By the time it premiered in Trieste in 1848, Giuseppe Verdi had rather fallen out of love with Il corsaro, his piratical opera based on Byron's poem. Indeed, he didn't even bother showing up to the first performance. His initial enthusiasm for the work, originally intended for London, waned in the wake of postponements and rearranged plans. It's an opera which has never found a foothold in the repertoire so Nicola Raab's new staging at Valencia's looming spaceship of a house, the Palau de Les Arts Reina Sofia, tempted me to cast anchor for Spain.

Oksana Dyka (Gulnara) © Miguel Lorenzo and Mikel Ponce | Les Arts
Oksana Dyka (Gulnara)
© Miguel Lorenzo and Mikel Ponce | Les Arts

It's an opera full of swashbuckling derring-do. Pirate captain Corrado abandons his lover, Medora, to go and teach the wily Turks a lesson. He infiltrates Pasha Seid's palace and the pirates sweep in, burning everything to the ground. However, in a fatal – and very English – moment of noble hesitation, he decides to rescue the ladies of the harem, giving time for the Turks to rally. Corrado is imprisoned, sentenced to death, but Gulnara – the Pasha's favourite – has fallen for the pirate, slays Seid and they escape for Greece. Medora, wouldn't you know it, believes her lover to be dead and takes poison just moments before Corrado and Gulnara arrive. But it sets up a beautiful final trio, so that's okay then.

Vito Priante (Pasha Seid), Michael Fabiano (Corrado) and Oksana Dyka (Gulnara) © Miguel Lorenzo and Mikel Ponce | Les Arts
Vito Priante (Pasha Seid), Michael Fabiano (Corrado) and Oksana Dyka (Gulnara)
© Miguel Lorenzo and Mikel Ponce | Les Arts

Raab attempts to circumnavigate the plot by having Byron himself play the title role. This is a cunning device, given Byron's active involvement in the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire, dying just before he was due to lead an attack on the fortress of Lepanto. Michael Fabiano, as the poet, sits at a writing desk, paces the stage, wrings his hands and clenches his fists as he enters a tortured flashback. It's Raab's one big idea, but she doesn't always know how to sustain it. The thorny problem with first person narrative novels is how can the author narrate the bits he/she isn't in? Raab has the same problem here: what to do with Corrado when he's not involved in the action? So when the cannon signals the pirates' imminent departure, does our pirate hero dash off to lead them? No. He returns to his desk and resumes scribbling. And Byron's presence at the start of Act 3 seriously upstages the Pasha's solo scene.

Vito Priante (Pasha Seid) © Miguel Lorenzo and Mikel Ponce | Les Arts
Vito Priante (Pasha Seid)
© Miguel Lorenzo and Mikel Ponce | Les Arts

Some bright ideas emerge. We see Byron disguise himself as a dervish – draped in a rug and donning a fez – to infiltrate the Seid's banquet and the burning of the palace is ignited by Byron lighting a match to his waste paper basket. And in Act 3, Gulnara doesn't disappear to slay the Pasha; instead, she gathers the sheets of Byron's poem and pours ink all over them – giant plumes of ink flooding the stage in Ran Arthur Braun's excellent video footage, which also includes burning manuscript and underwater drowning sequences. These make up for the rather sparse sets. Apart from bright orange lighting for the harem – Byron is smoking opium, so is it all an hallucination? – David Debrinay's lighting is dim. When Vito Priante sings his first lines as Pasha Seid, you'd be hard pushed to pick him out on the stage.

Kristina Mkhitaryan (Medora) © Miguel Lorenzo and Mikel Ponce | Les Arts
Kristina Mkhitaryan (Medora)
© Miguel Lorenzo and Mikel Ponce | Les Arts

Verdi's music to Il corsaro is variable. The Act 2 stretta marks a definite step back in compositional technique, his hands tied by a libretto written before the ground-breaking approach to Macbeth. There are some fine things though, not least the prison scene, with its glowing viola-led introduction and a thrilling duet for Corrado and Gulnara, who has come to rescue him. Most of the musical performances are good, under the baton of Fabio Biondi who kept the score moving, with fine woodwind solos from the Orquestra del la Communitat Valenciana.

As Byron/Corrado, Michael Fabiano was in splendid voice, producing a thrilling sound but never pushing too hard, something he has tended to do before. There was a gorgeous, limpid quality to Kristina Mkhitaryan's Medora which made you wish her character were more than a seconda donna role. Oksana Dyka's acidic tone ploughed through Verdi's score like an armoured tank, often veering sharp in Act 2. Her soprano certainly has plenty of bloodthirsty blade and her tuning improved as the evening went on, but Gulnara is not really an Odabella or Abigaille kind of role. Vito Priante's firm baritone is on the smaller side, but his Pasha Seid was well phrased and declamatory enough when required, especially in his fiery cabaletta as he thirsts for vengeance. It's a pity, then, that Raab treats him as no more than a cardboard cutout villain, symptomatic of her half-hearted staging. 

 

Mark's press trip to Valencia was sponsored by the Palau de les Arts