I Lombardi, University College Opera, Bloomsbury Theatre, March 2013Posted on 19 March 2013
After UCOpera’s production of a Rameau work last year, which suffered from over-ambitious direction that didn’t gel, I was unsure what this year’s I Lombardi would be like. I need not have worried — it was terrific.
Suits of armour and chain mail are expensive, so director Jamie Hayes has updated it to warring gangs from the 1960s, with guns and the occasional knife. I Lombardi meets West Side Story, but it really works, and Charles Peebles produced wonderful playing from the orchestra. Early Verdi is so full of energy, and UCL have made a perfect choice for his bicentenary year. This is the opera that followed Nabucco, which starts a new run at the Royal Opera House on Easter Saturday, so here is an excellent chance to see the next collaboration between Verdi and his early librettist Temistocle Solera.
As an enthusiast for Italian unification and the Risorgimento, the story of Lombards fighting Islamic warriors formed an attractive background that would have resonated with Verdi’s audience, but the First Crusade no longer inspires us, so I applaud the change of location in time and space. The chorus members were entirely comfortable with their roles and sang with conviction, and the three pole dancers, particularly the middle one, were great fun. UCOpera uses UCL students, complemented by a sprinkling of professionals and they were lucky to have Katherine Blumenthal in the main role of Giselda.
She suffered the misfortune of serious transport disruptions, but hurtled down the motorway in a car, arriving with five minutes to spare though you wouldn’t have known it. Already in Act I her voice showed a fine characterisation of her feelings, and as the opera revolves around her it was a huge pleasure to see such a wonderful vocal portrayal of the role. Giselda is a source of affection and concern to four men: her father Arvino, his brother Pagano, crime boss Acciano and syndicate member Oronte, who is in love with her.
Among the students, Joseph Dodd sang well as Acciano, and Edward Cottell sang an excellent bass as Arvino’s right hand man Pirro. Among the professionals, Adam Smith sang strongly as Oronte, Jeff Stewart gave a lyrical rendering of Arvino’s role, and John MacKenzie was super as Pagano. His compelling stage presence was perfect for this criminal turned hermit who eventually achieves redemption.
Good set designs by Will Bowen and the clever lighting by Matthew Eagland managed to convey both fire and rain at the right moments, as well as changes of mood and location. If the production was a little tongue in cheek at times that only made it more fun, and director Jamie Hayes showed a fine sense of humour. Charles Peebles’ conducting was exemplary and the orchestra did him proud, particularly the wonderful violin solo for the party scene in Act III.
Don’t miss this glorious but rarely-performed early Verdi. There are three further performances on March 20, 22, 23 — for details click here.