- Opera in two acts
- Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
- Libretto: Temistocle Solera [and Antonio Piazza?]
- First performed: Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 17 November 1839
- CUNIZA, sister of Ezzelino da Romano (mezzo) Mary Shaw
- RICCIARDO, Count of Salinguerra (tenor) Lorenzo Salvi
- OBERTO, Count of San Bonifacio (bass) Ignazio Marini
- LEONORA, his daughter (soprano) Antonietta Rainieri-Marini
- IMELDA, confidante to Cuniza (mezzo) Marietta Sacchi
SETTING: In Bassano, in and around the castle of Ezzelino. 1228.
In 1839, the year of Mercadante’s Elena da Feltre, also appeared the first opera of a young man who would become Italy’s most popular composer. We are once again in the troubled thirteenth century, in a story involving betrayed love, exile, and revenge.
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 Romana, tyrant of Verona, Vincenza, and Padua, and the count was forced to flee to Mantua. His daughter, Leonora, was seduced by a young Salinguerran 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.
Act I: Leonora has learnt the truth, and comes to Bassano on her wedding day to confront her former lover. Oberto, too, has followed his daughter to Bassano, despite great personal danger; he accuses Leonora of dishonouring the family, and tells her that Riccardo must either marry her or die. The two seek an interview with Cuniza; the bride-to-be is appalled when she learns of Riccardo’s perfidy, but tells Leonora that she will have justice. Cuniza interrupts the wedding; she presents Leonora to Riccardo, and insists that he marry the woman he wronged. Riccardo, however, refuses to marry Leonora, and claims that he deserted her because she was faithless. Oberto, infuriated, reveals his true identity, and the two men draw their swords.
Act II: Obertochallenges Riccardo to a duel; the younger man pleads in vain that it would be unfair to strike the older man. Cuniza again orders Riccardo to marry Leonora, much to her joy – but the two men arrange to fight in the woods. In the affray, Riccardo fatally wounds 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 unfortunate girl goes mad. In the original version, she retires to a convent; in some modern productions, she kills herself instead.
Oberto is the first of 16 operas Verdi composed in the busy ‘galley years’ between 1839 and 1850. Most are blood and thunder melodramas, with much waving of swords; bipolar heroes tossing themselves, off cliffs, and setting fire to Prague; and fervent patriotic sentiment and appeals to Italian liberty. Some are still widely performed today: Nabucco (1842), in whose Hebrew chorus early audiences saw reflected their own suffering and desire for independence; Ernani (1843), based on Victor Hugo’s scandalous Romantic play; and Macbeth (1847), Verdi’s first Shakespearean opera.
Verdi’s early operas were ambitious, but his ambition often outstripped his ability. The early works are full of raw talent; they contain much that is vigorous and invigorating, but the orchestration is unsophisticated, the tunes are sometimes trite, and the style can be emptily bombastic. Other mid-ottocento Italian composers too often relied on conventions and formulae; Verdi had more inspiration, but less experience. His musical technique at this time was cruder than Donizetti’s, let alone French and German composers. But there are wonderful things in even the weakest works; I Lombardi has a splendid quintet and a tenor aria, Attila (1846) has a thrilling ensemble, Giovanna d’Arco (1845) has a rousing cabaletta, and Il Corsaro (1848) has a rousing tenor aria. And many lesser-known works – I due Foscari (1844) or I Masnadieri (1847), for instance – stand up well.
Julian Budden (author of the three-volume English definitive study of Verdi) sums up the composer’s early style as “blunt” (p. 32). The scoring, he states, is “utilitarian: it serves its purpose, and little more” (p. 28). For Verdi (as for Donizetti and Bellini), the starting point of opera was the voice, and his early scoring shows that he was unable to think of the orchestra except in relation to the voice; not until Rigoletto (1851) does he start to think orchestrally (p. 31). For this reason, orchestral players (especially violinists) dislike performing Verdi; the score is full of short fragments of phrases whose only purpose is to set in relief a certain contour in the singer’s line (p. 29). The composer was sometimes accused of lacking originality; he was mostly content to use the stock procedures of the time in somewhat blunter, more ‘popular’ form (p. 35).
