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SCRUTINY | Opera In Concert Shine A Light On Verdi’s Seldom Heard La Battaglia Di Legnano

By Paula Citron on April 9, 2024

L-R: Soprano Julia MacVicar; baritone Evan Korbut; Music Director & Pianist Helen Becque; tenor Scott Rumble; baritone Handaya Rusli (Photos courtesy of the artists)
L-R: Soprano Julia MacVicar; baritone Evan Korbut; Music Director & Pianist Helen Becque; tenor Scott Rumble; baritone Handaya Rusli (Photos courtesy of the artists)

VOICEBOX: Opera in Concert/La battaglia di Legnano, composed by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Salvadore Cammarano, music direction by Helen Becqué, chorus direction by Robert Cooper, Jane Mallet Theatre, Apr. 7.

Opera in Concert’s 50th anniversary season came to a stirring close with Verdi’s La battaglia di Legnano.

The company, whose mandate is opera rara, devoted its golden jubilee to works from the composer’s so called Galley Years, which included Un giorno di regno (1840), Verdi’s second opera, and Ernani (1844), Verdi’s fifth.

La battaglia di Legnano (1849), however, is a different sort of beast.

For one thing, of Verdi’s 27 operas, La battaglia di Legnano is 14th, so halfway through the composer’s oeuvre. If Rigoletto (1851) begins Verdi’s masterworks, it is just three operas in the future. Thus, La battaglia di Legnano is sitting on the cusp of greatness. Yet, it is rarely performed, the reason being, from my point of view, is that its music is not what we would term conventional Verdi.


The opera was written because Verdi was challenged to create a purely patriotic work to support the Risorgimento movement which aimed to unify the Italian peninsula into one country.

The opera is set in 1176, when the Lombards defeated German emperor Frederick Barbarossa at the Battle of Legnano. In 1849, however, Lombardy and Venetia were part of the Austrian empire, so this opera was going to have trouble with the Austrian censors, as well as problems with the censors in all the other independent kingdoms, duchies and city-states that were against Risorgimento.

Even Ricordi, the publisher of Verdi and librettist Cammarano, begged them to change the setting, and in fact, over the next 21 years, the opera was never staged using its original Lombardy locale.

It wasn’t until after Italian Unification was completed in 1870 with the taking of Rome, that La battaglia di Legnano could be performed as originally written. But, by then, Risorgimento was a thing of the past. In fact, La battaglia di Legnano has been accused of being too linked to a specific time and idea.

The only place that saw the opera as intended was Rome’s Teatro Argentina, who had commissioned it. At the time, Rome was holding Pope Pius IX as a prisoner (he later escaped), having declared itself a republic, so one can only imagine the sheer joy that greeted this Risorgimento opera. In fact, at every Rome performance, the last act, which ends with the ode to freedom, (“Italia risorge vestita di Gloria”), had to be encored.

The Story

The reason I’m giving so much background is because it explains just how different this opera is from the Verdi canon, filled as it is with rousing male choruses, which could also explain why it is rarely performed. As well, the arias and duets are not as melodic or tuneful. There is an edge to them, particularly for the men, instead of the more common Verdi lilt. The martial element is front and centre. In fact, I’d call this opera a hard sing.

Yes, there is a love story — Lida (soprano Julia MacVicar) believes her suitor Arrigo (tenor Scott Rumble) is dead in the wars, and so marries his best friend Rolando (baritone Evan Korbut) at the behest of her dying father. Rolando is the leader of the Milanese. Needless to say, Arrigo is not dead, and a love triangle ensues.

Surrounding these intimate scenes are the political ones, and the male chorus had a great deal to do, expertly led by the inimitable Robert Cooper. There was a lot of a cappella work which really exposed the sound, so the men had to be in fine fettle, and they were.

In fact, the female chorus, although sounding luscious, only appears three times — the first offstage with interjections to the opening male chorus “Viva Italia!”, the second in Lida’s chambers, and the last, joining the men in the victory chorus at the end.

The Music

The music director for La battaglia di Legnano was Helen Becqué, a U of T doctoral candidate from Belgium, and she’s a keeper.

Becqué might look young, but she has the chops. She certainly attempted to make her piano sound like an orchestra, particularly in the build she gave to the overture, although, during the rest of the opera, her playing was quite restrained, putting the focus on the singers.

During the recits, she left the cast virtually a cappella, only occasionally playing a chord for definition, thus allowing the voices to be exposed au naturel. A big Becqué plus was getting maximum expression out of the singers. This opera had drama.

In reading soprano MacVicar’s bio, they seem to be short on professional experience, but they have a voice to be reckoned with. Lida’s role was written with ornamentation up the whazoo, maybe to compensate for all the male testosterone that surrounds her. MacVicar had to snake their singing up, down, and all around the town, which they did with aplomb. This soprano can spin notes forever. They also have a strong top, and can pour on the power when needed.

Tenor Rumble was excellent. He has a ringing, but very compelling voice, and what’s more, he seems to reach his high notes with ease. As far as I can tell, he went for all the money notes. Rumble also happens to be an exceptional actor, so he had a great deal to do with the impact of dramatic expression. Will he ever sing Verdi in real life? Who knows, because his voice, at this point, is not quite spinto, but he is certainly a talent to watch.

Indigenous baritone Evan Korbut has a lovely voice, if a bit on the light side. Mellow and honey-covered, his sound is easy on the ears. As an actor he can be quite dramatic, but, given this specific opera, I needed more oomph from Rolando — more declamation, a more forceful delivery — in short, I needed him to be more of a leader. Nonetheless, he interacted well with MacVicar and Rumble to make the love triangle work.

An astonishing seven comprimario roles were covered by the chorus, the largest being Barbarossa, sung by baritone Handaya Rusli. While he looked on the young side for the role, he gave as much command as he could muster, and was rewarded with strong applause at the curtain call.

Baritone Sebastien Belcourt sang strongly in the small role of the evil Marcovaldo (he may be one to watch), while baritones Joseph Ernst, Taylor Gibbs, and Ryan Moilliet, acquitted themselves well as the two consuls and Podesta, respectively.

I have to say that even though mezzo-sopranos Meghan Symon, as Lida’s companion Imelda, and Maria Milenic as the Herald, had small roles, both displayed a rich, full sound that caught my attention.

And of course, OIC’s artistic director, Guillermo Silva-Marin, was on hand to provide minimal staging and quite effective lighting.

La battaglia di Legnano is a strange Verdi opera that was given the chance to come out of the shadows, and it was well worth the visit.

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Paula Citron
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