Verdi’s 14th opera is rarely done. Ten years ago, I reviewed Parma’s DVD of the work published as part of its cycle of all the composer’s operas. The Met has never done Battaglia while La Scala has only mounted it twice – in 1916 and in 1961. The latter show had an all-star cast with Antonietta Stella, Franco Corelli, and Ettore Bastianini in the leading roles. Gianandrea Gavazzeni conducted. Fortunately, it was recorded. Despite its neglect, the opera has interesting moments though it seems to be of more interest to musicologists than to audiences.

It’s a pièce d’occasion that was spawned in reaction to the Italian struggle to be free of Austrian domination in the north of the peninsula. The defeat of Frederick Barbarossa by the Lombard League in 1176 was used as a surrogate for the 19th century fight by Italians against another Germanic state. Any opera that proclaims “Viva Italia” more than once was bound to ignite the Roman audience at its first performance in 1849. Though its first run was successful, it drifted out of the repertoire into its current state of oblivion. It’s almost certain to remain there, but anything by Verdi is worth attention. The excerpts that follow are taken from the 1961 performance mentioned above. A synopsis of the story is at the very end of this article.

The opera’s overture is a fine one that surprisingly is not performed as a concert piece. It makes extensive use of the theme that is associated with the Lombard League throughout the work.

Arrigo, the tenor, appears in Milan as the Lombard League is about to fight the Germans. Thought dead from action in an earlier battle everyone is surprised to see him. The rest of the story makes sense only if he’s been away for a short while; but as his absence has been long enough for his lover Lida to marry his best friend Rolando and have a child who’s at least four years old, there’s a plot hole big enough for the entire Lombard League to march through it. In La pia materna mano Arrigo (Corelli) describes how his mother nursed him back to health after he was left for dead on the battlefield. His years long convalescence is a 12th century record. When Rolando (Bastianini) sees him he expresses his pleasure in a short aria – Ah m’abbraccia d’esultanza.

In scene 2 Lida (Stella) expresses her unhappiness over the loss of Arrigo but motherhood and duty compel her to keep a stiff upper lip – Quante Vole come un done. When she learns Arrigo is alive she displays her joy in the cabaletta A frentari o cor nel petto. It’s restrained as cabelettas go befitting her status as a married woman and a mother. After Rolando is called away, Arrigo berates Lida for her faithlessness in not waiting for him. How many years was she to remain celibate? E ver? sei d’altri? She can’t satisfy him and he rushes away determined to die in battle. In truth, he’s an hysterical jerk. The duet marks Verdi’s first departure from the standard duet format used by Donizetti and Bellini. It’s entirely built around the action it depicts.

The finale of Act 2 is set in Como where Barbarossa is encamped. It’s the first time Verdi had composed a finale of this magnitude without a female voice. It’s appropriately vigorous as it’s a prelude to war. Act 2 finale

Act 3 scene 1 is set in a subterranean vault. Arrigo joins the Knights of Death. The chorus Giuriam d’Italia por fine ai danni that welcomes him to the order is appropriately grave and somber.

The second scene is in Roland’s castle. He bids farewell to Lida and asks her to raise their son to love their country and remind him that he is Italian. The duet is a lovely piece of gentle emotion. Digli ch’è sangue italico. Arrigo arrives and Rolando asks him to care for his family should he (Rolando) fall in battle – Se al nuovo di pugnando. He’s unaware that Arrigo has joined the Knights of Death.

The final scene of the act contains one of my favorite moments in opera. Rolando has discovered the past relationship of his wife and Arrigo. He thinks it resumed and suspects the worst. He also now knows that Arrigo has joined the Knights of Death. To punish Arrigo he locks him in a room with Lida so he can’t fight with the Knights. What does the ardent lover do? He’s alone with the love of his life and chooses to jump out the window of a high tower into a moat so he can join the battle where he’s mortally wounded. His dive into the moat left him unscathed. Act 3 finale

Act 4 is very short. Barbarossa has been defeated. The Lombards return victorious. Everybody forgives everybody else. Arrigo with his last breath proclaims Italy saved – curtain. Act 4 finale

Verdi composed 15 operas before RigolettoBattaglia is not one of them. But even on an off day, Verdi could come up with interesting material. Battaglia has its moments and on the unlikely chance that a performance was nearby, I’d recommend you attend.

Act 1 – “He is Alive!”

Scene 1: Milan, not far from the city walls

Outside the city walls, people have gathered in support of the Lombard League whose troops are about to go into battle against the occupying German Emperor Federico Barbarossa. Among them is Arrigo, a young soldier whom all had thought dead, but he has now re-joined the army and he recounts how his mother had nursed his wounds after he was left for dead. Having recovered and before leaving again, he wants to see Lida, his sweetheart. Rolando, Arrigo’s friend and leader of the troops from Milan, arrives and he is amazed to see Arrigo alive. Joyously, he embraces his friend. The gathered troops and the consuls of Milan all swear to defend the city against tyranny.

