Arts Review

Giuseppe Verdi on the First Crusade: Italian Opera and Religious Warfare in the Middle East

On October 7, the day of the Hamas rocket attack, invasion, and massacre in Israel, the Parma Verdi Festival, across the Mediterranean, presented Verdi’s rarely performed Crusader opera I Lombardi alla prima crociata (The Lombards on the First Crusade), about the medieval military and religious struggle for possession of the Holy Land. The action was set almost a thousand years ago, but on roughly the same terrain that Israelis and Palestinians violently contest today. In the second act, a chorus of Muslims sang of their determined defense against the Christian invaders:


Or che d’Europa il fulmine
minaccia i nostri campi
. . .

Now when Europe’s thunderbolt
threatens our fields. . .


Later, the chorus of Christian Crusaders (sung by the very same choristers after a costume change) declaimed against Allah and proclaimed the imminent victory of the Holy Cross:


È squarciata la barbara benda.
L’infedele superbo fuggì.

The barbarous band is torn apart.
The proud infidel has fled.


I Lombardi. Verdi Festival 2023. Photo: Roberto Ricci.


A series of Crusades brought Christian soldiers to the Muslim Eastern Mediterranean from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries; much later, from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, the Crusades played a very large role in the early history of opera.

Crusading provided subject matter for numerous libretti based loosely on Torquato Tasso’s Renaissance epic poem La Gerusalemme liberata. The subject of the Saracen sorceress Armida and Christian knight Rinaldo, taken from Tasso, inspired operas by Lully, Handel, Salieri, Gluck, Haydn, and Rossini among many others. Verdi’s I Lombardi (not based on Tasso) is exceptionally beautiful in the manner of the composer’s youthful works of the 1840s—like Nabucco and Ernani—and it was a great success at La Scala in 1843, then recomposed in French in 1847 for Paris as Jérusalem. The opera, however, came at the very end of the long tradition of Crusader operas, and I Lombardi (like most of Verdi’s early works) went into long hibernation during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Tentatively revived in the late 1960s, it has never achieved regular repertory status.


I Lombardi. Verdi Festival 2023. Photo: Roberto Ricci.


In the eighteenth century, religious warfare was condemned as barbarous by the European Enlightenment, and in the nineteenth century the medieval struggle between Christians and Muslims ceased to seem operatic, even as the “Eastern Question” made the Middle East into a domain of secular international relations rather than pious religious crusading. In the twentieth century, the Crusades would be rediscovered by Hollywood with Cecil B. DeMille’s The Crusades of 1935, evoked in 1989 with Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and reimagined in 2005 with Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven. Today the Crusades are most likely to be familiar (and reenactable) in the format of video games.

The First Crusade, mobilized by Pope Urban II, took place in the last decade of the eleventh century and culminated in the Christian capture of Jerusalem from the Muslim Fatimid Caliphate in 1099. The Christian violence of the Crusaders was not only directed at the Muslims in the Holy Land, but was partly spent along the way in the massacre of Jewish communities in Europe, especially in the German Rhineland. There were many European contingents participating in the First Crusade, but Verdi chose to focus on the Lombards of Milan for the purpose of celebrating Italian valor and the city of Milan itself where I Lombardi, inevitably, had its premiere in 1843. The action of the opera follows the course of the Crusade with the first act set in Milan, as the knights depart, the second act, at Antioch (captured by the Crusaders in 1098, today Antakya in southern Turkey), and the third and fourth acts on the road to Jerusalem, the ultimate prize.


I Lombardi. Lidia Fridman (Giselda). Verdi Festival 2023. Photo: Roberto Ricci.


The white hot musical and dramatic center of this opera is the soprano heroine Giselda, who has accompanied her Lombard father on the Crusade, is taken captive by Muslims, falls in love with a Muslim prince, Oronte, brings about his deathbed conversion to Christianity, and denounces the bloodshed of the Crusaders. The role of Giselda is outrageously challenging: both dramatically as a conciliating force between warring religions and musically with its daunting bel canto demands for vocal fireworks, dazzling top notes, and fabulous ornamental display. In Parma the very young Russian soprano Lidia Fridman, age 27, was the courageous heroine, singing as if the world depended upon it, and carrying herself, robed in white, as if she were some neoclassical goddess of peace.


