Verdi’s 12th opera (I’m not counting Jérusalem, his reworking of I Lombardi) was originally intended for London. After about three years of dithering Piave’s libretto was set to music and premiered at the Teatro Grande in Trieste on October 25, 1848. Verdi whose dramatic and lyric inspiration had failed almost entirely in his previous opera, I Masnadieri, regained his muse in this setting of Byron’s poem The Corsair. Verdi like so many European artists and intellectuals had a Byronic phase. Thankfully, his was very short. Reading Byron’s poem today makes it hard to understand what all the excitement was about in the first half of the 19th century. Consider this quatrain which barely rises above doggerel:
Unfit to vanquish, shall I meanly fly,
The one of all my band that would not die?
Yet there is one to whom my memory clings,
Till to these eyes her own wild softness springs.
It’s this Byronic atmosphere that makes this opera minor Verdi despite its many fine numbers. There’s too much stasis. And when there is action, ie the fight in Act 2 scene 2, Verdi writes perhaps the weakest music of his career. By comparison the fight music in La Forza Del Destino, which is pretty mechanical, seems like the Missa Solemnis. Verdi is still stuck with the aria cabeletta format. He stayed with it until Il Trovatore in which he brought it to perfection and then abandoned it. Cabalettas are in Rigoletto and La Traviata. They used to be cut, but modern productions restore them. I have mixed feelings about this practice.
Nevertheless, there is a lot of first rate material in Il Corsaro. There are two outstanding tenor arias, the second of which is unlike anything Verdi had done before – see below. The soprano aria in the first act, the adagio concertato in the second act, and the baritone aria in the third act and are just a few examples of the fine writing in this rarely performed work. One of the reasons that may account for the infrequency of its appearance is that it requires two good sopranos in addition to a strong spinto tenor and an accomplished Verdi baritone who plays a wooden character – Seid the Turkish Pasha.
The story can briefly be summarized. Corrado (tenor) loves Medora (soprano) whom he has to leave to fight the Turks. He’s captured by Seid after he’s briefly rescued Seid’s unwilling concubine Gulnara (soprano). She falls in love with him and rescues him from prison after murdering Seid. They return to the Corsair’s Aegean island to find Medora dying. I’m not sure from what. In this production she take poison from a very large ring. A lot of very pretty music follows after which Corrado throws himself from a cliff – curtain.
It may have been a lack of confidence in this opera that caused the Teatro Regio di Parma to mount Il Corsaro in Busseto’s teacup Teatro Verdi. If so, it was an error. The opera and its production were easily good enough for a larger theater. The time appropriate costumes and the simple sets necessitated by Busseto’s small stage all work very well. The use of hanging ropes in the third act’s prison scene is an example of effective use of spare resources.
The singers are all competent professionals none of whom would merit a special trip to hear, but all of whom did justice to their parts. Portuguese tenor Bruno Ribeiro is the corsair, Corrado – Conrad in the original. He has an attractive spinto voice and is slim and good looking. His second aria Eccomi prigioiero takes place in a prison. Corrado is at his most Byronic and is understandably feeling very sorry for himself. The scene starts with a beautiful prelude played mainly by the cellos. Budden says the aria – if you can call it that – “abounds in poignant harmonic effects.” Francis Toye, Verdi’s first English biographer, likens the moment to the prison scene in Fidelio. This is not a typical early 19th century aria. It mixes declamation with expressive passages in the orchestra. It is a work of high dramatic expression. Verdi’s latter strokes of genius didn’t arise from nothing.
Officially Medora, here sung by Russian soprano Irina Lungu, is the seconda donna. But she gets to sing the opera’s great soprano romanza Egli non riede ancora! Non so le tetre immagini. She’s yearning for Corrado’s return. This is in the first act. He returns, they sing a duet and then she disappears until the opera’s final scene. Lungu sings the piece with feeling, expression, and control.
The prima donna is Gulnara sung by Silvia Dalla Benetta. The Italian soprano has made most of her career in Italy, though she has also sung in Latin America and Canada. She managed her part as the other woman with aplomb.
The baritone in this opera has the personality of a block of wood, but he does get two arias. The second, Cento leggiadre vergini, has a lovely melody played by the orchestra with the singer commenting above it. This effect is reminiscent of Macbeth’s Pietà!, rispetto, amore. Seid, the baritone, starts the adagio of the concertato that ends the second act. Audice cotanto mostrarti pur sai. This is another example of Verdi’s great facility with large forces. Seid is played by Luca Salsi. A native of Parma, he has a big burly voice that handled his part easily; though he eschewed the part’s written or implied high notes with the exception of the one that concludes the second cabaletta.
Carlo Montanaro conducted the Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Regio di Parma with energy and feeling. A fine performance of an unjustly neglected opera. This work’s immediate predecessor deserves to be left on the shelf; but Il Corsaro contains a host of jewels. The whole thing may not be a succession of precious stones, but there are enough of them to warrant an occasional revival. If it were playing in my vicinity, I’d definitely have a look and a listen. Minor Verdi is better than almost anyone else.
Busseto, Teatro Verdi October, 2008
Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave from the poem “The Corsair” by George Byron.
Music by Giuseppe Verdi
Corrado Bruno Ribeiro
Medora Irina Lungu
Seid Luca Salsi
Gulnara Silvia Dalla Benetta
Selimo Ggrgory Bonfatti
Giovanni Andrea Papi
A eunuch/slave Angelo Villari
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Regio di Parma
Chorus Master Martino Faggiani
Director Lamberto Pugelli
Sets Marco Capuana
Costumes Vera Marzot
Lighting Andrea Borelli