Jernigan's Opera Journal

by Charles Jernigan
Contact the Author                  Colorado Opera Network

Verdi in Sarasota

March 2, 2016

Beginning in 1989, Sarasota opera set on an adventurous project to perform all of Giuseppe Verdi's 33 operas, including the first and revised standard versions of operas that Verdi revised extensively (like La forza del destino and Macbeth).  Along the way there were a couple of firsts: the American premieres of the first version of Simon Boccanegra and of the original French version of Les vêpres siciliennes--The Sicilian Vespers).  They even did the French version of Il trovatore (Le Trouvère), which Verdi supervised and changed slightly, adding a ballet as required by French taste.  This year, the Verdi cycle came to an end with the last two operas previously unperformed there, La battaglia di Legnano and Aida.  Now this small company lays claim to being the only opera company in the world to have performed all of Verdi's operas and non-operatic music as well.  The season ends this year with a concert of music that Verdi wrote before his first opera, Oberto (I didn't know that any pre-Oberto music had survived), a final Gala Concert, a Conference and a party.  The Sarasotans have a right to celebrate.  The city has named the small square by the Opera House Verdi Plaza, and the Opera's Director, Victor DeRenzi, who had the vision to bring this off, has grown a beard and mustache; with his silvery hair swept back, he is the spitting image of the great composer himself in the famous portrait by Boldoni.  All he needs is a top hat.

On a personal level, the end of the Verdi Cycle provided me with the opportunity to see the only Verdi opera I had never seen on stage in any form, La battaglia di Legnano.  It was the desire to complete this personal quest that brought me back to Sarasota this year, as well as the chance to enjoy the pretty town (although pretty chilly this year) and meet with friends who are likewise infected with the incurable disease Morbus amor operaticae, known in the vernacular as the "Lyric Nut Disease."

Further, Victor DeRenzi's operatic philosophy is that the productions should look like something that the composer and librettist would recognize.  To some this might seem old fashioned, but in today's world of opera, it almost seems avant-garde.  Scenically, this works very well for me, although sometimes, when the acting style is also old fashioned, it doesn't work so well.  One can do productions which respect the composer and librettist's intentions and still offer a compelling dramatic experience with singers who can act as well as sing, and an imaginative stage director.

La battaglia di Legnano

Verdi was a strong partisan in the long fight for Italian unification, from an early stage in his career.  His third opera and first great hit, Nabucco, contained the great chorus "Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorati" which inflamed Italian patriots and cemented Verdi's position as the preeminent Italian composer.  Ostensibly a lament of Hebrew slaves suffering from Babylonian captivity, it was immediately taken by Italians to represent a lament of Italians suffering from Austrian rule at a time when Austria controlled much of northern Italy (and the Pope controlled much of the peninsula's central portion).  After that, for many years, most of Verdi's operas contained a chorus or an aria that concerned the oppression of a homeland and the desire of a people to be free.  I lombardi had the Lombards (Italians) longing for their homeland; in Attila, the Italian hero Ezio tells Attila the Hun, the conqueror from the north (i.e. Austria), "avrai tu l'universo, resti l'Italia a me"--'You have the whole universe, leave Italy for me'.  In Macbeth Macduff and a chorus of Scottish (i.e. Italian) exiles lament their "Patria oppressa"--'oppressed homeland'.  All of these expressions of patriotic sentiment, disguised in a work about Babylonians or Scots or the distant Hunnish invasion of Italy, aroused great fervor in the hearts of Italian patriots, and Verdi became a hero of the movement to free Italy from outside control and to unify the country.  "Viva Verdi" became an acronym to cheer not only the composer but V.E.R.D.I., Vittorio Emmanuele, Re d'Italia, that is Victor Emmanuel as a King of a unified Italy. 

1847-48 was a heady time in the battle for unification.  Revolutions swept Europe, and for a short time Italians threw off the Austrian yoke and imprisoned the Pope, removing his secular power over the Papal States.  Yielding to all of these fervent sentiments, Verdi gave the people of Italy a truly revolutionary opera, La battaglia di Legnano, The Battle of Legnano.  The first words in the opera (by librettist Salvadore Cammarano) are "Vivi Italia, sacro il patto"--"Long live Italy, a sacred pact [joins us]'.  The last words, sung by the dying hero, Arrigo are 'a man who dies for his country can feel no guilt'.  In the most beautiful aria in the work, Rolando, on the eve of battle, tells his wife that if he should die, his little son should know that 'Italian blood flows in his veins' and that he is possessor of the mellifluous Italic tongue'. This work wears its Risorgimento heart on its sleeve like no other in the Verdi canon.  Its premiere in Rome in 1848 was cheered endlessly by a house packed to the rafters with excited Italian patriots.