At the conclusion of the second act, as the Crusaders (including her own father) assault the Muslim stronghold of Antioch, Giselda, from within the Muslim court harem, denounces the Christian invaders who have come to rescue her. As the Crusaders enter, the tempo accelerates, and she declaims in the cabaletta, “No, this is not the just cause of God,” singing, according to the score, as if “struck by dementia.” God has always disdained the “impious holocaust” of human corpses, she sings, and on the verb for disdain (sdegnò), she rises with fiery triplet ornamentation to a brilliant high B. She sings over the entire ensemble and chorus as the act comes crashing to a close with the fall of Antioch. Giselda’s unexpected denunciation of the religious struggle is shocking to the Lombard Crusaders on stage; it also resonated powerfully with the news from the Middle East on October 7.


I Lombardi. Front left: Antonio Corianò (Arvino). Front right: Lidia Fridman (Giselda). Verdi Festival 2023. Photo: Roberto Ricci.


The director in Parma was the patriarch of Italian opera staging, the 93-year-old Pier Luigi Pizzi. He created a production in black and white, of shadows and silhouettes, drained of color but mediated by beautiful shades of gray, with elegant projections of the mosque of Antioch and, later, the cityscape of Jerusalem. The only color came from the robes of the Muslim chorus, soldiers in indigo blue, their color destined to be expunged with their military defeat by the Crusaders who live in a world of black and white. The production was beautifully austere within the stunning red, white, and gold decor of Parma’s Teatro Regio, completed in 1829 by the Duchess of Parma, Marie Louise, the widow of Napoleon; in 1843 Verdi dedicated I Lombardi to her, for he lived his youthful years of musical training as her subject in Busseto, near Parma. Though Parma is not part of Lombardy (it belongs to the Italian province of Emilia-Romagna), it is just eighty miles from Milan, and there has been Lombard influence over the centuries: the medieval Baptistery in Parma is adorned with marvelous sculptures by Benedetto Antelami of the Lombard School from the age of the Crusades.

Born in Milan in 1930, Pizzi is a Lombard himself, and though I Lombardi was almost never performed in the first half of the twentieth century, it was chosen for the opening night of La Scala in 1930, following Mussolini’s Lateran Pacts with the pope in 1929 which recognized the independence of the Vatican and made Roman Catholicism the official religion of Fascist Italy. Some forty years after the La Scala opening of 1930, I Lombardi opened the season of the Rome Opera in 1969, with sets and costumes by Pizzi, and the role of Giselda taken by Renata Scotto (who died in 2023), raptly dedicated to her Muslim prince, Oronte, as sung by Luciano Pavarotti. And now the venerable Pizzi has returned to this work in a spirit of austere neoclassicism, as a frame for raging religious warfare and extreme human passions. The plot involves two rival Lombard brothers, Giselda’s father Arvino and her uncle Pagano, the latter a murderer and parricide who repents his crime as a hermit in the Holy Land. In Parma the role of the hermit Pagano was sung by the splendid Parma-born basso Michele Pertusi who had a bad fall during the performance of October 7 and sang for the rest of the evening seated at the side of the stage.


I Lombardi. Lidia Fridman (Giselda) and Antonio Poli (Oronte). Verdi Festival 2023. Photo: Roberto Ricci.


When Oronte is dying in the saintly Giselda’s arms, they are discovered by the penitent hermit who joins them in one of Verdi’s most moving trios. The tenor begins, mezza voce, over pizzicato strings, with a delicate declaration of the voluptuous pleasure (qual voluttà trascorrere) he feels as he dies in the arms of his beloved. The soprano joins with a line that turns even more voluptuous, winding in triplets around the tribulations that they have suffered together (insiem ne’ triboli). The hermit anchors the trio with his deep basso, while a solo violin (performed on stage in Parma) becomes a fourth voice, making this almost a quartet, the celestial harp joining for the gorgeous conclusion. Though the opera was so rarely performed, Enrico Caruso recorded the trio in 1912 for Victrola, and Beniamino Gigli made a legendary 78 rpm recording in 1930 with Elisabeth Rethberg and Ezio Pinza. Arturo Toscanini recorded the trio in 1943 with New York Jewish tenor Jan Peerce as the Muslim prince who converted to Christianity, and, fifty years after that, in 1993, Pavarotti sang the part in the long-delayed premiere of I Lombardi at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Fridman, Pertusi, and tenor Antonio Poli, with violinist Mihaela Costea, were deeply moving in Parma in 2023, guided by the baton of conductor Francesco Lanzillotta.

The trio is a moment of spiritual and religious reconciliation among characters from different cultures, though the religious harmony is only achieved through the effacement of Islam, the conversion of the supposed infidel. Oronte promises Giselda that he will wait for her in Heaven, but it can only be the Christian Heaven. Some years later, when Verdi composed the French version of the opera, Jérusalem, the Lombards all became French, Giselda became Hélène, and Oronte became Gaston, a Christian knight, not a Muslim at all. The Muslim role, along with the whole interfaith romance, was completely eliminated.

