Giuseppe Verdi’s first opera, ‘Oberto,’ gets rare airing

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Giuseppe Verdi’s first opera, ‘Oberto,’ gets rare airing

The year was 1839, and a young, unknown Italian composer was having his first opera produced at La Scala.

Though only a modest success, “Oberto” launched the career of a man who over the next half-century would turn out nearly 30 operas, many of them now staples of the repertory, like “Rigoletto,” “La Traviata” and “Aida.”

But Giuseppe Verdi’s first work is rarely heard today. So it’s a service that the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia is presenting it in concert with resident artists from its training program. On Saturday, AVA brought the production to The Grand in downtown Wilmington, Delaware, for a performance sponsored by Opera Delaware.

“Oberto” has a rudimentary plot, involving warring factions in 13th-century Italy, and offers little in the way of dramatic plausibility. But it contains in embryonic form many of the themes Verdi would later explore, including jealousy, betrayal and the love between father and daughter.

The score pulses with vitality, and there are moments that point ahead: a melody in the overture suggestive of “Traviata,” a cabaletta that would show up in “Ernani,” a passage for cello reminiscent of “Don Carlo.”

Verdi wrote juicy parts for four soloists, one from each voice type, and these were handled extremely well by the talented cast, headlined by Michelle Johnson, who last year made her mark as a winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.

Johnson has a creamy, lustrous soprano that sounds appealing from its strong lower register up to high notes that she can float softly or attack with dramatic power as the occasion demands. She was especially imposing in her final, fiery show stopper, in which she mourns her slain father, renounces her faithless lover and vows to retire to a convent.

“Oberto” has one more performance today in Philadelphia’s Centennial Hall. AP
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