Alas, the country's liberation in 1848 was a false spring.  The Austrians soon returned in the north, and the French restored the Pope to his secular power as a ruler.  Censorship returned, and an opera like La battaglia di Legnano could not be produced without major changes to its text and story.

There really was a battle of Legnano, which took place in the twelfth century to the west of Milan.  Today, if you travel from Milan's Malpensa Airport to the city, you rush right by the site where the battle took place on the superhighway.  The historical battle was the culminating event in the struggle between the imperial forces of Frederic I "Barbarossa" ('Redbeard') and the Pope of the time, Alexander III for control of several northern Italian towns, including Milan.  In a last-ditch effort to repel Barbarossa, Verona and Milan joined in the Lombard League, and in 1176, at Legnano, Barbarossa suffered a decisive defeat.  For awhile it was thought that he had been killed in battle, but a few days later he showed up, wounded.  He would go on to eventually sign a treaty with the Pope's forces.

In the twelfth century very few people had a concept of national identity as we now think of it, but in the mid nineteenth century it was all the rage.  Patriots from that time looked back on the historic struggle of the Lombards against the "barbarians" from the North as a precursor of their own struggle.  Garibaldi, trying to unify Italians against the Austrians, signed a pact among Italian patriots determined to drive out the foreigners which he characterized as a 'new Legnano'.  And Legnano even got into the patriotic poem which became the Italian national anthem, "Fratelli d'Italia," by Goffredo Mamelli.  So as obscure as this medieval skirmish might seem to us, it was an important reference point for patriotic Italians in the 1840's.

When the Austrians returned and the Pope's temporal power was reestablished, performance of such a patriotic piece was impossible.  For awhile, the music was set to other stories, but it was not very successful, and when Italy was finally unified under King Victor Emmanuel in 1865, the need for the opera as a piece d'occasion had vanished, and performances became rarer and rarer.  In our times, it has been performed occasionally in Italy and elsewhere, the first American performances coming in 1976 by Amato Opera in New York, and later by Tito Capobianco's company in Pittsburgh. 

Aside from the story of the battle, Cammarano gave us a typical Romantic plot (based on a French play), similar to one he had used for Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, and even closer to the plot of romantic conflict that Verdi would use in Un ballo in maschera.  Arrigo, a warrior from Verona who has loved Lida, was thought to be dead, but in Act I he turns up, much to the surprise of Rolando, his friend and fellow warrior, who is Milanese.  Believing Arrigo to be dead, Lida's family has married her to Rolando, and they have had a child.  When Arrigo turns up, Lida despairs and Arrigo accuses her of betrayal of her promises to him.  A German prisoner, Marcovaldo, whose advances Lida has rejected, notices the intense emotions between Arrigo and Lida, and when Lida tries to send Arrigo a note, he takes it from her lady in waiting.  He uses the note to insinuate to Rolando that Lida is unfaithful with his best friend.  Rolando bursts in on what was to be the final meeting between the former lovers; instead of killing Arrigo, he locks him in the room so that he cannot join the fight, which is to begin at dawn.  Arrigo, distraught at losing his honor as a warrior, jumps from a balcony.  In the final scene, he arrives in Milan, gravely wounded, having won the battle by unhorsing Frederic Barbarossa himself.  Seeing their leader down, Frederic's troops have fled.  Arrigo dies, proclaiming Lida's innocence and the glory of Italy.  The love story occupies much of the second half (Acts III and IV) while Acts I and II concern the broader political landscape of the struggle between the imperial forces and the League.  At the climactic moment of Act II, Barbarossa himself breaks into a meeting between the League, represented by Arrigo and Rolando, and the citizens of Como, who have sided with the imperial forces.  The fierce Barbarossa predicts the downfall of Italy, a plan which is thwarted in the tragic-heroic finale of the opera. 

The plot gave Verdi his first chance to contrast great political struggles with a personal, intimate story, a technique he would use to great advantage later in operas like Don Carlos and Aida.  The music, as one might expect, is filled with marches and martial sounds, trumpets and drums.  It also offers frequent glimpses into future Verdi operas--from Germont's "Di provenza, il mar, il sol" in La traviata to Renato's "Eri tu" in Ballo in maschera to the Grand March in Aida.  Musically, some Verdi scholars think that this opera is Verdi's most musically complex to that point in spite of it being a rousing cri de guerre.  Notable are the long overture and the choral work, much of it a capella.  As befits the story, the chorus almost runs away with the show.


