Chelsea Opera Group – Verdi’s Oberto

Verdi
Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio – Opera in two Acts to a libretto by Temistocle Solera [sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Riccardo – Peter Auty
Leonora – Anush Hovhannisyan
Oberto – Stephan Loges
Cuniza – Carolyn Dobbin
Imelda – Eirlys Myfanwy Davies

Chorus & Orchestra of Chelsea Opera Group
Matthew Scott Rogers


Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 3 April, 2022
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

As Chelsea Opera Group’s programme note rightly indicates, Oberto (1839) as his first opera is “what Giuseppe sounded like before he became Verdi”. In fact there are already many signs in it of ‘Verdi’ – the mature composer revered the world over for more operas regularly mounted than any other. And if the comparison is not invidious, the music is already more characteristically ‘Verdi’ than Wagner is identifiably himself in any of his three early, pre-Bayreuth, worthy operas.

In Oberto the music is understandably more foursquare, and the structure is more rigidly divided into formal numbers than the more flexible sequences Verdi would develop as his career proceeded through twenty-five subsequent operas. But his musical style is already recognisable, alongside many of his typical dramatic themes: an intensely drawn father-daughter relationship (the latter, in this case, even called Leonora, as is her equivalent in La forza del destino); a less than blameless or praiseworthy romantic male lead; the conflicts which arise between private and public obligations; and a backdrop of war or national upheaval.

In the title role, Stephan Loges performed with a steady, quiet focus, rather than overt outrage or malice, even as he seeks revenge for Riccardo’s seduction and abandonment of his daughter. The sense of injustice he has suffered was underlined by Loges’s occasional trembling emphasis on some phrases, humanising a character whose single-minded mission to eliminate Riccardo otherwise renders him unsympathetic, and despite losing the duel to which he has challenged the latter.

Although Leonora initially seeks revenge with her father, she resolves to be reconciled with Riccardo at the bidding of Cuniza, the woman to whom he was to have been wed, in a Quartet that, in its theatrical and musical ingenuity, presages ‘Bella figlia dell’amore’ where the four characters’ motivations and intentions bear an uncanny similarity to this early precedent at their respective points in the drama. Anush Hovhannisyan was sometimes brittle, at least when Leonora has a mind to action, but otherwise her performance was incisive and penetrating in its vocal clarity, particularly at mezzo piano level, hinting at the character’s inner complexity. By contrast Carolyn Dobbin’s well-rounded singing throughout her range confidently suggested Cuniza’s more conventional role as Leonora’s rival until she selflessly decides to order that Riccardo return to Lenora.

Peter Auty threw himself into the caddish part of Riccardo with passion, his singing powerfully declaimed with a rather throaty, almost gargling, vibrato expressing a certain devil-may-care swagger that is reminiscent of the Duke of Rigoletto. Eirlys Myfanwy Davies had less music to perform as Imelda, Cuniza’s confidante, but she was no less a dynamic, ringing presence, projecting some thrillingly emphatic notes over the orchestra in some ensembles.

If Verdi’s score needlessly dilates a somewhat thin narrative and libretto at times, Matthew Scott Rogers and the COG Orchestra sustained a cogent and urgent account that never slackened. Climaxes were well paced but thrilling, instilling a suitably epic dimension to the whole opera, even if the violins occasionally became a touch ragged in their enthusiasm during turbulent episodes. But the component sections were sensitively delineated as the shift from each cantabile to their succeeding vigorous cabaletta was carefully handled, rather than forced. Telling touches of orchestral timbre also underlined the drama, such as consoling strings, sonorous woodwind dialogue, or the portentous interjection of horns or trumpets. Although sometimes score-bound and a little woolly, the COG Chorus could also create atmosphere and incident, adding another vital layer to the overall soundscape. In short, this was another valuable realisation by COG, in concert performance, of a rarely heard opera which audiences will seldom, if ever, have the chance to see staged.

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