Ever since Lamberto Gardelli rescued Verdi’s early works from critical oblivion back in the 1970s, we’ve been waiting for a champion to bring out comparative new recordings. Well, Croatian conductor Ivan Repušić might just be the man to do it, thanks to the opportunities afforded by BR Klassik, the in-house label for Bavarian Radio.

In 2017 they gave us a decent Luisa Miller, in 2018 a fine I due Foscari, and in 2019 an appealing Attila. Now, in a thrusting and beautifully engineered recording, we get I Lombardi, an opera with more going for it than one might imagine.

It’s an odd sleeve note that begins by telling you how confusing the opera’s plot is and how the characters fail to come to life. It then goes on to apologise for the composer writing such stirring music to glorify the First Crusade. In fact, in the right hands Verdi’s follow up to 1842’s smash hit Nabucco can pack a considerable punch. The fraternal feud at its heart is refreshingly complex, with roles that cry out for psychological depth and nuance. Verdi clearly felt strongly enough about I Lombardi to rework it four years later as a French grand opera, Jérusalem, the first of his musical love letters to Paris.

The plot has its twists and turns. Suffice it to say that Arvino, the seemingly decent brother and leader of the crusading Italian army turns out to be a domineering tyrant, while his patricidal brother Pagano is finally redeemed when, disguised as a hermit, he baptises the dying Moslem lover of his niece Giselda.

Add to the mix the wicked ruler of Antioch and his lovelorn son Oronte, a harem scene, and numerous opportunities for patriotic crusader choruses (which Italian audiences would have equated to their own armies attempting to throw off Habsburg rule), and there’s plenty of action to hold the attention. Sure, the dramaturgy is lumpy, but when the music is this tuneful, better too much going on than not enough.

The chief merit of this new, live (though remarkably silent) recording is Repušić, who leads the excellent Munich Radio Orchestra in a punchy reading of Verdi’s beefy score. He’s aided by a magnificent turn from the Bayerischen Rundfunks Chorus whose role is as important here as any of the principal players.

As Arvino, Galeano Salas outstrips Gardelli’s Jerome lo Monaco, singing with style and heroic power. It’s a warm, appealing voice and well suited to the role of military leader. As his brother Pagano, Michele Pertusi can’t quite efface memories of Ruggiero Raimondi on the earlier set, but he’s never less than authoritative and turns in a convincing death scene.  

If the set has a weak link, it’s Nino Machaidze. Giselda bears the bulk of the writing for female voice, and although Machaidze is strong at the top and can be thrilling when she revs up and goes for it, there is too much here that is simply wobbly. Gardelli’s Christina Deutekom is preferable, though there’s a hard edge to her voice. Piero Pretti makes a lyrical Oronte, his tenor smooth and engaging. He gives Domingo a run for his money on the Gardelli.

Lovers of this opera will probably also have Levine’s respectable 1990s Met Opera recording with Samuel Ramey as a stylish Pagano, June Anderson a slightly scoopy Giselda, and Pavarotti a peerless Oronte. Either way, Repušić, with outstanding sound and choral work is certainly worth adding to the library. 

Composer: Verdi
Work: I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata
Performers: Nino Machaidze s, Piero Pretti t, Galeano Salas t, Michele Pertusi b, Munich Radio Orchestra, Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Ivan Repušić
Label: BR Klassik 900351 (2CD)

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