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2011: I Lombardi alla prima crociata


Program notes by George W. Martin


Though Verdi’s I Lombardi alla prima crociata, or The Lombards on the First Crusade, was his fourth opera in order of composition, it was the first to be staged in the United States, at Palmo’s Opera House, New York City, on 3 March 1847. Two excerpts of it, however, had been heard earlier at concerts. And the concert at which the first, “Non fu sogno,” was sung, Giselda’s ecstatic assertion that a vision of her beloved in paradise was not a dream, sets the earliest date yet discovered of a public performance in the United States of any of Verdi’s music, 12 May 1846.


The other excerpt heard before the opera’s premiere was the “conversion” trio for soprano, tenor, and bass in Act III, in which a Muslim prince, dying and in love with Giselda, a Christian, for her sake converts and is baptized by a hermit with water from the River Jordan. Ultimately it would become the excerpt most frequently sung, surpassing even “Non fu sogno” and two choruses, “O Signore, dal tetto natio,” and “Gerusalem!” 


The trio, uniquely in Verdi’s works, is preceded by a brief violin concerto — opening statement, three tiny movements, and coda — after which, as the voices enter, the solo violin continues to interject its message of hope and salvation. At the premiere in New York the leader of the company’s small orchestra of thirty-two, was the solo violinist, Michele Rapetti, then likely the best violinist in the city, and at every performance he won rounds of applause. And the opera, despite some harsh criticism, had a success.


The criticism touched first on the seeming noise of the opera. Verdi was charged with abuse of brass and percussion. The complaint was most succinctly stated by a reviewer after a year’s thought and the U. S. premieres of Ernani and I due Foscari: “His scoring exhibits no relief; his winds instruments are not used as adjuncts to his stringed quartette, which with all good writers is the basis on which all legitimate effects are wrought, but the whole band is brought into constant operation.” For ears accustomed to Haydn and Mozart, Verdi, using the “whole” band, seemed crude. 


Part of the trouble, however, may have been the theatre. Palmo’s Opera House (he was a Neapolitan immigrant who had made money in a restaurant, was passionate for Italian opera, and went bust trying to establish a resident company) seated only 1,100, and those seats were uncushioned boards without arms. And not only was the house small and the opera very grand, but the orchestra was not sunk in a pit but sat at floor level. Nevertheless, the house curtain was splendid, showing the marriage of Jupiter and Juno. 


The chief complaint, however, concerned the opera’s libretto. It was said to present merely a series of “disconnected scenes,” a story too disjointed to be dramatic or even understood. And over the years this complaint would haunt the opera everywhere but Italy.


It is Verdi’s only opera set to an Italian source, on Tommaso Grossi’s heroic epic of fifteen cantos, I Lombardi all prima crociata (1826). Grossi based his poem, a monument of Italian romantic poetry, on Tasso’s sixteenth-century epic Gerusalemme Liberata, combining with it elements of Walter Scott’s novel, Ivanhoe. From Grossi’s poem, known perhaps to most Italians, Verdi took only eleven scenes, too few to cohere for those unfamiliar with the poem. Yet much of the music is attractive, and so the opera’s history in the United States records relatively few staged performances but excerpts frequently sung.


In the last twenty years, however, the number of staged productions of I Lombardi world-wide has increased slightly as companies, or at least their stage directors, have seen in the opera a chance to criticize western invasions of Muslim countries. The Metropolitan, for one, in 1993-94 produced it primarily perhaps as a display for Pavarotti, but in the staging attempted a modern touch. When in Act III the chorus of crusaders and pilgrims sings fervently of “Gerusalem!” Verdi directed that the city be seen “in the distance.” The Metropolitan, however, replaced Jerusalem with a blizzard of bloody crosses over the pilgrims’ heads, as if to question the sincerity of their crusade. Similarly, a 2005 production in Florence, Italy, used images of the U. S. Army in Iraq. In both cases critics, while admiring much of the music, deplored the contradiction of Verdi’s directions and his quite obvious sincerity.


In the nineteenth century, however, no one questioned the purpose of the first crusade. Hence the opera has a curious history, becoming in time more not less problematic. But no one questions that it has some fine music: all of Giselda’s arias, one for her Muslim prince, two choruses, and that extraordinary trio — all best heard in context.


George W. Martin has written several books on Verdi, including his often reissued biography, Verdi, His Music, Life and Times.


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