The Holy Land was ruled by the Ottoman sultan from Istanbul in the 1840s, but European powers and Christian churches had obtained significant extraterritorial prerogatives over important religious sites, especially in Jerusalem. There was growing public interest in Palestine, as in British scholar John Kitto’s 1841 publication: Palestine: The Physical Geography and Natural History of the Holy Land. In 1844 the first American consul, Warder Cresson, a Quaker from Philadelphia, arrived in Jerusalem but was so struck by apocalyptic fervor that he converted to Judaism before the end of the decade and lived the rest of his life as a proto-Zionist in the Holy Land. Such historical Holy Land conversions perhaps make the Verdian conversion of the fictive Muslim prince seem less dramatically implausible.


I Lombardi. Verdi Festival 2023. Photo: Roberto Ricci.


The 1840s was generally a decade of religious rivalry, fanaticism, and violence in Palestine. In 1846 Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox clergy began to brawl over the competitive staging of Easter rites in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. According to historian Simon Sebag Montefiore (scion of the famous British Zionist family), “the two sides were fighting with every weapon they could improvise from the ecclesiastical paraphernalia at their disposal: they wielded crucifixes, candlesticks and lamps until cold steel flashed and the shooting started. Ottoman soldiers waded in to stop the fighting but forty lay dead around the Holy Sepulchre.”[1] In 1847 Catholic and Orthodox monks were skirmishing, while France and Russia pursued a diplomatic struggle, over the disappearance from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem of the silver star that marked the precise place where Christ was born. In that same year the anti-Semitic blood libel was directed against Jews in Jerusalem, accused by Christians and Muslims of ritually murdering children for their blood.[2]

The Jews of the Holy Land are invisible in I Lombardi, but that opera really has to be considered alongside its Verdian predecessor, Nabucco, which had its hugely successful premiere at La Scala just the year before in 1842, telling the story of the Biblical Hebrews in Babylonian exile from their Mediterranean homeland. Nabucco was also on the program for this year’s Parma Verdi Festival, performed in a concert version in the beautiful Teatro Magnani in the small town of Fidenza, some fifteen miles from Parma. Nabucco is set in Babylon, but the Holy Land is present within the opera as the distant and deeply desired homeland of the exiled Hebrews, and the opera’s most famous chorus “Va, pensiero,” sings of that longing with passionate nostalgic intensity: “O mia patria, sì bella e perduta” (O my homeland, so beautiful and lost). Italians have tended to suppose that the gorgeous invocation of the homeland referred to Italy.

Like I Lombardi, Nabucco is very much a choral opera, and the chorus of the Hebrews is usually led by the basso high priest Zaccaria in music that takes on a profoundly liturgical character. In the second act Zaccaria promises a ritual offering to God of “canti a te sacrati,” the songs that are sacred to you, and the chorus of captive Hebrews provides those hymns throughout the opera. When the Babylonian king Nabucco authorizes them to return to their homeland in the final scene, the grateful chorus invokes Jehovah: “who does not feel your presence? who is not like dust before you?” Performed in concert, in formal attire, the opera works powerfully as an oratorio, perhaps better than the staging at the Metropolitan Opera last fall, which robed the chorus in what have been described as “biblical shmattas”—in the spirit of Cecil B. DeMille. Presented as an oratorio the work is fundamentally solemn, and the young Croatian basso Marko Mimica, a Hebrew priest in white tie and tails, sang with inspired patriarchal spirit as Zaccaria in Fidenza, while the Bulgarian baritone Vladimir Stoyanov was splendid as Nabucco or Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king who comes to recognize the transcendent power of the Hebrew God.


Nabucco in concerto. Verdi Festival 2023. Photo: Roberto Ricci.