Some Italian critics and musicians of the time considered Verdi’s style an assault on opera: the musicologist Abramo Basevi complained that Verdi treated the human voice like a percussion instrument; and Francesco Lamperti (singing teacher at the Milan Conservatory) thought opera singing had become decadent by the 1860s, thanks to Verdi.
Although some of these early works are noisy potboilers that apparently only exist as a vehicle for patriotic choruses, Verdi slowly worked towards musical drama. The early operas, Budden argues, are notable for their headlong rush, for their theatrical concentration; Verdi contracts his formal units (rather than expanding them, as Rossini and Mercadante did), and avoids recitative (p. 32). “Verdi never dawdles; his movements make their effect less by their individual beauty than by swift succession and mutual contrast” (p. 33). Some Italian critics of the time praised Verdi for his realism and boldness: the critic Alberto Mazzucato (Gazzetta Musicale di Milan) placed him at the head of a school of composers that would emancipate Italian opera from the shackles of bel canto conventions; Filippo Filippi believed Verdi was concerned with dramatic truth, and adopted a different style for each libretto.
While Italy and the European public went mad for Verdi, musical élites stood rather aghast. The formidable Belgian critic Fétis (1868!) considered Verdi’s operas commonplace and lacking in both charm and melody, despite brilliant instrumentation. Everything in them was exaggerated, and aimed solely at cheap effect; elevation of thought was rare, and feeling and true expression even rarer; everything was aimed at the senses and the nervous emotions. Pierre Scudo (in 1848, the year of Il Corsaro) considered Verdi’s popularity a sign of degeneracy. His talent, lacking versatility and charm, was nourished on the worst traditions of the German and French schools. Verdi, granted, was a serious man, but his imagination was more elevated than fertile; his ideas were not devoid of brilliance or even power, but his expression was restricted and formulaic. The orchestra was at once noisy and empty; he used the most vulgar instruments to accompany the voice, so the music was more appropriate to a masked ball than to a serious drama, and his operas seriously damaged the art of singing. In England, The Musical World (1847) considered Verdi “the most popular (and the worst) composer of modern Italy”. “Who would calmly think of comparing Donizetti with Verdi? Donizetti is a musician.” Similarly, Henry Chorley wrote: “There is a mixture of grandeur in portions of Signor Verdi’s operas, alternated with puerilities, which is impossible to be outdone in its triteness and folly.”
Continuing in the line of Donizetti and Mercadante, Verdi turned at the end of this period towards naturalistic tragedy: Luisa Miller (1849), a bourgeois drama based on Schiller; and Stiffelio (1850), an unsuccessful work about a Protestant minister who discovers that his wife is unfaithful. The next year, he wrote Rigoletto, the first of his popular trilogy; Il trovatore and La Traviata followed in 1853. The example of French opera showed Verdi how to improve his technique; thenceforward, each opera was its own work; it had, in Verdi’s words, its distinctive tinta. And Verdi would surpass his Italian predecessors with the stride of a giant in Don Carlos (1867) and Otello (1887).
Oberto is a very uneven work; it shows the merits and defects of Verdi’s galley period. Structurally, it follows the conventions of early Italian romantic opera – choruses to introduce each scene, cavatinas and cabalettas, an elaborate finale, and the prima donna’s rondo finale – but at an erratic level of musicianship. More than the later operas, it feels like a concert in costume.
