I Lombardi alla prima crociata (The Lombards at the First Crusade) is the Verdi opera that immediately followed Nabucco, the composer’s third opera and breakthrough success. Like Nabucco, it was first given at La Scala (in 1843) and initially scored a big hit with the public, but today it tends to be criticized for lacking the concentrated dramatic focus of Nabucco and other top-drawer early Verdi. The origin of this alleged defect is easy to identify, for it stems from the opera’s literary source: Tommaso Grossi’s epic poem of the same name, a nineteenth-century work in the tradition of the Renaissance poets Ariosto and Tasso about the First Crusade (1096–99). Lombardi is Verdi’s only opera to be based on an epic poem, and the efforts by the librettist Temistocle Solera to translate Grossi’s popular work into opera resulted in a multi-stranded plot that moves between contrasting locales. Teatro Regio di Parma’s Lombardi was the high point of this year’s Verdi Festival.

Included in the complex plot is a cross-cultural love interest involving the kidnapped Lombardic maiden Giselda and Oronte, the son of Acciano, the Muslim ruler of Antioch. But their relationship takes second place to the story of Pagano, the brother of Arvino, Giselda’s father. Act 1, set in Milan, sees a scheming Pagano set out to kill his brother, but he mistakenly kills his father instead. Consumed with remorse, he flees to Antioch, where he thereafter leads an exemplary life as a hermit known for his healing abilities. Serving as a backdrop to all this are the trappings of the crusade itself, in which the Christian Lombards, led by Arvino, square off against Acciano and his subjects.

A scene from I Lombardi alla prima crociata, at Parma’s Festival Verdi. Photo: Roberto Ricci.

Lombardi is not inordinately long, but its sprawling format looks forward to the expansive La forza del destino, and it is likewise rich in musical attractions. It is no coincidence that Verdi chose it for his first commission by the Paris Opera, where, revised and retitled Jérusalem, it was given in 1847. Its most famous piece is the Act III trio, with its prominent violin solo and long orchestral introduction accentuating the instrument; here, Giselda and Pagano comfort the dying Oronte. In addition, the opera has a patriotic chorus, “O Signore, dal tetto natio,” akin to Nabucco’s “Va pensiero,” in which the crusaders, dying of thirst, beseech Christ not to let his faithful warriors become a mockery. At other moments, the characters cast doubt on the motivation and means of the crusade, though the opera ends with the triumphant Christians gaining control of Jerusalem. In a dramatic chorus, Acciano and his men denounce the rape and robbery committed by the Christians and the enormous destruction left in their wake. And within the Christian ranks, Giselda attacks her father’s ungodly violence in a furious cabaletta that closes Act II, “Non! . . . Giusta causa non è d’Iddio,” in which she also accuses the crusaders of having more interest in the Muslims’ gold than in achieving God’s will.

At the Verdi Festival, Lombardi benefitted from the characteristic refinement and cultivated simplicity of the veteran director Pier Luigi Pizzi, now ninety-three years old, who also, as is his practice, designed the sets and costumes. American audiences have seen too little of his work over the decades, although he staged Aida for Houston Grand Opera in 1987 as the inaugural production of the Alice and George Brown Theater at the Wortham Center, and created several productions for Lyric Opera of Chicago, including Otello in versions by both Rossini and Verdi. Pizzi’s Lombardi has an elegance of design that is now rare; most opera designers aim for other goals, namely realism, which so often means nothing more than squalor.

A scene from I Lombardi alla prima crociata, at Parma’s Festival Verdi. Photo: Roberto Ricci.

The decor here consisted primarily of projections of black-and-white buildings, first in Milan, then in the Middle East, reflecting their respective architectural styles. The sparseness of color made its presence all the more effective when it did appear, as in the lapis blue of the Muslims’ costumes, or at dramatic moments, as when flames flicker through windows during Pagano’s ill-fated attack on Arvino. Pizzi’s fluent direction never called attention to itself, nor did it distract from the music. Indeed, as if to underscore the music’s primacy, Pizzi not only had the solo violinist (Mihaela Costea, in fine form) participate on stage in the trio, but he also gave the solo flute and clarinet similar prominence in Giselda’s “Salve Regina” and brought on the harp for the scene in which Oronte appears to Giselda in a vision.

William Corrò (Acciano) in I Lombardi alla prima crociata, at Parma’s Festival Verdi. Photo: Roberto Ricci.

The eminent bass Michele Pertusi, a native of Parma and a favorite at the festival, brought a rich, velvety voice to Pagano and ably charted the character’s moral rebirth, investing the hermit with warmth and compassion. The young Russian soprano Lidia Fridman made a strong impression as Giselda. Her rather cool voice, while attractive and accurately deployed, is not particularly Italianate and her diction could have been better, but she brought off her big scene in Act II with panache and sang brilliantly in the “Cabaletta della visione.” With her acting skills and svelte figure, she was a striking stage presence. The tenor Antonio Poli’s solidly produced voice and robust delivery served Oronte well in a portrayal that included an ardent account of “La mia letitia infondere,” his declaration of love for Giselda. Smaller roles were handsomely filled by Giulia Mazzola (Viclinda), Luca dall’Amico (Pirro), William Corrò (Acciano), and Galina Ovchinnikova (Sofia). Francesco Lanzillotta was the assured conductor. The opera was performed in the new critical edition by David R. B. Kimbell.

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