For Nabucco and I Lombardi, Verdi collaborated with the same librettist, Temistocle Solera, who would later in his life find employment in the Muslim Middle East working for the Khedive of Egypt. The celebrated French basso Prosper Dérivis, who created the role of the Hebrew priest Zaccaria in Nabucco in 1842, then originated the role of the Catholic hermit Pagano in I Lombardi in 1843. Verdi himself was not a particularly religious man, but for these operas he composed choruses of solemn religious fervor. At the opening of the third act the Crusaders obtain their first sight of Jerusalem in the distance, and the chorus intones “Jerusalem, Jerusalem” on a single G-major chord, declaimed austerely without orchestral accompaniment, beginning from a hushed first syllable, rising crescendo across the name of the city but then descending, diminuendo, on the sustained last syllable. The dynamics rise to fortissimo (ff) as the chorus sings, “Oh sangue bene sparso” (Oh blood well shed), still a cappella. The entrance of the orchestra, with a solemn winding figure for solo cello, accompanies the almost liturgical melody introduced by the sopranos as an anticipatory spiritual contemplation of the sacred sites of Jerusalem: “Deh! per i luoghi,” “Oh for the places to be seen and bathed with tears.” The “places” over which the Crusaders were already weeping in advance (and the siege of Jerusalem would take more than a month before the city fell) were precisely the places that the exiled Hebrews of Nabucco lamented with longing from afar in their choral hymn “Va, pensiero.”

Yet, the most beautiful chorus in I Lombardi, and the one most intimately connected to “Va, pensiero,” arrives in the final act. The Crusaders have pitched their Lombard tents outside Jerusalem, and the chorus invokes God who has summoned them to serve him in the Holy Land, declaring themselves the faithful warriors of Christ. It is not, however, the beauty of the Holy Land that stirs them here, but rather the remembered beauty of their homeland in Lombardy. The same trilling flutes, the same affectionate triplet patterns, the same swaying rhythm—all the musical cues that signal nostalgia for Israel in “Va, pensiero” here signal longing for Lombardy. The medieval Lombards in the Holy Land are as nostalgic for their homeland in Italy as the exiled Hebrews in Babylon for Israel. Tenderly the chorus recalls the streams, fields, vineyards, the most pure lakes (purissimi laghi) of Lombardy, as Verdi’s operatic conception of the Holy Land, once again, brought Italians back to their most profound sentiments of longing for Italy itself. The Crusaders traveled across the Mediterranean to the Holy Land and, like the exiled Hebrews in Nabucco, they ended up creating another national anthem for Italy—though it was not yet a nationally unified country when I Lombardi was composed in 1843.


I Lombardi. Verdi Festival 2023. Photo: Roberto Ricci.


I Lombardi concludes with the Lombard Crusaders just outside the walls of Jerusalem, about to begin the successful siege of 1099. The opera therefore does not dramatize the actual fall of Jerusalem to the Crusaders and does not have to represent in music or drama the historical massacre of Muslims and Jews that was perpetrated by the Crusaders. Amin Maalouf in his book, The Crusades through Arab Eyes, narrates the mass murder of the city’s Muslims. “Never have the Muslims been so humiliated,” recorded one contemporary Muslim, “never have their lands been so savagely devastated.” At the same time, the Jews of Jerusalem were burned alive in their synagogue by the Crusaders.[3] Such scenes would have created a very different final act for I Lombardi, which took leave of the Lombards before the capture of Jerusalem.


I Lombardi. Front left: Lidia Fridman (Giselda). Middle: Antonio Corianò (Arvino). Verdi Festival 2023. Photo: Roberto Ricci.


The operas Nabucco and I Lombardi in the 1840s allowed for the sympathetic presence of Jews and Muslims, singing their fears and prayers on the operatic stage, albeit singing from the Biblical and the medieval past. In Verdi’s time Jews and Muslims remained emphatically outsiders in the religious landscape of the Roman Catholic Italian peninsula. Il Trovatore in 1853 would focus on another harshly stigmatized group of outsiders, the Roma population, and that opera was also presented at the Parma Verdi Festival in a production by Turin-born director Davide Livermore. His trademark is vivid video projections, and he set Il Trovatore in a city of glass towers, sheltering the inhabitants from a world of scary dystopian violence.


Il Trovatore. Verdi Festival 2023. Photo: Roberto Ricci.


The Roma, including the troubadour Manrico, his mother Azucena, and their choral community, were represented as members of a ragtag circus troupe of fire-eaters, jugglers, tumblers, and fortunetellers. Clémentine Margaine, who will sing that other Roma operatic icon, Carmen, at the Met in New York later this season, performed with gorgeous intensity as Azucena in Parma, a woman so traumatized by the tragic persecution of her family that her vocal scenes inevitably collapse into the hallucinatory and excruciatingly painful reliving of the past. The Roma circus performers are forever locked out of the glass towers from which Leonora (performed in Parma by the superb Verdian soprano Francesca Dotto) courageously emerges into a dangerous nocturnal world. Livermore projected a huge orb in the night sky over the city of glass towers, too big to be our moon as seen from earth, but possibly imaginable as our earth as seen from the moon, the lunar realm of Count di Luna. The migrant Roma have here perhaps established their future colony as wanderers in outer space, still stigmatized, still persecuted.


