprawling, mostly unconnected tableaux (11 in total), and random characters (9 soloists, many only appearing in one act or even just one scene). The best way to look at it is as a colourful pageant of religio-historical fiction. At least, if the music were consistently better than it is this would be the best way to interpret the work. Unfortunately it is not, and I wonder if it is just a coincidence that the best music in the opera (such as it is) occurs in the scenes in which Oronte is also present? The plot is not so much absurd as incomprehensible, and the music is only rarely good with a single admittedly magnificent number which really can’t support the bulk of the show. In the 1847 remake, Jerusalem, the plot and libretto are much tighter and the deletion of most of the worst numbers (along with the addition of some excellent new music) raise the entire situation into beta territory. Here we have obvious structural problems along with the musical weaknesses: Who the main characters are doesn’t make sense, the primo tenore is the relatively minor Oronte and not Arvino in spite of the fact that the latter role is more than twice as long. Giselda just randomly ends up as the prima donna because her mother Viclinda and eventual mother-in-law Sofia (not large roles) only appear in one act each (this has to be one of the biggest wastes of two sopranos in all of opera, surely the roles have been doubled before?). The three main characters, who we are stuck with for the duration, are not all that likeable. Pagano is a murderer, Arvino is given nothing of any interest to sing in spite of the fact that he is a tenor, and Giselda’s random mood swings are possibly a sign of mental illness. No wonder Viclinda didn’t make the trip to Palestine, she probably wanted to get away from the rest of the family for a while! Forman was out of his mind, this can be nothing but a gamma.

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21 thoughts on “Giuseppe Verdi: I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata (1843)

    1. Demented religious operas? I didn’t think of that. Any more in the genre? I’m not sure if Poliuto is demented, it might actually be good. Also working on three Yugoslav works and Straszy Dwor.

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      1. D’Indy’s Legende de St Christophe, his “oeuvre de foi”. It is, the composer said, a “drame anti-Juif”, designed to show “the nauseating Judeo-Dreyfusard influence “. His idol was Wagner.

        Parsifal?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. For some strange reason, it’s never been recorded. “Hey, guys, let’s do an opera about how Jews are bad!” A candidate for a one-star!

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      1. The Prelude. Gurnemanz’s little quartet with the pages. Titurel der fromme Held.
        Vom Bade kehrt der Konig heim / the Transformation Music. Pretty much all the end of Act I, bar Amfortas’ angst. The Good Friday Music. Nur eine Waffe taugt.

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      2. No, not joking. I’m talking about the music, much of which is beautiful and serene. I’m not keen on the drama, characterization, or mixture of blood purity, angst, and mysticism.

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      1. I’ve heard the Good Friday Music before, but I’m rather certain it was cut by the conductor. Why I don’t know. I did know this performance is cut, I’ve heard it through at least twice before.

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