Times Music/Dance Critic

Some operas languish for decades, even centuries, in unjust neglect. Others achieve and sustain the oblivion they eminently deserve.

Count "Oberto, Conte di San Bonafacio" among the others.

When Verdi wrote it in 1839, he was still a lyrical whippersnapper who cranked out music, fast and easy, in a popular hand-me-down Bellini manner. At 26, he couldn't tell a decent libretto from a Milanese menu, couldn't distinguish drama from acid indigestion and obviously listened to a lot of bad advice.

No matter. He could manufacture melodies in the best, and worst, organ-grinder traditions. He also could make appreciative use of some hoary operatic conventions that were not yet totally time-dishonored.

But that was hardly enough. First operas, like first pancakes, usually beg to be thrown away, and a sensible world has all but thrown away "Oberto."

Well, had thrown it away until Saturday night, when the dauntless San Diego Opera ventured the American professional premiere. With luck, it will turn out to be the American derniere.

One doesn't like to be so negative. One wants to applaud San Diego's initiative--"Oberto" no doubt represents the final gasp of what once had been envisioned as a noble, all-inclusive Verdi festival. One wants to be able to say that, for all its flaws, "Oberto" justifies at least an occasional hearing because it contains so many fascinating previews of coming Verdi attractions. But life is so short. And, at 2 1/2 rinky-tink, oom-pah-pah hours, "Oberto" is so long.

The opera simply isn't worth the effort. It creeks along on a preposterous, stilted and static libretto about--what else?--revenge, betrayal and amorous intrigue in 16th-Century Bazzano. It regurgitates lyrical cliches amid primitive harmonies. It bumbles sideways with an orchestration that lends new meaning to the word naive.

Although we have never heard it before, humming along poses no problem. And no challenge.

The San Diegans give it a very gingerly production that tends to accentuate the neutral. But under the circumstances, one cannot object very strenuously.

Kees Bakels of Holland conducts neatly--not passionately but at least neatly. Fabrizio Melano of the Met ignores the drama--or lack of same--and produces a concert in costume, with the stationary masses (trained by Martin Wright) masquerading as the Upper Eastern Oshkosh Choral Society. Bill Gorgensen's sets--a conventional compilation of steps, pillars, arches and painted clouds--settle for oddly Greek-looking window dressing.

Something might have been salvaged if San Diego had mustered a cast of virtuosic singing actors. Or even a cast of virtuosic singers. No such luck.

Ferruccio Furlanetto, brings a high, healthy, rolling basso to the musical water-treading of the titular count. Carlos Montane--a valiant, last-minute replacement for the indisposed Antonio Savastano--is a diminutive semi-hero with a sweet tenor voice that frequently turns hard and gets pushed off pitch. Susanne Marsee makes nice mezzo-soprano sounds as the self-sacrificing Cuniza, and Rachel Gettler--a mezzo cast in a role better suited to a dramatic soprano--sings with reasonable fervor and generalized poignancy.

No one, incidentally, bothers to do much with the formula cabalettas. The fast, agitated halves of the arias just tick away like so much unembellished clockwork.

A semblance of an English translation of key phrases once again is projected on a screen at the top of the proscenium. In this instance, the supertitles add much distraction but little clarification.

Oh well. They tried.

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