OPERA Oberto Royal Opera House, London Poliuto Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
In 1889, Verdi, already caught up with what would be his last opera, Falstaff, tried to prevent La Scala mounting a 50th-anniversary staging of his first opera, Oberto. Yet last Thursday's Covent Garden concert performance of Oberto showed that right from the outset, Verdi knew how to generate drama by means of vocal confrontation with a rather schematic but eminently workable plot. As in many of the later operas, the relationship between father (Oberto) and daughter (Leonora) is pivotal, but that's a matter more of generic sentimentality than of revealing psychobiography. And there is something generic in the way Verdi introduces his characters one by one before allowing them to become an ensemble. Yet already Verdi had an ear for the interplay between voice types, so that Oberto is rather more than a vehicle for tenor/ soprano fireworks.

Covent Garden's cast was solid rather than sensational, and nobody was fully on top of the vocal idiom. Nor were the singers prepared to indulge in dramatic interplay: this was strictly eyes-to-the-front stuff. Still, it worked. Denyce Graves seemed to have the firmest grasp of vocal display, and her Cuniza consequently became the character whose plight was most moving. Elizabeth Connell's Leonora began uncomfortably but eventually settled, and if John Tomlinson's Oberto relied too heavily on volume, there was, as ever, no lack of intensity in his performance. Stuart Neill couldn't manage every stratospheric leap Verdi demanded, but he showed himself a tenor to watch out for, and, crucially, Simone Young conducted as if convinced this was a masterpiece. While the music buffeted us, it was easy to be swept along by her conviction.

On Sunday, Chelsea Opera Group (COG) gave a concert performance of Donizetti's Poliuto, written only a year before Oberto but not premiered for 10 years, by which time Donizetti was dead. Dealing as it did with the fate of a third-century Christian martyr, Poliuto was banned by the Neapolitan authorities, and Donizetti rewrote it for Paris as Les martyrs, a French grand opera. COG gave us the original version, crisp and concise and working at high temperature from the very start of its fleeting prelude.

Like Oberto, Poliuto takes its title from the central male character while reserving its true sympathy for the unfortunate woman, in this case Paolina, Poliuto's wife, wrongly suspected of adultery. Penelope Walmsley- Clark was right inside the part, well able to handle the twists and turns Donizetti's idiom puts in her way. Terence Robertson was a very late stand- in as Poliuto, and if it's hardly surprising that he sounded stretched, he sang with plenty of feeling. But as so often in Donizetti, the colour of the drama comes from the lower male voices, and both Roberto Salvatori and Henry Waddington, baritone and bass respectively, provided sinister intensity. The chorus revelled in its prominence, and Brad Cohen conducted so as to ensure that any lack of finesse was swept aside by sheer energy. Bel canto tragedies have been somewhat marginalised in this country, and these two concert performances suggested that another revival of the idiom might be overdue.

BBC Radio 3 broadcasts 'Oberto' on 28 June

Nick Kimberley

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