WILMINGTON, Del. — The year was 1839, and a young, unknown Italian composer was having his first opera produced at La Scala.
Though only a modest success, "Oberto" launched the career of a man who over the next half-century would turn out nearly 30 operas, many of them now staples of the repertory, like "Rigoletto," "La Traviata" and "Aida."
But Giuseppe Verdi's first work is rarely heard today. So it's a service that the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia is presenting it in concert with resident artists from its training program. On Saturday, AVA brought the production to The Grand in downtown Wilmington for a performance sponsored by Opera Delaware.
"Oberto" has a rudimentary plot, involving warring factions in 13th-century Italy, and offers little in the way of dramatic plausibility. But it contains in embryonic form many of the themes Verdi would later explore, including jealousy, betrayal and the love between father and daughter.
The score pulses with vitality, and there are moments that point ahead: a melody in the overture suggestive of "Traviata," a cabaletta that would show up in "Ernani," a passage for cello reminiscent of "Don Carlo."
Verdi wrote juicy parts for four soloists, one from each voice type, and these were handled extremely well by the talented cast, headlined by Michelle Johnson, who last year made her mark as a winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.
Johnson has a creamy, lustrous soprano that sounds appealing from its strong lower register up to high notes that she can float softly or attack with dramatic power as the occasion demands. She was especially imposing in her final, fiery show stopper, in which she mourns her slain father, renounces her faithless lover and vows to retire to a convent.
On Saturday there was some smudging in rapid passage work and occasional hint of strain on top, but these may have been due to the fact that she was singing the demanding role for a third day in a row.
As her remorseful lover, Riccardo, tenor William Davenport took a while to warm up but soon revealed a large, open voice with plenty of "squillo," a trumpet-like resonance that gave it a heroic ring. As Cuniza, the "other woman," mezzo-soprano Margaret Mezzacappa matched her colleagues in dramatic power, while as Oberto, bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana displayed a bright sound with impressive high notes.
The AVA orchestra and chorus, joined by Opera Delaware Chorus, were conducted lovingly by Christofer Macatsoris, who as faculty music director didn't hesitate to "shh" the soloists a couple of times when they sang too loud.
"Oberto" has one more performance Tuesday in Philadelphia's Centennial Hall.