It wasn't until 1859 that the rallying cry of “Viva Verdi!” (standing for “Viva Vittorio Emanuele Re D'Italia”) was taken up, but La battaglia di Legnano (1849) was very much composed with a political purpose. As Charles Osborne wrote, “while parts of Verdi's earlier operas had frequently been taken up by the fighters of the Risorgimento... this time the composer had given the movement its own opera.” It famously opened the 1961 La Scala season but has rarely been seen since, making Marco Tullio Giordana's new production at the Maggio Musicale enticing enough for the trip to Florence.

Giuseppe Gipali (Arrigo), Giuseppe Altomare (Rolando) and Vittoria Yeo (Lida) © Camilla Riccò | TerranovaProject Contrasto
Giuseppe Gipali (Arrigo), Giuseppe Altomare (Rolando) and Vittoria Yeo (Lida)
© Camilla Riccò | TerranovaProject Contrasto

Verdi was living in Paris at the time of the "Cinque Giornate", the five days of fighting on the streets of Milan which temporarily drove out the Austrians during the 1848 uprisings. His next opera took on a genuinely patriotic subject, adapting Joseph Méry's 1828 play La Bataille de Toulouse, provocatively relocating it in Milan where the Lombard League stands up to the occupying German Emperor, Federico Barbarossa. La battaglia di Legnano was enthusiastically received at its première in Rome in 1849, days before the city declared itself a republic. The whole of Act 4 was encored and the crowds who had packed the Teatro Argentina to the rafters had left singing a refrain from the opening chorus.

Funnily enough, when the Austrians regained control of northern Italy, the censors didn't take too kindly to the opera and further performances were few, sometimes adapted under alternative scenarios. In Parma, after the Italian victories of 1859, all pretence was dropped and the work was even briefly retitled La disfatta degli Austriaci (The defeat of the Austrians)!

Vittoria Yeo (Lida) © Camilla Riccò | TerranovaProject Contrasto
Vittoria Yeo (Lida)
© Camilla Riccò | TerranovaProject Contrasto

The opera is rich in patriotic choruses, including the stirring scene where the tenor is inducted into “The Knights of Death”, soldiers who have pledged to fight to the bitter end. They give the opera a static quality which Italian film director and screenwriter Giordana didn't even try to conquer. As lustily as the Coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino sang – and what a glorious sound they make! – they received zero stage direction, standing about in serried ranks. Frustrating at first, but it allowed one to focus on the often excellent musicianship. Renato Palumbo drove Verdi's score with real energy, allowing orchestra and chorus to let rip with fervour. The final section of the pot-pourri overture (played with the curtain down... a rarity these days) had him bouncing along on the podium, his enthusiasm infectious. He also accompanied his singers sensitively.

Behind all the patriotic fervour of Battaglia, there's inevitably a love triangle. This one is particularly thorny as no one is really at fault. The warrior Arrigo, long believed dead, makes an heroic return to Milan only to discover that, in the intervening years, his best friend (Rolando) has married the love of his life (Lida). When Lida's letter to Arrigo is intercepted – and misinterpreted – Rolando imprisons his friend in the castle so that his punishment shall be not death, but dishonour for abandoning the cause. But Arrigo jumps from the battlements and – unlike Tosca – survives the leap, slays Barbarossa at the Battle of Legnano before suffering a fatal wound. A deathbed reconciliation establishes Lida's innocence as Rolando presses a banner to Arrigo's heart.

Vittoria Yeo (Lida) and Giuseppe Altomare (Rolando) © Camilla Riccò | TerranovaProject Contrasto
Vittoria Yeo (Lida) and Giuseppe Altomare (Rolando)
© Camilla Riccò | TerranovaProject Contrasto

There was a very good trio of principal singers on display. Tenor Giuseppe Gipali sang with plangent tone and good taste as Arrigo, never forcing crudely (this was a Franco Corelli role and there must be a temptation to belt out the decibels). Giuseppe Altomare overcame a woolly start to offer a sincere interpretation of Rolando. His baritone is short at the top, but he phrases well and his duet with Vittoria Yeo's Lida as he bids farewell to his son before heading to battle was genuinely touching. The Korean soprano is almost exclusively based in Italy. I was hugely impressed by her Odabella (Attila) in Venice and she was on excellent form here too, floating long phrases with ease. It's not a huge spinto voice but there's enough steel to cut across the orchestra without losing any of its warmth. Barbarossa makes a brief appearance – signalled all too early in this staging, surrounded by a mob of bucket-helmeted troops – but bass Marco Spotti made a tremendous vocal impact.

Marco Spotti (Barbarossa) © Camilla Riccò | TerranovaProject Contrasto
Marco Spotti (Barbarossa)
© Camilla Riccò | TerranovaProject Contrasto

Boris Setka's sets were effective, simple brick walls and arches gliding effortlessly to keep the action fluid. Silver birch trunks descend partially from the flies taking us beyond the castle ramparts. Costumes by Elisabetta Antico and Francesca Livia Sartori were solidly traditional. Indeed, the whole evening had something of a traditional, old-fashioned feel about it, but was none the worse for that. Whether it sparks a revival of interest in the work itself is another matter.