Giuseppe Verdi, The Battle of Legnano (1849)
This military opera, The Battle of Legnano, is based on a play by Joseph Méry, La Bataille de Toulouse, about the last stand of Napoleon’s army (under Marshall Soult) against Wellington and the British army, on the 10th of April 1814; so 2014 is the 200th anniversary of this horrendous slaughter.
But there was an earlier battle at Toulouse, on the 9th of June 721, in which Charles Martel successfully led the Franks against the Arab invaders. The librettist (Salvatore Cammarano, who did Lucia di Lammermoor for Donizetti) changed the setting to Legnano in northern Italy, where the Lombard League defeated the forces of the Holy Roman Emperor, the German red-bearded Frederic Barbarossa, on the 29th of May 1176. In 1848. the year of revolution in Europe, Garibaldi had looked back to this battle as an inspiration for his own campaign for the unification of Italy and the expulsion of the Austrians; and that is what Verdi wanted his compatriots to be thinking about. In March 1848 the Milanese had rebelled and driven the Austrians out, but Legnano was one of the cities in Lombardy that were still occupied. (In an earlier opera, I Lombardi, the Holy Land was Italy and the Saracens were the Austrians.)
Verdi had been toying with the idea of an opera about Rienzi, the last of the Tribunes (he was aspiring to be a tribune himself), but the love interest was too slight for Italians (Irene loved her brother Rienzi more than her aristocratic lover Adriano); and anyway, Wagner had already done Rienzi (its overture and one tenor excerpt [Rienzi’s prayer] are all that has survived of it, but I own a complete recording of it).
The performance mentioned here is from Trieste (2012) conducted by Boris Brott.
Time and place: 1176; Milan and Como, in Lombardy, in northern Italy.
Frederico Barbarossa, German king, Holy Roman Emperor
Rolando, a renowned warrior of Milan.
Lida, his wife, former sweetheart of Arrigo
Arrigo, a warrior of Verona, in love with Lida
Marcovaldo, a German prisoner-of-war
ACT 1 He Lives!
The eight-minute overture begins and ends with a martial march.
(An artiste with her brush unveils a large work of art, the first of many to be shown; all would be relevant to the story.)
1.1 Milan. The chorus comes in, each member carrying a newspaper (folded like a weapon?), so this is not really 1176, but possibly 1848, though the costumes suggest the 1920s. They are supposed to be the allied troops: Viva Italia, and the Lombard League, and down with Barbarossa.
Arrigo is with the soldiers of Verona: he greets Milan, resurrected as he also is; he had been wounded at the siege of Susa (the ancient city in Iran, a Crusader, I presume), but survived.
Rolando comes with the men of Milan and is reunited with Arrigo: Embrace me.
The troops unite with an oath; they swear to drive the German invaders back to the Danube.
1.2 Milan. Lida, Rolando’s wife, is with her damsels, who ask her why she is not rejoicing.
She dreads the thought of another war, having lost many of her family; she has prayed for her own death, but God has given her a son to care for.
Marcovaldo, a German prisoner who has been granted limited
liberty by Rolando, declares his love for her, but she repulses him.
Her maid Imelda informs her that Arrigo is alive and in Milan. Lida’s glad reaction is observed by Marcovaldo with jealous suspicion.
Rolando brings Arrigo in; he says goodbye to Lida and leaves. Arrigo then chides her for not remaining true to him; but she explains that she believed he was dead, and her dying father had requested her to marry Rolando.
ACT 2 Barbarossa
In Como, Rolando and Arrigo are inviting the people to join the Italian cause, but Barbarossa intervenes and sends them back to Milan to demand submission to the Emperor.
ACT 3 Infamy
3.1. In a vault below the basilica of Sant ‘Ambrogio (Saint Ambrose) Arrigo joins the Knights of Death, who vow to fight to the death in their struggle to expel the German invaders. (Lombards are actually Germanic themselves, since the 6th century).
3.2. Rolando’s castle. Lida has written a note to dissuade Arrigo from his suicidal mission, and Imelda is to deliver it (but Marcovaldo intercepts it). Rolando takes leave of Lida, and not realizing that Arrigo is now a Death Knight, he entrusts his wife and child to him. Subsequently Marcovaldo reveals Lida’s message to him, and Rolando wants revenge.
3.3 Arrigo and Lida declare their mutual love, and then Rolando confronts him (she hides).
Rolando will bring shame and infamy on Arrigo, by locking him in the castle tower, and when the Death Knights see he has not reported for duty they will brand him as a deserter and a coward.
Arrigo leaps from a balcony into the moat, to join his fellow-soldiers.
ACT 4 Dying for the Fatherland
Victory is celebrated in Milan. Arrigo has slain Barbarossa. All is forgiven Arrigo affirms that Lida's heart is pure, and he dies a hero.