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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901).
Les Vêpres Siciliennes. Grand opera in five acts. Libretto by Scribe and Duveyrier
The original version of the opera as performed at the Académie Impériale de Musique, Paris, (The Opera) on 13 June 1855
Guy de Montfort, Governor of Sicily, Neilson Taylor (bar); Duchesse Hélène, sister of Duke Frederic, Jaqueline Brumaire (sop); Henri, a young Sicilian, Jean Bonhomme (ten); Jean Procida, a Sicilian doctor, Ayhan Baran (bass); Béthune, a French officer, Stafford Dean (bass); Vaudemont, A French officer, Neil Howlett (bass-bar); Ninetta, Hélèneís maid, Pamela Bowden (mezzo)
BBC Chorus
BBC Concert Orchestra/Mario Rossi
Ballet music conducted by Ashley Lawrence
Recorded on 10 May 1969 at the Camden Theatre London before a specially invited audience for the BBC. First broadcast on 15 February 1970
OPERA RARA ORCV 303 [3 CDs: 67.37 + 61.31 + 67.04]

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When the Philips label issued their 1998 recording of Verdiís Jerusalem it marked a partial landmark in that, for the first time, all of the composerís 28 named operas were available on one recording medium. It was partial in that Les Vêpres Siciliennes, Verdiís twentieth title was only represented in its later Italian translation of I Vespri Siciliani. With their usual modesty Opera Rara do not emblazon the box with the words ĎWorld Premiere Recordingí. After all, most of the companyís opera recordings could carry that insignia. Such modesty is welcome in an industry that often makes a Himalayan range out of a pinhead. This is Opera Raraís third issue in a series of five performances of original text Verdi operas recorded and broadcast by the BBC. Like the others in the series we owe thanks for its appearance to the support of the Peter Moores foundation. The first two issues, Macbeth and Simon Boccanegra , are significantly different than their more commonly heard later rewrites. The other two of the five, Don Carlos and La Forza del Destino, will be issued in May 2005 and in 2006. Both of those original texts, again involving significant re-writing in later versions, already have recordings in the catalogue.

With this issue Verdi enthusiasts can really celebrate that the whole of the composerís operatic canon is accessible on disc. Jerusalem was of course a rewrite of Verdiís fourth opera, I Lombardi, and was presented at the Paris Opera in November 1847. By then the pre-eminent Italian opera composer, Verdi followed the example of Rossini and Donizetti in re-working a successful piece for his first assault on Paris. Like his illustrious predecessors he was tempted to that city by the superior musical standards, greater money available for productions and, in Verdiís case, the lack of censorship that plagued his work in Italy, then under foreign occupation. These qualities were sufficient to keep Verdi interested in The Opera, whilst Jerusalem was sufficiently successful to keep the theatre management interested in the composer. Jerusalem was to have been followed by a completely new operatic work by Verdi. The dramatic upheavals in France, leading to the Second Empire in 1848, made that impossible. Verdi did not return to Paris until 1852 when, during the gestation of Il Trovatore, he returned to negotiate a new contract. The Opera were desperate for a new Grand Opera, a work of four or five acts with full ballet. Fully aware of his own value in the international market, Verdi drove a hard bargain. The full resources of the theatre were to be put at his disposal and no other new opera was to be performed at the theatre that year. Further, Verdi would choose all the cast himself and there would be forty performances guaranteed. The composer was also to enjoy the services of Eugène Scribe as librettist. Scribe had been librettist for Halévy and Meyerbeer for their ĎGrand Operasí prepared for The Opera.

As the brief booklet essay by Mark Everist notes, Verdiís first ĎGrand Operaí had a chequered fate and was not heard in France in its original language after 1865. The whole genesis of the work and its later translations and performances in Italian is interesting. It is a pity that Opera Rara havenít graced this recording with the extensive and scholarly essay that they normally provide for their complete opera issues. Verdi was hindered in the composition of the opera by Scribe who tried to palm him off with a libretto that had been turned down by Hálevy and later partially set to music by the then ailing Donizetti as Le Duc díAlbe. Scribe further persistently failed to provide Verdi with a dramatically taut final act to the extent that the composer demanded release from the contract, as its terms as originally stipulated by him had not been met. Eventually the matters were resolved and the composer and poet reconciled their differences with the plot being set in Palermo, Sicily, in 1292 at the time of the French occupation and the St Bartholomew massacre.

The French Governor, Guy de Montfort, recognises in Hélène, whose brother has been executed by the French, a potential insurgent and warns Henri to keep away from her palace. Henri loves Hélène and when Procida returns to the island to raise the populace against the occupation the three plot to kill Montfort. In a confrontation Montfort and Henri realise they are father and son. The son saves the life of his father when the plotters, lead by Hélène and Procida strike, and is denounced by them. Hélène forgives Henri when he reveals his paternity. Montfort allows them all their freedom and gives his blessing to the marriage of the lovers. It is only as they are about to enter the church for the ceremony that Procida reveals that the bells will be the signal for the Sicilians to rise against their oppressors and slaughter the French..

Whilst Verdi is renowned for his operas examining the father-daughter relationship, Les Vepres Siciliennes is one of the few in which the composer focuses on that between father and son. Different facets of this relationship are to be found in his 6th opera, I due Foscari (1844), his 11th, I Masnadieri (1847) and 15th Luisa Miller (1847). Montfort is, however, the very first of Verdiís lonely figures of authority who have to weigh their love of wife, grand-daughter or son alongside their duties to the state. Successors are Simon Boccanegra (1857) and King Philip in Verdiís other grand Opera for Paris, Don Carlos (1864).

Neilson Taylor sings the role of Montfort in this recording. I do not recall hearing him in the theatre in the 1960s or 1970s, which is something of a surprise to me given the quality of his singing and portrayal of Montfort. His tone is rich and secure and he sings with good expression, legato and long-breathed phrases in good French (CD 2 tr.2). In all respects he is superior to the renowned Sherrill Milnes in the Italian version conducted by James Levine (RCA 1974). It may be that the role of Montfort, which is lower in tessitura than most Verdi baritone roles, suits Neilson Taylor better. Milnes was renowned for the top extension of his baritone voice and has a number of distinguished Verdi baritone roles in his repertoire and on record. It is also true that whilst Taylor doesnít quite match the vocal elegance of Zancanaro on the CD for Muti (EMI 1989), and who is equally elegant of persona and stature on the video, he is not far short. His duets with his son (CD 1 trs. 8-9 and CD 2 trs 3-7) are a highlight of this performance. The French-Canadian Jean Bonhomme sings Montfortís son Henri. A francophone, his voice has a lean, slightly nasal, lyric tone. He is youthfully ardent. He sings with great expressiveness and with sufficient vocal heft without sounding as if he is squeezing the top note(s) out (CD 2 tr.6). In his aria (CD 3 tr.2), and following duet with Hélène, his range of expression is exemplary as he explains to her the predicament of his paternity (CD 3 trs. 3-4). Whilst not having the fullness of tone of Domingo (RCA) he is infinitely better than Merritt (EMI). I am more equivocal about the Hélène of Jaqueline Brumaire. Another francophone she has a quick vibrato and is rather mature sounding. She lacks the ideal voice for the rapid scales and embellishments of her Act 5 showpiece the Sicilienne Merci, jeunes ami (CD 3 tr. 12). That being said, Hélène has many moods and nuances to convey during the opera. Whilst Mme Brumaire lacks perfection, she has no squally notes or occluded tone in her portrayal as would constitute a distraction from the enjoyment of the performance. As Procida, the implacable leader of the insurgency, the Turkish bass Ayhan Baran has a suitable sonorous tone in the bass aria Palerme! O Mon pays (CD 1 Tr. 9). This aria is greatly loved by all basses in its Italian manifestation, O patria; O tu Palermo! Elsewhere, I sometimes felt he was stretching for the notes at each end of the scale. Of all the roles in the opera Procida is the most difficult to convey as a character and Ayhan Baran succeeds well enough despite the minor reservation. The comprimario roles are well taken by British singers who could be heard in principal characters around the U.K., including Covent Garden, and elsewhere in Europe.

The major conducting is under the baton of Mario Rossi. I say major because Ashley Lawrence conducts The Four Seasons ballet music. Lawrence conducted many of the ballet performances at Covent Garden during this period. He has an obvious feel for the idiom and gives the pieces (CD 2 trs. 8-12) with ideal pace and feeling, making them what they are supposed to be rather than orchestral showpieces they are often heard as in the concert hall and found on other recordings. At the time of this recording Mario Rossi had a long history of conducting Verdi operas, particularly in his native Italy. He brings neither the frenetic pace nor the dramatic flair of Levine or Muti in their recordings of the Italian version. Rossi is more the reliable Ďroutinierí with a sympathetic feel for Verdian cantilena and who allows and encourages his singers to breath and phrase with the music. He conducted Luisa Miller and Falstaff for RAI around the 50th anniversary of Verdiís death in 1951. Those performances, of no fewer than eighteen of the composerís operas, appeared as LPs on the Cetra label. They introduced us to Bergonzi, Taddei and Callas among others, and are now available on CD at bargain price from Warner Fonit in mono sound. The sound on this live performance is good if not up to the best modern standard being a little flat. The solo voices suffer from being set too far back on the sound-stage. The audience do intrude with applause, increasingly so as the opera progresses. It is decorous applause, not the over-boisterous variety that mars the dramatic cohesion of many modern live opera recordings, including I regret to say, those of Opera Rara.

For the foreseeable future I suspect this will be the only original language performance of this somewhat rambling, but ever interesting, mature Verdi opera available on CD. I am grateful that its positive attributes far outweigh its minor limitations. I strongly recommend that every Verdian add this elegantly presented box from Opera Rara to their collection to join whichever recording of the Italian version is already there.

Robert J Farr

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