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TV REVIEW : Met's 'I Lombardi' a Problematic Outing

March 30, 1994|CHRIS PASLES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Verdi's fourth opera, "I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata," has faults of exuberant youthful genius, but they hardly merit the drubbing several East Coast critics gave the work when the Metropolitan Opera staged it for the first time in December.

The production, by stage director Mark Lamos and set designer John Conklin, on the other hand, is another matter.

Written when the composer was 29, the opera stacks three stories on top of one another: a feud between two brothers, a love affair between a Christian woman and a Saracen prince, and the Lombards' first crusade to win the Holy Land.

At its worst, it is a brisk, episodic, occasionally unfocused and sometimes perfunctory historical pageant. None of that matters much. Verdi already grounds the larger social and historical issues in the conflicts and relationships between individuals. He also creates character-defining melodies and choruses of sweep and power.

Moreover, in the heroine's denunciation of both sides of the Christian-Saracen struggle, he inadvertently makes the piece vault its 1843 origins to our own time.

At 58, Luciano Pavarotti sings the Saracen prince Oronte with well-preserved freshness and sweetness, rising to the heights sometimes with effort, sometimes with ringing tone. Slimmed down a bit, he also acts with involvement.

Taking over from Aprile Millo, Lauren Flanigan sings Giselda with bright, steely and pitch-wandering focus and acts with intensity. (During the run, Flanigan actually sang the role seven times, as opposed to Millo's three.)

Samuel Ramey brings a dark, burly bass and generalized energy to the evil brother (later saintly hermit) Pagano. Bruno Beccaria counters as a nearly unbearably tremulous, hoarse-sounding, eye-popping good brother Arvino.

James Levine conducts with eminent spirit and affection for the Verdi idiom. Brian Large's wandering close-ups unfortunately tend to capture the singers at the very moments they're checking cues with the conductor.

Lamos and Conklin create an airy and abstract world ludicrously dominated by symbols: a gigantic floating crucifix and a forest of red crosses for the Christian scenes, a blood-red, crescent moon for the Muslim.

Dunya Ramicova's clashing designs dress the Muslims as caricatures; wisely, Pavarotti dons dignified silvery-blue robes.

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