The production in Sarasota honored the intentions of Cammarano and Verdi.  The opera was set in the 1100's; characters wore medieval costumes designed by Resident Costumer Howard Tsvi Kaplan.  The men carried long broadswords, which were used to great advantage when Arrigo joins the "Company of Death," a historical group of warriors who vowed to fight until victory or die in the process.  It was very colorful.  The sets by Jeffrey W. Dean seemed to me to be deliberately old fashioned, with painted backdrops and flies, which included battlements, a "shady spot near the moat," a "magnificent room" in Como and the crypt of Sant' Ambrogio Basilica in Milan.  The final scene, a square in Milan, was backed by a painted drop depicting Sant' Ambrogio, the great and important Milanese church, which will be familiar to many California music lovers since Royce Hall at UCLA is modeled directly on the Milanese Basilica.  Mr. Dean even had a sacred war cart brought on in the last act called the Carroccio.  In the real battle of Legnano it carried the standard of Milan and the sacred  Cross of Archbishop Aribert; it was the symbol of the Lombard League.  So the sets were not only historically true to Cammarano's libretto, but also to contemporary accounts of the twelfth century battle. 


Vocally speaking, I really liked Todd Thomas, a baritone, who sang Rolando; his is the voice of a true Verdi baritone, and his acting was very good.  Martin Nusspaumer sang the tenor role of Arrigo with appropriate fire and fury, and ultimately tenderness.  The soprano was Jennifer Black, an affecting Lida.  Young Bok Kim sported a wild red beard in his brief appearance as Barbarossa in Act II, and he sang authoritatively.  Tall Harold Wilson was the baddie, Marcovaldo.  Victor DeRenzi conducted with the fire and drive that early Verdi needs, and especially this opera.  The chorus acquitted themselves with great honor.  Stage Direction by Martha Collins made all of this believable and even gripping.  Obviously a lot of preparation had gone into this show. 

I doubt that La battaglia di Legnano will ever be a repertory piece in spite of many fine musical moments.  It is just too connected to a specific movement (the Risorgimento) to be more than a curiosity for us.  For someone looking at it from the distance of 170 years, it is too over the top in chauvinist sentiment.  Who today knows what the battle of Legnano was or what its importance was to Verdi's compatriots?  But it is a Verdi opera, and not one of his thirty-three operas is devoid of interest.  This one is far more than that; it was another great evening of theater and music.


I guess it is appropriate that the final two operas of Sarasota's Verdi cycle encompassed one of his least known works and one of the most familiar.  Like La battaglia di Legnano, Aida  is a work which backgrounds a tragic tale of love with war and martial engagement.  Aida too has marches (the most famous march of all opera), dreams of being a great warrior, and impossible love.  But in spite of the Triumphal Scene, the balance in Aida falls to the personal, while in Legnano, it is on the patriotic fervor and war.  The titles say it: Aida is about an individual primarily, and the person who loves her and who is her rival, while the earlier opera is about a battle--the personal engagement comes second.


This Aida was truly old fashioned, and not necessarily in a good way.  I liked the traditional and colorful sets, which would not have been out of place at the premieres in Cairo and Milan in the 1860's.  They were solid, often two-story affairs (by David P. Gordon), painted with hieroglyphics and bigger than life portraits of ancient Egyptians.  It required three long intermissions to change those solid sets, just like the old days.  There were painted backdrops, the one for the Nile scene quite lovely, with a full moon and the pyramids in the distance.  Costumes (once again by Costume Coordinator Howard Tsvi Kaplan), were ancient Egypt via Hollywood, circa Cleopatra in the Elizabeth Taylor era.  Some costumes looked like they had come from a Roman sword and sand epic.  The Radames was in a toga with a cape while Aida had an unflattering "slave" outfit that emphasized her derriere.  Amneris looked like Taylor, with all that eye makeup, in that 1960's film.  The Ethiopians were mostly white guys wearing black body make up.  They looked like a minstrel show, definitely a no-no in 2016.

Unfortunately, the acting was hopelessly old fashioned too.  Mostly, characters faced the audience to sing arias, duets and ensembles.  They were so uninvolved with each other that it was impossible for us in the audience to be much involved with them.  With the exception of Amneris, who chewed the scenery in 'her' scene (Act IV, Scene 1), it was pretty bland.  I found Amneris (Leann Sandel-Pantaleo) odd voiced; she had a remarkably deep chest register which did not always seem connected to the rest of her voice and she was sometimes wildly off pitch.  Jonathan Burton (Radames) was a short, stocky tenor with a clarion voice, but he sang without subtlety.  Michelle Johnson (Aida) sang the role bravely, but also with little subtlety or pointing of the text.  None of the others were particularly memorable.  Everyone was loud.  Fortissimo seemed the default setting.  The triumphal scene did come off remarkably well for being played out on a small stage with very little depth.  The long trumpets were great.  The orchestra under DeRenzi was fine too.  But the whole enterprise was remarkably uninvolving.  For the final duet ("O terra addio"), our dying lovers stood side by side facing the audience and never looked at each other.  One wanted to say "addio" and leave after a long three and a half hours.  I needed an extra slug of Merlot in our after-opera snack with friends.  La battaglia di Legnano had been so good; it was too bad that Aida did not live up to it.  I guess they didn't try as hard.

Charles Jernigan