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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Les Vêpres Siciliennes - Grand opera in five acts (sung in German)
Guy de Montfort, Governor of Sicily, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (bar); Duchesse Hélène, sister of Duke Frederic, Hilde Zadek (sop); Arrigo, a young Sicilian, Hans Hopf (ten); Jean Procida, a Sicilian doctor, Gottlob Frick (bass); Bethune, a French officer, Heinz Borst (bass); Vaudemont, A French officer, Hermann Firchow (bass); Ninetta, Helene’s maid, Gisela Litz (mezzo)
West German Radio Symphony Orchestra Cologne/Mario Rossi
rec. Köln Funkhaus des WDR, Saal 1. 6-12 January 1955, mono
CAPRICCIO 67168-70 [3 CDs: 64.44 + 63.02 + 79.15]
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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 and the greater money available for productions. In Verdi’s case, he was also attracted by the lack of censorship that plagued his work in Italy then under foreign occupation. The work concerned, Jerusalem, a reworking in French of I Lombardi plus additional music and the de rigueur ballet, was premiered in November 1847. The plan was for it to have been followed by a new original work by Verdi.  The upheavals in France, leading to the Second Empire in 1848, made that impossible. Verdi did not go back to Paris until 1852 when, during the composition of Il Trovatore, he returned to negotiate the new contract. The Opéra were desperate for a new Grand Opera, a work of four or five acts with full ballet. At the height of his powers, and 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 who had been librettist for Halévy and Meyerbeer for their ‘Grand Operas’ for Paris.
Les Vêpres Siciliennes had a chequered career in France and was not heard there in its original language after 1865. Verdi was hindered in its composition by Scribe’s lethargy. The librettist, despite assistance from Duveyrier, persistently failed to provide Verdi with a dramatically taut final act to the extent that the composer demanded release from the contract; its terms as originally stipulated by him had not been met. Eventually 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. Verdi later discovered Scribe had palmed him off with a libretto that had been turned down by Hálevy and partially set to music by the then ailing Donizetti as Le Duc d’Albe. In any event it was first performed at the Académie Impériale de Musique, Paris, (The Opéra) on 13 June 1855.
When Rossini arrived in Paris he was slow to produce his first opera in French. He had first to come to terms with the prosody of the language. Verdi did not seem to have such difficulty. This was perhaps due to his having read very widely in the original language. He carried this capacity of matching the musical line with the linguistic metre to the extent that for the various revisions he made of Don Carlos, he always had a text in French from which to work. That the text was then translated into Italian may seem strange; it certainly has an impact on the manner of the singing and the matching of the music. French and Italian have common roots and the words are produced in similar, but not the same, part of the mouth. With German the situation is more difficult when a singer has to match a translation with the music. The distinctly glottal sound of the language and the production of the words in the mouth are somewhat inimical to the Verdian line and idiom. This is the first problem faced here. I was initially hopeful with the first conversations being in a semi-declamatory form (CD1 trs.1-2). But this is not a singspiel but an opera of Verdi’s great middle period, full of melody and requiring singers to caress phrases and hold a legato line. Recordings of Verdi operas in English, from Chandos, indicate that singers well versed in the Verdi idiom can overcome, to a significant extent, the discontinuity of the language and the musical line so as to convincingly express the emotions of the work. This is the significant failure with this issue. For example, the young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who later on in his career recorded a number of Verdi roles in Italian, is far too soft-grained of tone to represent the character of Montfort. He also points the music rather than letting Verdi’s melody and dramatic inflection do the work. Likewise Gottlob Frick, who was noted for his Wagner roles, is unable to caress the phrases or accommodate the tessitura or legato of a Verdi basso cantante. His aria on return to his homeland (CD1 tr.10) has no feel at all. Hans Hopf, another well-known Wagnerian, sounds vocally strained in his role whilst Hilde Zadek as Hélène is seriously overparted.
What strengths there are in this performance derive from Mario Rossi’s feel for the music and the playing and singing of the chorus and orchestra. Rossi’s reading of the well-known overture is lyrical and sensitive and contrasts with some hard-driven performances I have heard in the concert hall. His conducting leaves me regretting that the ‘The Four Seasons’ ballet music is not included. The mono recording is good for the period although the orchestral sound is rather recessed. The accompanying booklet has an essay on both the historical background to the plot and, briefly, the writing of the opera; these like the synopsis, not track-related, are given in German, English and French.

Robert J Farr




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