First UK professional performance of Verdi’s Alzira

What is so wrong with Verdi’s Alzira that the current run at the Buxton Festival should constitute the first professional performances of the work in Britain? The plot dealing with the conflict between the native tribes and the Spanish conquistadores is never less than interesting, and while the plight of the eponymous heroine who is in love with Zamoro, the leader of the tribe, being forced to wed Gusmano, the tyrannical Spanish governor, may be clichéd, it is of the stuff which has made many a successful opera. The problem is rather that the composer was in too much of a hurry to complete the commission and it shows. The piece moves jerkily from one situation to another and the music from passages of true Verdian creativity to those in which he seems to have been on automatic pilot. Yet arguably sixty or so per cent of creative Verdi is worth as much as one hundred per cent of some other composers, thus justifying the occasional revival.

The cause was not helped by Elijah Moshinsky’s production which tried too hard to be authentically Latin American and political, setting it in a 20th century totalitarian republic (designer Russell Craig) and adopting a “realistic” approach to revolt and political suppression. This involved too much being cramped onto the small Buxton stage and exacerbated the problem of disjuncture between individual scenes through awkward movement. Something more abstract and stylised would have worked better.

Musically, the performance was more convincing. To invoke passion or revenge, conductor Stephen Barlow’s interpretation had the necessary vigour for the forward thrust of Verdi’s tunes, but for moments of pathos he held back his orchestral forces to emphasise delicacy of phrasing. Kate Ladner in the title role has the voice for early Verdi. Perhaps she pushed it a little too hard in forte passages, but her soft singing was a joy and she had considerable dramatic presence. So did Jung Soo Yun who inhabited the role of Zamoro, though vocally he was not at his best. There were good supporting performances, particularly from Graeme Darby as Alvaro, the former governor, and Luke Sinclair as a tribal warrior. James Cleverton as Gusmano appeared to be the singer most appreciated by the audience, but I confess that I found his musical interpretation and physical demeanour insufficiently imposing.

All things considered, the Buxton Festival is to be congratulated on a worthy stab at (yes) an unjustifiably neglected example of Verdi’s early work.