Il Trovatore. Verdi Festival 2023. Photo: Roberto Ricci.


Leonora has her doomed Roma prince, as Giselda has her doomed Muslim prince, both daring Romantic choices, with a capital R. As the opera arrived at its fatal conclusion, during the crashing final bars, the Roma circus performers suddenly attacked and overpowered Count di Luna’s black-shirted thugs and staged a silent coup d’état as the curtain descended. The opera thus concluded with the triumph of the circus, a fitting conjunction, since opera and circus evolved together as nineteenth-century spectacles. Between 1850 and 1852, P. T. Barnum toured in America with soprano Jenny Lind, billed as the “Swedish Nightingale,” famous for her bel canto ornamentations. In 1847 she had sung in the premiere of Verdi’s I Masnadieri in London, while Barnum was touring Europe in that decade with the exceptionally diminutive “General Tom Thumb.” Barnum established “The Greatest Show on Earth” as a traveling circus in 1871, the same year as the premiere of Verdi’s Aida in Cairo, both of them shows that would be famous for elephants. The opera and the circus thus evolved as parallel and related spectacles in the nineteenth century. At the Parma Verdi Festival, there was even another circus event, “Otello Circus”: a theatrical event in which the traumatized characters from Shakepeare’s Othello reenact their tragedy as a circus performance, with Iago cracking the whip, while excerpts from Verdi’s Otello were sung as the circus score. Otello and Aida were, of course, Verdi’s other outsiders, African characters on the operatic stage, who sang their tragic destinies in the late Verdian masterpieces that bear their names.


Falstaff. Middle: Elia Fabbian (Falstaff). Verdi Festival 2023. Photo: Roberto Ricci.


The circus, however, has to have clowns, and Verdi’s very last opera was Falstaff, the only comedy among his mature works, first performed at La Scala in 1893, exactly fifty years after I Lombardi, the year that Verdi turned eighty. He presented Shakespeare’s oversized and outrageous clown at the same time that the American circus world was putting on display Chauncey Morlan, billed as “The World’s Fattest Man.” The Parma Verdi Festival of 2023 staged Falstaff not in Parma but in Busseto (near Verdi’s native village, Le Roncole), in the tiny 300-person Teatro Giuseppe Verdi—built in the nineteenth century in the composer’s honor. It’s a space almost too small to contain the character of Falstaff, performed magnificently by baritone Elia Fabbian, who used his subdued mezza voce to vary the dynamics of the role in the constricted Busseto space but sang out full voice to celebrate his own beloved paunch, “my kingdom,” as he proudly declares. The score was brilliantly adapted by the conductor Alessandro Palumbo for chamber orchestra, a mere 13 players, and the incisive clarity of the individual instrumental voices made Falstaff sound exceptionally modern, as if composed by Stravinsky.

“Dream or reality?” wonders the character of Master Ford in his disguised encounter with Falstaff, his fellow baritone and nemesis. In the last act of I Lombardi, Giselda dreams that she hears the voice of her dead lover, Oronte, singing to her with tenorial sweetness, accompanied by the harp, from the Heavenly afterlife. The formerly Muslim prince now perversely urges her to join with her family of Christian Crusaders and capture Jerusalem from the Muslims. Giselda awakens but is certain that his voice was not a dream, that it was an authentic celestial message. She sings with splendid bel canto confidence the brilliant aria “Non fu sogno!” (It was not a dream!) With Oronte’s phantom encouragement, she now aligns herself with the Crusaders who are about to take Jerusalem, reneging on her earlier denunciation of religious warfare. She has found herself again as a proud Lombard and of course cannot imagine the massacres that lie ahead. Her earlier imagining of the Holy Land as a place where Christians and Muslims might coexist without violence, even loving one another, now appears as a hopeless fantasy, which she forgets and represses. “O mia perduta speme” (O my lost hope), she already lamented in the great trio of the third act. Coming out of the Teatro Regio in Parma on the evening of October 7 to the reports of the Hamas attack on Israel, and contemplating the warfare that might lie ahead, was reason enough to feel the painful loss of hope, of the Verdian fantasy, however fleeting, of peace and reconciliation in the Holy Land.


I Lombardi. Lidia Fridman (Giselda). Verdi Festival 2023. Photo: Roberto Ricci.


[1] Simon Sebag Montefiore, Jerusalem: The Biography (New York, 2011), p. 355.

[2] Montefiore, pp. 349, 352, 358.

[3] Amin Maalouf, The Crusades through Arab Eyes, trans. by Jon Rothschild (New York, 1984), p. xiv.