The overture is an entertaining if loosely constructed potpourri. In Act I, the finest pieces include the first father / daughter duet in Verdi (No. 4), with a lovely andante maestoso section, ‘Del tuo favor soccorrimi’; a pretty wedding chorus (although the orchestral prelude is better than the singing); and a big terzetto, ending with an exciting allegro, ‘Ma fia l’estremo’. The finale contains an impressive funereal andante, ‘A quell’aspetto un fremito’; but the stretta is bizarre: first oddly light-hearted, then massively harmonised. The quartet in Act II apparently made the fortune of the opera; Fétis thought it contained many schoolboy blunders, but it was energetic and thrilling on stage: “Nothing more was needed for a public who understood nothing of the finer points of the art”. The finale – Riccardo’s anguished ‘Ciel, che feci!’ and Leonora’s mad scene – show early signs of Verdi’s dramatic power. Other pieces are dully conventional or uninspired: the Cuniza / Riccardo duet in Act I, for instance, or the flaccid chorus and aria that opens Act II.
The libretto apparently began as an English drama – either Lord Hamilton or Rocester (there is some debate). The setting (as so often in bel canto Italian opera) doesn’t matter. The opera was performed 14 times that season – quite a good run, according to Verdi; it was given a fair number of times; the impresario Bartolomeo Merelli prolonged its run beyond the fixed schedule; and the publisher Ricordi bought the score.
Fétis considered Oberto a generally badly written opera full of reminiscences of Bellini, but which contained some good things marked by dramatic character. The press reception was mixed, according to Budden. Figaro and the Gazzetta Privilegiata thought the score lacked originality and imagination, and recommended Verdi study his great predecessors. La Fama was hostile; the libretto was absurd, and the score was “languid and monotonous where it ought to be energetic and passionate”. The Moda, however, found much originality; “Verdi’s inspiration [apparently] owed nothing to Donizetti, Bellini, Mercadante nor even Rossini” – an exaggeration.
The score, Budden suggests, is an awkward mixture of the original and the derivative; many numbers he calls crude (excruciatingly crude, even), clumsy, inept, ineffective, undistinguished, tortuous, and ugly. “[The Act I finale] has a certain impetus, a purely physical vigour rare in Verdi’s predecessors. But of musical distinction there is not a trace.”
Elsewhere, passages look to the future: Oberto’s soliloquy, Budden states, contains some of the finest arioso-recitative in early Verdi; the terzetto in Act I gives a new display of his powers as a musician, and a dramatist as well. The score, Budden argues, already shows a sure instinct for stylistic unity, and the ultra-Verdian quality of gaining momentum as it proceeds. “There is little here that is distinguished, and much that is merely rough. But the momentum is sustained right up to the final chord.”
Oberto is by no means a beautiful opera – indeed, Verdi (breaking with his Italian forebears) rarely made beauty an end in itself (not for him the almost narcissistic rapture of the Baroque); its trumpets, percussion, and batteries of chords might be crude; but its energy is often irresistible. Verdi would certainly do better; he would also do worse.
Listen to: Samuel Ramey (Oberto), Maria Guleghina (Leonora), Violeta Urmana (Cuniza), Stuart Neill (Riccardo), and Imelda Fulgoni (Imelda), with Sir Neville Marriner conducting the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, London, 1996; Philips.
Watch: Ildar Abdrazakov (Oberto), Evelyn Herlitzius (Leonora), Marianne Cornetti (Cuniza), Carlo Ventre (Riccardo), and Nuria Lorenzo (Imelda), with Yves Abel conducting; Bilbao, 2007; Opus Arte.
- Julian Budden, The Operas of Verdi, Volume 1: From Oberto to Rigoletto, London: Cassell, 1973.
- F.-J. Fétis, Biographie universelle des musiciens (2ème édition), Paris : Librairie de Firmin Didot Frères, Fils et Cie., 1869.
- Charles Osborne, The Complete Operas of Verdi: A Critical Guide, London: Victor Gollancz, 1969.
- Pierre Scudo, “Donizetti et l’école italienne depuis Rossini“, Revue des Deux Mondes, période initiale, tome 23, 1848 (p. 76-90).
- Massimo Zicari, Verdi in Victorian London, 2016.