Record Guide: Verdi’s Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio

Verdi’s first opera Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio (premiered in 1839 at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan) was a respectable success and astonished the critics with its originality. Although Verdi’s own style is evident in the forced, forward-moving style and concentrated expression, the work cannot be thought of without reference to the bel canto era. The relationship between Leonora and Oberto anticipates the daughter/father constellation of later Verdi operas (Rigoletto, Simon Boccanegra, Aida), also in the arrangement of the vocal parts. Although there are very few recordings of Oberto compared to other Verdi operas, there are some that are as good as a performance of any Verdi opera can be.

For the collection, but no more

Three recordings of the work have been released in recent years, conducted by Antonello Allemandi (2013), Michael Hofstetter (2013) and Marcus Bosch (2017). It is, of course, pleasing to see Verdi ‘rarities’ performed, and I would certainly not miss a performance of Oberto in any opera house today, but for home listening these three recordings are simply not interesting enough. But since there are so few recordings of the opera, you can have them, at least if you are specifically interested in Verdi’s (early) operas.

Good enough

Zoltan Pesko’s recording (Cetra/Warner) has a rather unknown but convincing cast, not least Umberto Grilli with his powerful, metallic tenor in the role of Riccardo and the expressive Leonora of Angeles Gulin. However, Simon Estes in the title role is not idiomatically ideal but still acceptable, and the orchestral playing under Pesko’s baton is a little too anonymous.

Best audio quality

For those who value audio quality high, Neville Marriner’s recording on Decca is “the one”, but the performance is also very good with a great cast of singers. Samuel Ramey is magnificent in the title role, Maria Guleghina, who dominated her repertoire – not least Abigaille in Nabucco – for two decades, makes the role of Leonora with a heavy, intense soprano. Tenor Stuart Neill makes a passionate Riccardo and Violeta Urmana is also convincing.

Vintage choice

Alfredo Simonetto has made some very fine Verdi recordings and his 1951 recording of Oberto, with the Orchestra della Rai di Torino on fire, is a must. The recording is also vocally outstanding, in the spirit of the golden age of opera. Gino Bonelli sings the tenor role of Riccardo beautifully, sometimes reminding one of Beniamino Gigli. Maria Vitale makes a wonderful Leonora with her warm, expressive soprano. Giuseppe Modesti is great in the title role and Elena Nicolai is also excellent. Unfortunately, the sound quality is not up to the performance, otherwise this would probably be my first choice for opera.

First recommendation

When it comes to early Verdi, few conductors can match the efforts of Lamberto Gardelli, and his studio recording of Oberto is in my opinion one of his best, and arguably the “overall” best recording of the opera. A cast with some of the greatest Verdi interpreters of the 20th century: Ghena Dimitrova, Carlo Bergonzi and Rolando Panerai – none of whom need further introduction, and the combination of the singers makes the performance breathtaking.

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