The Start of Something Big: Verdi's 'Oberto'

Verdi's first opera has two acts, and takes place in the northern Italian city of Bassano, in the year 1228. Oberto, the title character, is a count who has fled to Mantua, after being defeated in battle by Ezzelino, his long time enemy. Ezzelino is a vassal of Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor, and while he never actually appears in the opera, the story revolves around the conflict between his allies and his enemies -- including Oberto.

When Oberto was forced into exile, he had to leave his daughter Leonora behind, in Bassano, where she was seduced by Ezzelino's ally Riccardo, who had promised to marry her. Riccardo then abandoned Leonora, leaving her disgraced and heartbroken.

As ACT ONE begins, Riccardo is about to marry Ezzelino's sister Cuniza, and he anticipates their future happiness together. But Oberto has heard about the engagement, and secretly makes his way back to Bassano, where he and Leonora plan to seek revenge.

Cuniza has a reputation for generosity and fairness, and she's already wary of Riccardo's reputation. So Leonora and Oberto pay Cuniza a visit, to plead their case. As a known enemy of Cuniza's powerful brother, it takes an act of courage by Oberto simply to appear in Cuniza's presence. Then he goes even further, swallowing his pride to ask for Cuniza's assistance. When Cuniza learns that Riccardo has already seduced Leonora, with a promise to marry her, she agrees to help.

She hides Oberto in another room, and then summons Riccardo to confront Leonora. Riccardo claims that it was Leonora who betrayed him -- but nobody believes that, including Cuniza. Then, as Leonora furiously accuses Riccardo of betrayal, Oberto reveals himself and challenges Riccardo to a duel.

The act ends with a powerful ensemble and chorus, featuring all the major characters -- and foreshadowing the many great ensembles in Verdi's later operas. Riccardo feels his honor has been challenged, but he's reluctant to fight the aging Oberto, who continues to express his outrage. Leonora overcomes her shame to confront Riccardo, and as Cuniza observes the dispute, she begins to feel her love for Riccardo turning to hate.

As the ACT TWO begins, Cuniza decides that to make everything right, she has to give up Riccardo, and persuade him to go back to Leonora. But that won't be good enough for Oberto. While Cuniza is trying to find a peaceful way to settle things, Oberto is still determined to fight it out with Riccardo.

When Riccardo arrives to confront Oberto, Cuniza steps between them. She tries to shame Riccardo into giving up his conflict with Oberto, and reconciling with Leonora. He's torn between wanting to please Cuniza, and his desire to meet Oberto's challenge. Eventually, he gives in to Cuniza, and offers his hand to Leonora. And, unlikely as this may seem today, Leonora happily agrees to take him back.

But Oberto is having none of it, and angrily confronts Riccardo. The women sadly return to the castle, while Oberto and Riccardo go into the woods with their weapons drawn.

Fighting is heard, and Riccardo soon emerges, carrying a bloody sword. Oberto is mortally wounded, and Riccardo is going mad with shame, having now killed an old man whose honor he had already destroyed. Riccardo prays for mercy and flees.

The women then return to the scene and learn what has happened. Cuniza tries to comfort Leonora, who feels responsible for her father's death. Word then comes from Riccardo, who has decided to exile himself. In a message to Leonora he begs for her forgiveness, and leaves her all his wealth. But Leonora is still overcome by guilt, and decides to live out her life in a convent as the opera ends.