Scene 2: Beside the ramparts of the city

Rolando’s wife Lida, who has lost her parents and brothers and who is downcast at the prospect of further war, also mourns the loss of her former love, Arrigo. She is unable to share in the general excitement of the upcoming battles. A German prisoner, Marcovaldo, who has been given some degree of freedom by Rolando, declares his love for Lida, but she is outraged and refuses him.

As Rolando returns home, bringing with him Arrigo, Lida is angry When Arrigo arrives, he is clearly upset to see Lida married to his best friend. But with Rolando suddenly called away to the Senate by the news that Barbarossa’s troops are on the move, Arrigo and Lida are left alone. She tries to explain that her father encouraged her to marry Rolando after all believed that Arrigo had been killed in battle. But Arrigo will not listen and does not believe her. He declares her a “faithless one”, and hurries away, wishing only to die in the forthcoming battle.

Act 2 – “Barbarossa!”

The town hall of Como

The city fathers of Como have gathered to await the arrival of Rolando and Arrigo as ambassadors of the League from Milan. Como has been forced to come to terms with the invaders, and when the two men arrive, they announce that a new army has invaded from the north, that Barbarossa is having problems in Padua, and they seek Como’s help, pointing out that the city lies between Milan and the invaders. They hope that Como will intervene to help the Italian cause. Suddenly, Barbarossa himself appears, proclaiming that “I am Italy’s great destiny”. His troops have surrounded Como and now further threaten Milan. He demands that Arrigo and Rolando return to Milan and seek its submission.

Act 3 – “Infamy!”

Scene 1: The Basilica of Sant’ Ambrogio

In the subterranean vaults of the Basilica, Arrigo is inducted into the Knights of Death, warriors who have pledged to fight to the death rather than suffer defeat or imprisonment. All unite to swear an oath to support the cause of Italy and to drive the foreign forces back across the Alps.

Scene 2: Rolando’s castle

Lida has heard that Arrigo has joined the Knights of Death, and desperately tries to contact him via a note to be conveyed by her maid, Imelda. As Imelda is about to leave, Rolando suddenly enters to say farewell to Lida and to their son, whom he has brought to him. Imelda hides the note, then quickly leaves. Rolando tells Lida to convey his love of country to their son, and to bring the boy up to love the fatherland.

Arrigo enters, summoned by Rolando, who does not know that his friend has joined the Knights of Death. Thinking that Arrigo has been ordered to remain to guard Milan, Rolando begs him to take care of his wife and son in the event of his death (Se al nuovo dì pugnando /”If when we fight on the morrow”). The two men part company, Rolando moved by grief, Arrigo with embarrassment. Just as Rolando is about to leave, Marcovaldo delays him, telling him that his honor has been betrayed and presents him with Lida’s note to Arrigo, which he has intercepted. Rolando is enraged and proclaims that he will obtain double vengeance on his wife and his friend .

Scene 3: A room in the tower

Having received no response to her note, Lida goes to see Arrigo in his room in the tower, where he is writing a farewell letter to his mother. Although they declare their love for each other, he tells her that he has not received any note. Lida tries to persuade him to abandon his suicidal quest while he distraughtly recounts his dismay at finding her married. Finally, Lida says that they must separate for the sake of her husband and child. Then Rolando is heard at the door and, before he enters, Lida hides on the balcony.

Rolando confronts Arrigo, telling him that he now knows about his vow to the Knights of Death and encourages him to depart. Then he opens the balcony door and discovers Lida. Rolando is in a rage while Arrigo confesses his love for Lida but asks for death. Lida then declares that she is the guilty one. Still raging, Rolando storms out to lead the Milanese troops into battle, but as he leaves, he locks the tower door on Arrigo and Lida, declaring that Arrigo will suffer a fate worse than death: the infamy of being absent from the battle in which he had promised to fight, and so will lose his honor. As trumpets signal the beginning of the battle, Arrigo, in desperation, leaps from the tower into the moat, shouting “Long Live Italy!”. Lida remains in anguish.

Act 4 – “To Die For the Fatherland!”

A square in Milan

The assembled people sing a prayer for victory. Imelda assures Lida that Arrigo survived his leap from the tower and Lida prays for the safety of both Arrigo and her husband. As the people begin a hymn of victory, city officials enter the church to confirm the defeat of Barbarossa’s troops by the Lombard League, declaring that Barbarossa was wounded by Arrigo. But, in the middle of the victory celebrations, a group of Knights of Death enter bearing the mortally wounded Arrigo. Rolando receives Arrigo’s assurance that Lida is innocent and that she had always acted honorably. Reconciling with Lida, he forgives Arrigo, who with his last breath, proclaims that “Italy is saved!”