Verdi’s second opera has fared surprisingly well on record, especially if you include its appearances on DVD. In the audio-only stakes, though, this newcomer is up against recordings from both Neville Marriner and Lamberto Gardelli: the former (offering also various additional discarded arias) with a cast including Samuel Ramey and Maria Guleghina, the latter with Rolando Panerai, Ghena Demitrova and, as Riccardo, no less a Verdian than Carlo Bergonzi.
It’s fair to say that Coviello Classics’ set, recorded live at the Heidenheim Opera Festival (there’s some stage noise but applause is removed), can’t compete with that sort of fire-power. However, it’s a very respectable achievement, and one that reflects the quality and broad scope of what goes on all across the German-speaking world, away from the bigger, better-known houses.
The conductor, Marcus Bosch, is music director at the Nuremberg Opera, as well as being artistic director of the Heidenheim Festival and its orchestra, the Cappella Aquileia. He’s a fluent Verdian who brings idiomatic spring and punch to the score. His orchestra, a modest-sounding ensemble, play with elegance and verve. However, compared with Marriner and his Academy of St Martin in the Fields, audibly revelling in all the style and pizzazz they picked up through recording so much Rossini, the present set can’t help sounding rather flat, not least because the sound is less direct and vivid.
The cast have all the notes, singing with impressive reliability and robust professionalism. The first to appear, Adrian Dumitru, sounds slightly airy and effortful as Riccardo but phrases with a fair amount of Italianate generosity. Woong Jo Choi is a somewhat woolly and stolid Oberto. Katerina Hebelkova is a bit fuzzy as Cuniza, too, but there’s a welcome dramatic grandeur to Anna Princeva’s Leonora, full of fire and righteous anger.
Together, though, they offer just the kind of potent, red-blooded drama one wants, and all of them throw themselves fearlessly into the far from modest challenges Verdi presents – Giuseppina Strepponi was among those envisaged for the cast at one stage in the work’s tortuous route to its 1839 La Scala premiere. The score itself bursts with melody, verve and rough-diamond genius, plus plenty that looks forward to later masterpieces. This new recording does it justice, certainly, but first-time Obertians might still want to start off with one of the starrier alternatives.