PARMA, Italy — The Festival Verdi Parma has led a sleepy existence here for most of its 18 years. But now it demands attention.
Where else in four days can you see four Verdi operas so rare the most popular one is “Attila”? Operating as part of the Teatro Regio di Parma, the festival — situated in the heart of the northern Italian region where Verdi grew up and returned to build a villa after attaining fame and fortune — appeals to connoisseurs without being esoteric. And, in a triumph for the little guy (Parma is far down on the rank of Italian cities by population), it was named this year’s best festival by the International Opera Awards.
Two of this year’s productions, “Le Trouvère” and the original version of “Macbeth,” are rarely performed incarnations of well-known works. Even “Un Giorno di Regno,” Verdi’s comic opera once debunked as an embarrassment for the composer of “Falstaff,” is not the obscurity it once was.
Anna Maria Meo, the Teatro Regio’s general director since 2015 and the primary force behind the festival’s ascent, said Parma has an advantage in that smaller towns, like Bayreuth in Germany and Salzburg in Austria, are good places for major festivals.
“You can see excellent Verdi performances at Covent Garden and the Metropolitan, but here Verdi is central, and people come for the experience,” Ms. Meo said. Indeed, a whopping 65 percent of the festival’s audience comes from outside Italy, drawn by the chance to hear Verdi on his own turf and by Ms. Meo’s innovations, which include a host of ancillary events often presented at sites like the 16th-century Palazzo del Giardino in the Ducal Park.
The conductor Roberto Abbado, nephew of the great Claudio Abbado, was named the festival’s music director last year. Francesco Izzo, the general editor of the Verdi critical edition, works to keep the festival’s musicology current. And a no-cuts policy ensures that even operas with ballets are performed in their entirety.
The vast Verdi canon still contains operas that can afford aficionados the pleasure of discovery. The maligned “Un Giorno di Regno,” Verdi’s second opera, sparkles here in Pier Luigi Pizzi’s elegant production — originally staged at the Teatro Regio and adapted for the Teatro Giuseppe Verdi in the nearby town Busseto. Yes, the plot about two ill-matched couples and a man posing as the king of Poland is a bit opaque, but Verdi’s music, stylishly conducted by Francesco Pasqualetti, speaks clearly and in its own voice. Massimo Gasparon smartly adapted the production for the Verdi, a 290-seat gem. Next year, the festival will stage “Aida” there; don’t expect elephants.
The Teatro Farnese, a massive, 17th-century wooden structure in the Palazzo della Pilotta complex in Parma, has of late been the site of the festival’s more experimental productions. (The next edition of the festival will leave the theater in favor of San Francesco del Prato, an abandoned 13th-century church undergoing renovation.) Graham Vick’s 2017 staging at the Farnese of “Stiffelio,” which won a prize from the Italian Music Critics Association, placed singers on movable platforms amid an audience that took in the spectacle on foot.
Alas, Robert Wilson’s production in the same venue of “Le Trouvère,” an 1857 adaptation of “Il Trovatore” for the Paris Opera, was a disappointment. Unlike Mr. Vick, he treated the theater as an ordinary space with a proscenium stage whose acoustic didn’t flatter the voices. His trademark static direction conceivably could have supplied an arresting departure for this frenetically vital opera, but that would have required vibrant colors like those of other Wilson productions. Here, all was dark and dreary.
Verdi, apparently content with “Il Trovatore” as it stood, made only minor changes for Paris, apart from the addition of a lengthy ballet sequence. As persuasively conducted by Mr. Abbado, it demonstrated Verdi’s considerable skill as an orchestral composer. Multiple dancelike scenes depicting boxing skirmishes, however, grew tedious. Giuseppe Gipali’s Manrique seemed small-scale, but Barbara Mantegna (Léonore), Nino Surguladze (Azucena) and Franco Vassallo (Le Comte de Luna) gave engrossing performances.
The psychologically penetrating production of the 1847 version of “Macbeth,” by Daniele Abbado (Claudio’s son), is performed in the Teatro Regio (as is “Attila”) and has many moments of darkness and gloom. But they make sense dramatically. Macbeth’s failure of nerve comes early and decisively. Especially inspired is Mr. Abbado’s staging of the second witches’ chorus as a trendy party in which Macbeth seeks refuge after his disgrace in imagining visions of Banquo before his formally dressed dinner guests. Striking visual images, such as a big blob of foliage for Birnam Wood, enhance tension.
The baritone Luca Salsi gave a masterly portrayal of the title role, charged with singing of breathless intensity. He overshadowed the Lady Macbeth of the soprano Anna Pirozzi, whose principal asset was a brilliant upper range. The sterling bass Michele Pertusi sang Banquo, and Philippe Auguin’s conducting had dramatic weight.
No less a star was the 1847 version itself, which emerged as first-rate opera. Listening to it, I often sensed that Verdi altered passages for the 1865 revision not because they were inferior but because he wanted to bring the opera up-to-date by reflecting developments in his musical style. In combination with Mr. Abbado’s production, the original score was a revelation.
Mr. Salsi received a big ovation for the Act IV aria ”Pietà, rispetto, amore,” but mixed among the cheers were a few boos, which only made the cheers grow louder and the ovation longer. That’s Parma for you.
George Loomis is a musicologist and freelance classical music writer and critic.
Festival Verdi Parma
Through Oct. 21 in Parma and Bussetto, Italy; festivalverdiparma.it.