Verdi’s Alzira, first performed in Naples in 1845, has long had the reputation as Verdi’s worst opera. Accordingly, it is his least performed opera. Parma’s Teatro Regio did not even bother to stage it as part of it’s series of all of Verdi’s works. They used a concert performance of Alzira given at the Grand Hotel of Dobbiaco in September of 2012. Where is Dobbiaco? It’s in Northern Italy on the Austrian border.
Salvatore Cammarano’s libretto was based on Voltaire’s play Alzire sans the religion, politics, and intellectual content. It’s a conventional love triangle with the baritone trying to get the girl by using her lover’s life as leverage. The unusual twist here is that the tenor stabs the baritone to death in the last scene whereupon for no apparent reason the hitherto bloodthirsty baritone pardons his murderer. This inspires Verdi to write a glorious finale worthy of his best known operas. Oh incidentally, the soprano and tenor are Incas while the baritone is a Spaniard – not that any of this clash of national and cultural identities makes any real difference here as it did in Voltaire’s original.
Alzira is plainly not Verdi’s worst opera. In fact, it’s much better than its immediate predecessor Giovanna D’Arco. The work consists of a prologue and two acts. The prologue is the weakest part of the piece. The best number is the opera’s aforementioned finale in which the soon to be dead baritone bestows forgiveness. The scene reminds the listener of the end of Ballo in Maschera where it’s the tenor who forgives his murder – the baritone. Jealousy, mother’s milk to opera, is what propels both assassinations.
The Dobbiaco production was very effectively mounted. There were no props or costumes though the Spaniards did wear white tie and tails. The principals acted their parts with spare but convincing movements. The soloists are all professionals who are active, for the most part, at European theaters of the second rank.
The biggest part is that of Gusmano, the baritone who suffers from the usual fate of the Verdi baritone in love – it’s unrequited. Thomas Gazheli struggled in the first two thirds of the opera, but found a little more voice in the concluding act.
Tenor Ferdinand von Bothmer, who is based mainly at Vienna’s Volksoper, was convincing as Zamoro the jealous lover of Alzira. He sang as well as his modest instrument permitted.
Soprano Junko Saito has a thin voice that is shrill at any note higher than G above the staff. She and the other principals were all good enough to make a case for this neglected opera which is good enough to warrant an occasional revival. Anything by Verdi is important and this one has enough good material to move beyond just being worth a listen because of who it author was.
Conductor Gustav Kuhn has the right sensitivity and vigor that early Verdi requires. He lead his orchestra and chorus with clarity and dispatch. An outstanding performance.
Below are three excerpts which give a flavor of the opera’s strengths. I will ignore its weaknesses. The first is the adagio concertato which comes near the end of the first act. It’s written as a large sextet with chorus. Gusmano is determined to kill Zamora while his father Alvaro, who was spared earlier by Zamoro, asks his son to forgive him. The lovers think of their former happiness. Verdi obviously had the great sextet from Lucia Di Lammermoor in mind when he wrote this piece. While he didn’t get to that exalted level he did create a lovely effect. Adagio concertato Act 1 finale
In the second scene of the second act Zamoro learns that Alzira is going to marry Gusmano. He doesn’t know that she’s doing it to save his life. So he goes bonkers and sing a conventional vengeance cabaletta that is energized by the vigor that characterizes so much of Verdi’s early operas. Cabelleta Act 2 scene 2
Finally, here is the music that ends the opera. Julian Budden writes: “The finale of Alzira is worthy to be put beside those of Il Trovatore and La Traviata.” And he’s right. Alzira is an opera by a master who while definitely not at his full power still has enough to command his listeners’ attention and even admiration. The finale ends with Alvaro lamenting the death of his son after everyone else has had a chance at sorrow and remorsae. Alzira Act 2 finale
In summary, this is a work that does not deserve its bad rap. If a company feels the need to perform one of Verdi’s early and lesser known operas Alzira should be on its list.
Giuseppe Verdi/Salvatore Cammarano
Alvaro – Francesco Facini
Gusmano – Thomas Gazheli
Ovando – Joshua Lindsay
Zamoro – Ferdinand von Bothmer
Ataliba – Yasushi Hirano
Alzira – Junko Saito
Zuma – Anna Lucia Nardi
Otumbo – Joe Tsuchizaki
Orchestra Haydn di Bolzano e Trento
(chorus master: Marco Medved)
Istituto Corale ed Orchestrale di Dobbiaco
Gustav Kuhn, conductor
Andreas Leisner, scenic concept
Recorded live at the Grand Hotel Centro Culturale, Dobbiaco, 13 and 15 September 2012, in a concert performance from the Alto Adige Festival