OBERTO, CONTE DI SAN BONIFACIO
Opera in 2 acts
Libretto: Temistocle Solera & Antonio Piazza
Verdi’s first opera.
First performed: Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 17 November 1839
The backdrop of the opera is Italian feudal politics of the early 13th century, but that’s largely irrelevant. The plot concerns the usual romantic entanglement of the period: A once loved B, but now loves C.
Before the opera: Oberto, Count of San Bonifacio, fought a civil war against the Salinguerra family in Verona. Oberto was defeated in battle by Ezzelino da Romano, tyrant of Verona, Vincenza, and Padua, and forced to flee to Mantua. His daughter, Leonora, was seduced by a young Salinguerra nobleman, Riccardo, who gave a false name, and promised to marry her. Riccardo then fell in love with Ezzelino’s sister, Cuniza, and arranged to marry her. Leonora, meanwhile, learns the truth, and comes to Bassano on the wedding day.
Got that straight? All you really need to know is that Riccardo loved Leonora, and abandoned her; that he is now engaged to Cuniza; that Leonora wants either revenge or Riccardo; and that her father is in exile.
Act I: Riccardo and a chorus of knights look forward to the wedding. They leave. Leonora enters, intent on preventing the marriage, or on vengeance.
Oberto appears on his daughter’s trail. He accuses Leonora of dishonouring the family, and tells her that Riccardo will either make an honest woman of her, or die.
Leonora and Oberto reveal the truth to Cuniza, who is appalled, but tells Leonora that she will have justice.
At the wedding, Cuniza presents Leonora to Riccardo, and tells him she is his rightful bride. Riccardo refuses to marry Leonora, and says that he left her because she was unfaithful. Oberto, infuriated, emerges from hiding, and the two men draw their swords.
Act II: Cuniza tells her maid that she will make Riccardo marry Leonora.
Oberto challenges Riccardo to a duel; the younger man tries to get out of it, pleading that it would be unfair to strike his elder. Leonora and Cuniza arrive; Cuniza tells Riccardo to marry Leonora, who is overjoyed – but Oberto tells him to meet him in the woods afterwards; there, they will fight. Verdi considered this quartet “one of the best pieces in the opera”.
Riccardo kills Oberto. He is overcome with guilt, and flees the country, leaving all his property to Leonora in restitution.
Cuniza promises to protect Leonora, but the girl goes mad. In the original, she goes into a convent; in some modern productions, she kills herself instead.
Verdi’s first opera, a bel canto work written under the influence of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti.
It’s an uneven work, with Verdi’s inspiration only coming through in patches, and hampered by a weak libretto.
The opera is static in a way Verdi’s later operas aren’t, and doesn’t hold the attention. All the bel canto conventions – the coda Rossini, the mad scene, the soprano’s rondò finale – are present, but less effectively than in, say, Donizetti. More than the later operas, it feels like a concert in costume rather than a fully-fledged music drama.
Good numbers sit side by side with uninspired recit, dully conventional passages, or overlong set-pieces (e.g. the Cuniza/Riccardo duet in Act I, or the flaccid chorus and Cuniza’s aria that opens Act II). At this stage, Verdi doesn’t yet have the knack of writing instantly memorable melodies.
The ending – Riccardo’s anguished “Ciel, che feci!” and Leonora’s mad scene/rondò – is powerful, however, and shows what Verdi can do once he gets his teeth into something meaty and dramatic.
Oberto has themes Verdi will return to in his later career: the father/daughter relationship; the father avenging his daughter’s dishonor; the wronged woman; the destructive pursuit of revenge; the generous, self-sacrificing compassion of a woman; civil war; and the exile returning to his native land.
Zoltán Peskó, Fonit Cetra / Warner Fonit. With Simon Estes (Oberto), Ángeles Gulin (Leonora), Viorica Cortez (Cuniza), Umberto Grilli (Riccardo), and Maria Grazia Piolatto (Imelda). Bologna, 1977.
Lamberto Gardelli, Orfeo. With Rolando Panerai (Oberto), Ghena Dimitrova (Leonora), Ruža Baldani (Cuniza), Carlo Bergonzi (Riccardo), and Alison Browner (Imelda). Munich, 1983. Listen to it online here.
Neville Marriner, Philips. With Samuel Ramey (Oberto), Maria Guleghina (Leonora), Violeta Urmana (Cuniza), Stuart Neill (Riccardo), and Imelda Fulgoni (Imelda). London, 1996. Listen to it online here.
DVD: Yves Abel, Opus Arte. Ildar Abdrazakov (Oberto), Evelyn Herlitzius (Leonora), Marianne Cornetti (Cuniza), Carlo Ventre (Riccardo), and Nuria Lorenzo (Imelda). Bilbao, 2007.
The Bilbao production makes the best case for the work. It’s blessedly straightforward, and Evelyn Herlitzius is terrific as Leonora. You can watch it online (with Dutch subtitles) here: