Verdi tries an opera in the French style

Thursday May 16, 2013


I Vespri Siciliani -- Giuseppe Verdi, always willing to try something new, wanted to follow up his "La Traviata" with an opera in the French style. So he turned to the fecund librettist Eugene Scribe for a libretto. He was appalled at what he received.

If left uncut, the new work would run about five hours. And even with cuts, the libretto is terrible with its cardboard characters and unbelievable events. Worse still, it was a reworking of a Scribe libretto already used by Donizetti for his uncompleted 1839 opera "Duca d’Alba. Nevertheless Verdi took up the challenge; but the result clearly shows his dissatisfaction with the whole project. There are, of course, some very good moments in this 1855 Verdi work, but they are far apart.

The Italian version of "I Vespri Siciliani" (the original French version is almost never done any more) is now part of the Tutto Verdi series on Cmajor DVDs. It is certainly worth seeing as a contrast to the three masterpieces that came before it ("Rigoletto," "Il Trovatore," "La Traviata").

Scribe’s "Les Vepres siciliennes" (Sicilian vespers) is based on a possibly legendary uprising of the Sicilians in Palermo in 1282 against the occupation troops of the French. Against this background is a clichéd love story of the Sicilian soldier Arrigo (Fabio Armiliato) and Elena (Daniela Dessi), which is at first thwarted and then encouraged by the tyrannical French leader Monforte (Leo Nucci).

Then there is the Sicilian fanatic, da Prodica (Giacomo Prestia), who is perfectly willing to create a cause celebre by encouraging drunken French soldiers to rape Sicilian brides and then using it to arouse the populace. (Nothing much has changed since then, it would appear.)

The 2012 production on these discs takes place at the Teatro Regio di Parma, under the baton of Massimo Zanetti. The director has a large chorus and a fairly small stage with which to deal, and he elects to have most of the chorus sing from the back of the auditorium. He even has the party given by the French out in the lobby, making the "off stage" voices nearly inaudible (at least on the video). Many entrances and exits of the soloists use the side and middle aisles, a device that actually help the action (such as it is) to an extent.

Now I will swear there is a prize given to the director who can present the dullest possible staging. The first hour of the production shows three rowboats on a bare stage.

Then we are treated to the back of a single sofa, alternating with the front of the curtain. Half the chorus is dressed in black (of course it is all updated to Verdi’s time, because costumes in 1282 would have been more colorful -- and therefor more expensive?). The few female dancers are in white. The Four Seasons ballet is omitted (the running time of what we do see is 170 minutes), and what choreography we do see is minimal.

The singing is good to very good, and I do wish Nucci would learn to vary the range of his acting from "a to b" to at least "a to c"! Prestia comes over best with his powerful voice, but he does draw out his curtain call far beyond those of the others.

As I said, it is worth seeing and at times quite enjoyable. The picture is in the now standard 16:9 ratio and there are EIGHT choices of subtitles to help the viewer on the way.

There is an older recording of this work from La Scala on the Opus Arte label that might still be available. It was performed at La Scala in 1989 with a much more colorful staging. I do, however spot, what looks like the same rowboats at the opening of Act I.

The Four Seasons ballet is retained and the running time is 221 minutes. Unhappily, Cheryl Studer is not a Verdian singer (so why was she cast?) and runs out of steam in the last two acts. Giorgio Zancanaro, recently deceased, also has vocal problems as Monforte, while tenor Chris Merritt is a bit chubby as the valiant solider Arrigo.

Being no fan of Cheryl Studer, I would recommend the Cmajor release despite its visual shortcomings and deleted ballet.

Frank Behrens reports on classical and Broadway music as well as recordings of books and plays for the Arts & Entertainment section.


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