UCOpera, the opera company of University College London, has a history of putting on lesser known Verdi works: amongst many others, they have staged the British premières of Alzira, Oberto and the original 1847 version of Macbeth. This year, they've turned their attention to I Lombardi alla prima crociata ("The Lombards at the first crusade"), Verdi's follow-up to his smash hit Nabucco, which was as successful as Nabucco in its early years, although it has since faded from the repertoire.

Act III: Mr Mackenzie, Mr Cottell, and Chorus © Louise Wilkinson
Act III: Mr Mackenzie, Mr Cottell, and Chorus
© Louise Wilkinson

For the first act, the "crusade" part is peripheral: we are watching a classic family feud cum love triangle, as the villainous Pagano seeks to slake his undying hatred for his brother Arvino, who married Viclinda, the girl they both loved (some years before the curtain goes up). Pagano botches his attempted murder of Arvino, killing their father by mistake. For Acts I–IV, the action shifts to the holy land and a doomed romance between Giselda (Arvino and Viclinda's daughter) and the Saracen prince Oronte; a penitent Pagano is now a hermit and is considered the holiest man of the environs. The romance is interleaved with much Christian mysticism and celebration of the heroic struggle of the Lombards to regain Jerusalem.

Producer Rose Hughes and director Jamie Hayes took fright at the possible offence to Muslim sensibilities, deciding instead to set the opera in London East End gangland, with a vague 1950s feel: crusaders and Saracens turn into a pair of warring families. Trying to guarantee a 100% crusade-free product works well enough for the first act, although it wasn't the punchiest of productions: the explicit sex and violence promised in the pre-show hype came out rather tame (although I'm sure the members of the UCLU Pole Fitness Society enjoyed their moment in the limelight). But the concept unravels horribly in the subsequent acts, as the libretto becomes more and more focused on the conversion of Oronte and the crusaders' longing for Jerusalem. The visuals were OK, but I squirmed at the attempts to rationalise the production concept in the printed synopsis and the surtitles. Excising the words "Muslim" and "holy land" and translating "palace" into "club" and "crusaders" into "gangsters" seemed pretty cheap when the full original Italian was being sung. I guess Hayes was placing a fairly safe bet on there being no Italian-speaking Muslims in the audience.

Conductor Charles Peebles coaxed a thoroughly creditable performance out of his orchestra and singers. Orchestral playing was light and spirited, and the principal singers (all young professional opera singers) were all of good quality. Top honours go to John Mackenzie as Pagano, who had that indefinable quality of drawing ears and eyes to him whenever he was on stage, and sang with a real basso cantante smoothness. Adam Smith sang Oronte vividly and romantically, with a big, generous tenor voice. Katherine Blumenthal sang Giselda attractively for most of the performance, soaring deliciously above the big chorus in Act I, but with an unaccountable lapse in the Act II prayer, in which I could barely hear her. But she was thoroughly back to form in Act III for a wonderful trio with Mackenzie and Smith.

Conductor and lead roles apart, this is an amateur production: it's not Covent Garden or even the Royal Academy of Music (UCL doesn't have a music department). Given this, you'd expect some failures of intonation and otherwise imperfect performances in lesser roles, chorus and orchestra, and you'd be right. I'm not going to enumerate individual failings: on the one hand, there were plenty enough of them; on the other, they didn't really matter. This was a chance for a lot of people to get involved in opera (around 50 each in orchestra and chorus) and they produced plenty of italianate brio.

In spite of it being Verdi's anniversary year, not many of his more obscure works are being performed here in the UK, and I was really glad of the chance to see I Lombardi. Of course, the opera isn't anything like as artistically complete a work as Verdi's later and more famous compositions. The libretto is very erratic and the intensity of drama is not maintained; the music contains some choruses and Donizetti-like cabalettas that are far too cheerful for their dramatic surroundings. But there are also many flashes of greatness, particularly in the ensemble writing and some of the orchestration. If you are a lover of Verdi and interested in the way his talent developed, it's an opera well worth seeing.

***11