It’s not just Paddington Bear and Juan Diego Flórez who hail from darkest Peru. Alzira, Verdi’s eighth opera, is set amongst Incas and Spanish invaders in a plot very loosely based on Voltaire’s Alzire, ou les Américains. Composed for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, it was Verdi’s first collaboration with renowned librettist Salvatore Cammarano. It flopped. Verdi himself described it as “Quella è proprio brutta” (This one is really ugly), while his friend Andrei Maffei wrote “No one likes the piece, and I too find it unworthy of such a capable composer”. The jury’s been out ever since.

Jung Soo Yun (Zamoro) and revolutionaries © Richard Hubert Smith
Jung Soo Yun (Zamoro) and revolutionaries
© Richard Hubert Smith

Alzira is Verdi’s most succinct score, barely pausing for breath as the action whistles past in little over 90 minutes. Zamoro, leader of the Incas, is believed dead, but turns up in the Prologue to learn that his beloved Alzira and her father are being held captive by Gusmano. He vows to rescue them, but gets himself caught. Alzira consents to marry Gusmano in order to secure Zamoro's release, but he – jealous tenor! – thinks she's been unfaithful, storms the wedding and knifes the governor. Fatally wounded, Gusmano forgives Zamoro, revealing Alzira's innocence and blessing the couple with his dying breath.

<i>Alzira</i> at Buxton Festival © Richard Hubert Smith
Alzira at Buxton Festival
© Richard Hubert Smith

In his third successive year staging early Verdi for the Buxton Festival, Elijah Moshinsky updates events from Spanish colonial rule to the 1960s, when Peru faced military uprisings inspired by the Cuban Revolution. Gusmano heads a military government, while the Incas of the original plot become rebels trying to overthrow him. Stanley Orwin-Fraser's stylish video designs project jungle flora and fauna onto the set's wooden shutters during the jolly overture, along with CNN news footage on the surtitle screens. The production itself is of simple, 'bare necessities' proportions, but none the worse for that. Gun-toting rebels in rumpled linen and Panama hats, chewing on cigars, conjure up revolutionary fever, while off-stage explosions and machine-gun rattle mark the assault on the governor's palace at the end of Act 1, during which Gusmano puts a bullet through the head of Ataliba, Alzira's father. The women are costumed in either predatory red cocktail dresses or as blue nuns, Alzira appearing at her wedding looking like a sacrificial Virgin Mary. Despite the Catholic imagery, Moshinsky's production neglects religious tensions, although Verdi himself makes little of them or, indeed, the political conflicts inherent in the plot which he would later master in operas such as Don Carlos.

James Cleverton (Gusmano) and Jung Soo Yun (Zamoro) © Richard Hubert Smith
James Cleverton (Gusmano) and Jung Soo Yun (Zamoro)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Stephen Barlow led the Northern Chamber Orchestra in a rousing account of Verdi's score, making up for an occasional lack of finesse with the requisite punch. With one exception, Buxton fielded a very good cast too. Jung Soo Yun displayed a big, open tenor with an exciting top as a dashing Zamoro, bringing the house down – and what a gem Frank Matcham's theatre is – with his rousing Act 2 cabaletta. Sherrill Milnes lookalike James Cleverton was a convincing Gusmano, shaping his lines sensitively with his strong, slightly grainy baritone. Graeme Danby was a redoubtable Alvaro, Gusmano's father, who cradles his son on his deathbed. Kate Ladner gave a gutsy performance of the title role, but her pitching was a little wild, with a hollow middle register. Full marks to the spirited chorus. I enjoyed this a good deal more than some of the plusher country house opera I've seen in recent weeks.

When reviewing Chelsea Opera Group's plucky concert performance during the Verdi bicentenary celebrations in 2013, I concluded that Alzira richly deserves a staging. It is well served by Moshinsky's production – the opera's first professional staging in the UK – and, although it's never going to be an opera house regular, it's nowhere near as “ugly” as Verdi would have had us believe.

****1