Asked to list Verdi's operas, even the most knowledgeable may come a cropper over Jérusalem. Even Parma's infamous “Club dei 27”, whose members each take the name of an opera, doesn't rank it among their number when it meets every October at the foot of the Verdi Monument to sing “Va, pensiero”. Opportunities to see Jérusalem are all too rare, so kudos to Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, artistic director at the Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège, for this plucky new staging. It is a co-production with Turin's Teatro Regio, where the opera will be given in its original version, I Lombardi.
Italian opera composers weren't averse to adapting pre-existing works for the Paris stage: Rossini's Maometto II became Le siège de Corinthe; Donizetti rewrote Poliuto as Les Martyrs. In 1847, Verdi received his first Paris Opéra commission and decided to adapt his fourth opera, I Lombardi, a tale of a fictional Italian family at the Crusades. By transferring the initial action to France – to the palace of Count Raymond of Toulouse, historical leader of the First Crusade – Verdi felt he had the perfect vehicle for his first Grand Opéra. However, Jérusalem is not I Lombardi in French translation. Verdi tightened the plot and streamlined the cast (one of the weaknesses of I Lombardi is its need for two principal tenors, one of whom dies in Act 3 and reappears as a ghostly vision in Act 4). He also composed a considerable amount of new music and reworked many of the earlier numbers, either in terms of orchestration or moving some arias down a semitone, enabling some ear-popping high notes to be interpolated, especially for Paris' star tenor Gilbert Duprez. The best numbers in I Lombardi are still there – the chorus “O signore, dal tetto natio”, where crusaders and pilgrims despair that God has abandoned them, and the famous final act trio – but Jérusalem is essentially a new opera. It's a significantly stronger one too.
Mazzonis' staging is traditional for the most part. Jean-Guy Lecat's set is lined with sturdy pillars for the Toulouse palace and chapel. The Count (firm-voiced baritone Ivan Thirion) is burying the hatchet in a long-standing feud by offering his daughter's hand in marriage to Gaston, Viscount of Béarn (Belgian lyric tenor Marc Laho). This pleases both Gaston and Hélène (Elaine Alvarez) as they've been secret lovers anyway. It's not such good news for the Count's brother, Roger, who harbours an unhealthy lust for his niece. Roger (experienced Italian bass Roberto Scandiuzzi) decides to have Gaston bumped off but his hired assassin gets the wrong man, gravely wounding the Count instead. The blame falls on Gaston, who is instantly exiled.
By Act 2, everyone has decamped to Palestine. Remorseful Uncle Roger now lives as a hermit, strangely unrecognisable to his nearest and dearest beneath a grizzled wig even though only three years have passed. Lecat's set briefly gets a bit arty here, the pillars jutting at angles across the stage to create Roger's cave. Hélène learns that Gaston has been captured and is a prisoner of the Arabs in Ramla. Her rescue attempt fails miserably and in Act 3 she ends up as part of the Emir's harem, subjected to Verdi's lengthy ballet as punishment. This scene sits uneasily in Mazzonis' production: the Emir's harem are costumed in the weirdest headdresses – think grasshopper-aliens – and Gianni Santucci's striking contemporary choreography (an exhilarating finale for the corps) is out of character with the otherwise traditional staging.
After his escape, Gaston walks straight into the crusaders' path (led by the Count, who had not died from his wounds) and is immediately sentenced to death. However, he proves himself in battle and Roger, who is mortally wounded (I guess hermits aren't so good in a fight) comes clean and owns up to his crime. Hélène and Gaston are reunited and Roger dies against a backdrop of his beloved Jerusalem and a chorus hymning victory.
Of the vocal performances, Scandiuzzi's Roger stood out. It's been nearly a decade since I heard him (and it's 19 years since he recorded this role on the only studio recording) yet his bass is firmer, rounder and darker than ever. Elaine Alvarez's dark spinto colouring was a fine fit for Hélène; even though her coloratura strayed a little wildly, she attacked it with verve. Marc Laho was an impressive Gaston, his bright tone and even emission making “Je veux encore entendre ta voix” (better known as I Lombardi's “La mia letizia infondere”) a real highlight. Speranza Scappucci refused to rush Verdi's score and reduce it to “Galley Years” tub-thumping, but paced it wonderfully, drawing beautiful orchestral phrasing and gorgeous singing from the chorus.
With splendid musical performances and a fine production, it's certainly worth making the pilgrimage to Liège to catch this Verdian rarity.
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