Alzira, Buxton Festival, July 2018

This early Verdi opera is set in Peru, based on a play that Voltaire designed to criticise the smug superiority of conventional Christianity in a foreign context.

Zamoro and Alzira, all images BIF/ Richard Hubert Smith

Its libretto by Salvatore Cammarano of the Teatro San Carlo in Naples ignored most of Voltaire’s subtleties, but Verdi was delighted to be working with him and continued to do so on other operas, their last collaboration Il Trovatore  being their greatest success. By comparison Alzira  was a failure and then forgotten until the late twentieth century. The first UK production was staged by University College Opera (London) in 1970, and in 1996 the Royal Opera put on a concert performance conducted by Mark Elder. So Elijah Moshinsky’s staging at the Buxton Festival with wonderful lighting by Mark Jonathan was very welcome indeed.

Alvaro hands over to his son Gusmano

The essential story involves a personal conflict between Gusmano (baritone), Spanish governor of Peru, and tribal leader Zamoro (tenor), who both love Peruvian native Alzira. Aspects of Voltaire’s original drama are preserved in the nobleness of character among both Spaniards and natives: Gusmano’s father Alvaro has been rescued from certain death by Zamoro, and begs his son to spare Zamoro’s life. Later Zamoro is captured, and to spare his life Gusmano compels Alzira to marry him, but as the marriage approaches Zamoro kills Gusmano, who finds redemption by blessing his enemy’s future union with Alzira.

Rebels planning

In the orchestra pit the Northern Chamber Orchestra under artistic director Stephen Barlow, hot foot from conducting Roméo et Juliette  at Grange Park Opera, gave this rumbustious Verdian drama full throttle, and the singing of the two male leads was outstanding. Korean tenor Jung Soo Yun showed nobility and a heroic timbre to his excellent tenor, looking very much the part of a tribal revolutionary — the native Peruvians did after all enter South America from East Asia via the Bering Strait — and James Cleverton was every inch a determined Spanish governor with his strong and firm baritone after a slightly nervous start. Among the rest of the cast, Graeme Danby made a seriously-sung and respectable Alvaro, and Kate Ladner a melodramatic Alzira, but lacking vocal control particularly in her earlier arias.

Zamoro kills Gusmano

Moshinsky’s production was enhanced by Russell Craig’s designs, juxtaposing modern western dress for the ruling Spaniards with a mix of revolutionary and native costumes, and Mark Jonathan’s remarkable lighting evoked dark deeds and wonderful tropical colours. Fighting in the ever-present shadow of death was emphasised by the abrupt and unexpected shooting of Alzira’s father Ataliba at the end of Act I.

Performances continue on various dates until July 20 — for details click here.

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