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2001: Oberto, conte

di San Bonifacio


To one familiar only with the astonishing variety and weight of Giuseppe Verdi’s well known operas, it might seem that his career was a smooth succession of successes, one hit after another. But nothing could be further from the truth.


In fact, the struggle which Verdi faced in getting his first opera, Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio, to the stage was lengthy and difficult, requiring of the young composer patience he never had in abundance, and bringing tumultuous change to nearly every aspect of his life. The situation surrounding this first effort is somewhat hard to determine, partly due to Verdi’s tendency to revise the facts of his life to fit the need of the moment.


In an inauspicious beginning, Verdi failed to gain admittance to the prestigious Conservatorio in Milan and was forced to seek private instruction. His tutor, Vincenzo Lavigna, was a professor at the Conservatorio, and was well connected to the powers behind Milan’s operatic establishment. Lavigna subjected his student to a rigorous course of music theory and composition, including intensive training in counterpoint.


During this period, despite his lack of conservatory credentials, Verdi became known as the composer of several modest works and as conductor at a small Milan theatre, the Filodrammatico. The director of the theatre, Pietro Massini, asked Verdi to write an opera on a libretto by journalist Antonio Piazza.

With no offers of immediate employment on hand, and out of loyalty to his patron, Antonio Barezzi, the young composer returned to Busseto, his adopted hometown. Once he had assumed the post of director of municipal music organizations, he married Barezzi’s eldest daughter, Margherita. The marriage to Margherita produced two children, Virginia and Icilio, and Verdi settled into a pattern of writing marches and overtures, choruses and songs to meet the town’s musical needs.


But this was certainly not the career Verdi had in mind, nor the life for which he was suited, both temperamentally and artistically. Amid growing impatience over his isolation from Milan’s artistic life, he continued to work on the opera for Massini, which he had now begun to refer to as Rocester. However, there seemed to be no hope for a production at the Filodrammatico,as Massini had since resigned as director. So, Verdi spent his annual leave in Milan during 1838, trying to sell the opera to La Scala.


In order to accomplish this, Verdi had to attract the attention of the immensely powerful impresario, Bartolomeo Merelli, who controlled all the opera houses of the Austrian monarchy which ruled part of northern Italy at the time. Massini was able to extract a promise from Merelli to produce Verdi’s opera, now entitled Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio, with a libretto revised by Antonio Solera, for a charity event at La Scala. Once again, plans fell through and the charity performance was cancelled, this time due to the illness of one of the singers.


However, two of La Scala’s most important singers spoke of their disappointment in the cancellation of such a promising work by a new composer, and their remarks came to the attention of Merelli, who promptly summoned Verdi to his office and offered a regular production in the next season.


The first performance of this much-revised and professionally crucial opera finally took place at La Scala on November 17, 1839. It was moderately successful in its debut and must have secured some wider approval, for it was mounted again several times during the next three years. This production continues the Sarasota Opera’s salute to the works of Giuseppe Verdi. Seldom given a professional production, this opera seems to be unjustly neglected, for it contains seeds of the passion and energy of the operas to follow. With Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio, Sarasota Opera’s Verdi Cycle and Masterworks Revival Series continues two missions: to produce all the music of Verdi and to revive neglected and rarely-performed works.


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