Alzira review – Buxton make a strong case for Verdi's unloved early opera

Buxton Opera House
Set in colonial Peru, this first UK staging of Verdi’s 1845 opera on colonialism and compassion is consistently dramatic with superb singing

The opening opera of this year’s Buxton international festival is Verdi’s Alzira, which is receiving its first professional UK staging in a new production by Elijah Moshinsky, conducted by Stephen Barlow. Time has never been kind to the piece. It failed to enter the regular repertory in the years following its 1845 Naples premiere. In later life Verdi disparaged it, reportedly stating he thought it “really ugly”. His judgment was accepted at face value by many and the score went unheard for more than a century. Even today, its outings remain infrequent.

Based on a play by Voltaire, it’s set in Peru shortly after the Spanish invasion, and the clash between colonialists and colonised is played out in microcosm between the Spanish governor Gusmano and the Inca leader Zamoro, both in love with the captive princess Alzira. Dramatically, the opera anticipates Don Carlos in its examination of the intersection between private agendas and public power, though the assassination that triggers the denouement also strongly reminds us of Un Ballo in Maschera.

Verdi’s contemporaries castigated the score for its brevity, though nowadays it’s the work’s compactness that most impresses. There’s not a wasted note as Verdi hurtles through his material at exhilarating speed. The big confrontations have considerable force, and a tremendous sextet forms the first-act climax. There are flaws, however: the music for Zamoro’s followers rarely rises above exoticist convention and neither libretto nor score give us quite enough psychological preparation for Gusmano’s eventual decision to reject the brutal colonialist code by which he has lived. But the piece doesn’t deserve the opprobrium heaped on it over the years, and Buxton have made a strong case for it.

Neither side can claim moral superiority … James Cleverton (Gusmano) and Jung Soo Yun (Zamoro) in Alzira.
Neither side can claim moral superiority … James Cleverton (Gusmano) and Jung Soo Yun (Zamoro) in Alzira. Photograph: Richard Hubert Smith

Moshinsky relocates the work to an unspecified late-20th-century South American dictatorship in the throes of revolution, where neither side can ultimately claim moral integrity or superiority. The rigid, presidential militarism of Gusmano (James Cleverton) and his cronies contrasts with the barely controlled rage of Jung Soo Yun’s Zamoro and his followers. Strands of religious imagery run through it. Russell Craig’s sets suggest a despoiled Eden, ravaged by the human violence that ceaselessly erupts within it. Having agreed to marry Gusmano in order to save Zamoro’s life, Kate Ladner’s Alzira looks like a saint or martyr as she goes to her wedding, and the closing scene, true to the score, is as much a demand for spiritual compassion as for political reconciliation.

The outstanding performances come from Cleverton and Yun. The latter has an easy ring at the top of his voice and a restless dramatic energy. Cleverton, handsome-sounding and wonderfully subtle, really convinces both as the stiff-backed dictator of the opening scenes and the man of conscience at the close. Ladner, meanwhile, powerfully conveys Alzira’s conflicted emotions, though the role lies high for her. In the smaller but crucial role of Alvaro (the father of Gusmano), Graeme Danby took time to settle on opening night. The choral singing is consistently strong and Barlow conducts the Northern Chamber Orchestra with grace and panache. It’s a fascinating, if occasionally flawed evening.

• At Buxton Opera House, until 20 July.

Contributor

Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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