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Verdi I Lombardi alla primi crociata

University College Opera
Conductor: Charles Peebles
Director: Jamie Hayes
Designer: Will Bowen

Bloomsbury Theatre, London, 18th March 2013

UCOpera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s fourth opera I Lombardi celebrates the Italian composer’s bicentenary and furthers UCOpera’s mission to produce neglected operatic works.

Perhaps due to the convoluted plot and pleasant but forgettable score the once successful work has now fallen out of favour, superseded by Nabucco and Falstaff. However, under the baton of veteran UCOpera conductor Charles Peebles, the professional soloists, UCL student chorus, and UCL symphony orchestra put on a commendably rousing spectacle at the Bloomsbury theatre for opening night.

The original dramatic backdrop to I Lombardi is that of the eleventh-century crusades, but the first thing to be noticed was the iconic red London telephone box taking pride of place – slightly incongruous with the holy wars. So it was clear that this was not a traditional production.

In an era that bows to self-conscious political correctness, the concept was devised, in part, to retain the plot’s violence whilst neutralizing its religious zeal.

Director Jamie Hayes transported I Lombardi to the streets of sixties London and changed the two opposing groups into rival gangs involved in a turf-war, avoiding any religious connotations. Knife crime, drug-deals and petrol bombs replaced crusaders swords and steeds, and the Christian themes that permeate the opera were translated into drug-induced psychedelia and gang disputes similar to West Side Story.

The conceptual nature even reached the subtitles with words like ‘palace’ replaced by ‘club’. Not an entirely permissible practice, especially when the original Italian was still being sung. Hayes justifies this bold choice, pointing out that the opera itself was merely a thin-veiled comment on the political unrest in Italy at the time of composition. Thus it can comfortably be transported to any analogous setting of opposing houses (think Romeo and Juliet) and still retain the themes of conflict, love, faith and forgiveness. Whilst it has some legitimacy, the concept is perhaps a tad removed in setting to be truly resonant on any modern, political level.

However, visually the concept works very well. Will Bowen’s economical and witty design utilized key pieces of iconic Brit paraphernalia such as a telephone box, a pub, and a street lamp to evoke the gritty London streets.

The use of archive black and white images blown-up onto flats worked well as minimalist backdrops, whilst he transformed the Act II harem into a pole-dancing club, complete with exceedingly gymnastic dancers, and large sixties ceiling lights.


The transformation of Pagno’s hermit disguise into a hippie evangelist cum tramp was an inspired choice and the Godspell like costume was the work of costume designer Ellan Parry.

She also had the mammoth task of decking out over fifty chorus members in the contrasting garb of slick Mad Men-esque costumes and T-bird like leather jackets and jeans to distinguish the rival gangs.

Verdi’s dramma liricio has a huge amount of chorus material and the rapid patter of the Italian was mostly delivered with the efficiency of a well-practiced tongue-twister. However there were occasional moments were I did catch one or two of the chorus mumbling their way through the lyrics. This occasional ambiguity did not plague soloists like Jeffrey Stewart however, whose clarity of diction was commendable. The experienced tenor brought reliability and maturity to the role of Arvino.

I longed for the female chorus’ lambasting of Gisleda in Act II to be bombastic and catty, however, despite the provocative setting of the pole-dancing club, it was closer to the nagging of stroppy schoolgirls. In contrast, Arvino’s rallying of men was surprisingly powerful.

At points, the action seems a little static, as if Hayes was unsure of how best to utilize the space to provide some necessary energy in the drama, but the triumphant full choruses, accompanied by lush strings and shed-loads of brass, timpani and cymbals couldn’t fail to be impacting. Though lacking the weight of an adult chorus, the students made up for this in their fervent delivery.

The opera was well-rehearsed and visually cohesive, if a little lack-luster; for a production that came with an over -16s policy, the promised violence and sex was more reserved than explicit. Nonetheless there were some stand-out individual vocal moments.

John Mackenzie, for instance, was particularly strong with a rich and resonant bass tone and assured gravitas in performance, drawing all eyes to him in his nuanced portrayal of the vengeful brother Pagano. It is a role that leads the operatic drama and Mackenzie handled this responsibility admirably, every inch the seasoned professional. His return as a repented hermit was delivered with a knowing tongue-in-cheek (as demanded by the costume!) and his final scene, in which he reveals his identity to his brother Arvino is redeemed, had true sincerity.

The young tenor Adam Smith, singing Oronte, is definitely one to watch. His performance as Giselda’s lover was charismatic and suited to the romantic tone of voice, which is consistent and rounded. It also possesses incredible shimmer and blade – something that, unfortunately, some of the other soloists lacked. Carola Darwin’s Act 2 appearance as Sophia, for isntance, was entirely lost when the orchestra’s full force was unleashed from the completely open pit.

Soprano Katherine Blumenthal’s Giselda had a secure coloratura and command of her agile top range. Her strongest moment was in Act II – a feisty outburst at her father Arvino who has injured her lover and amassed quite a collection of bodies whilst attempting to rescue her from the rival gang. She demonstrated real passion and engagement, a dramatic focus that was sometimes missing in the more restrained prayers. The tremendous demand of the role, with much stage-time and tricky technical display, occasionally showed itself in lack of stamina, but Blumenthal is a very accomplished young singer.

It is certainly not Verdi's most memorable or mature opera, but the music is palatable and sonorous and there are flashes of enchanting ensemble writing.
A musical highlight was the trio between Pagano, Oronte and Giselda at the end of Act 3, the vocal tones blending beautifully to cut across the luscious strings with lyrical melodic lines and harmonies. And I must mention orchestral leader and solo violinist Letitia Lee, who’s intricate and challenging Act III solo was delivered with flourish and mimed on stage by a street fiddler who serenaded the young, drunk couples, an inventive piece of stagecraft.

For a hybrid company (that of amateurs and professionals), UCOpera put on a competent and slick show that would sit comfortably alongside any conservatoire’s productions. A success, but by no means revolutionary.

Robyn Donnelly

See also Mark Ronan's review : UCOpera’s production of Rameau last year suffered from over-ambitious direction; I was unsure what this year’s I Lombardi would be like. I need not have worried — it was terrific.

and try to catch one of the remaining performances PGW [Editor]

P.S.We did see this production at a later performance - arrived a little late and watched throughout from back row of stalls, good for sound, sightlines and stage picture. What proved to be an advantage was that we could not see the sur-titles, which were too high. Experience of others, including reviewers, suggests that that might actually have be an advantage!

A word about UCO's regular conductor Charles Peebles, who always produces excellent results from his keen and accomplished orchestra. What does he do the restof the year. Plenty - see the answers on his website ! PGW