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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
I Vespri Siciliani - Grand opera in five acts (1855)
Libretto by Scribe and Duveyrier
Italian translation of the original French version performed at the Academic Imperiale de Musique, Paris, (The Opéra) on 13 June 1855
Guido di Montforte, Governor of Sicily - Leo Nucci (bar); Duchess Elèna, sister of Duke Frederic of Austria - Susan Dunn (sop); Arrigo, a young Sicilian - Veriano Luchetti (ten); Giovanni da Procida, a Sicilian doctor - Bonaldo Giaiotti (bass); Bethune, a French officer - Gianfranco Casarini (bass); Vaudemont, A French officer - Sergio Fontana (bass-bar); Ninetta, Elèna’s maid - Anna Caterina Antonacci (mezzo)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro Communale di Bologna/Riccardo Chailly
Recorded 1986. Produced by Radio Italiana in association with NVC ARTS
Producer and video director: Luca Ronconi; Designer, Pasquale Grossi
Picture format: NTSC 4:3. Dolby Digital Sound 2.0 stereo
WARNER MUSIC VISION DVD VIDEO 504678029-2 [171:00]


Sooner or later every aspiring Italian composer of worth wanted to make his debut at the Paris Opéra. The 1830s and 1840s were its golden age under the management of Veron. The musical pillars of the Paris establishment were Auber, Meyerbeer and Halévy. Together they developed opera to greater complexity and to a scale that had not been seen before.

Verdi’s first invitation to Paris came in 1845, shortly after the production of Giovanna d’Arco. At the time Verdi was fully committed in Italy. He held out for two years before accepting a definite engagement. Finally, with I Masnadieri behind him, he signed a contract to provide an opera for the autumn of 1847. Contending that there was not enough time to write a completely new opera, Verdi followed the example of Rossini and Donizetti in proposing to modify an old work, grafting on to it a new plot, composing new numbers where necessary and adding a ballet. He considered the most suitable of his previous eleven operas for this treatment to be his fourth, I Lombardi, which became Jérusalem. The challenge of Paris and its musical standards kept Verdi interested in The Opéra, whilst Jérusalem was sufficiently successful to keep the theatre management interested in the composer. Jérusalem was to have been followed by a completely new work. However, the dramatic upheavals in France, leading to the Second Empire in 1848, made that impossible and Verdi did not return to Paris until 1852 when, during the gestation of Il Trovatore, he returned to negotiate a new contract. The Opéra 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. Although there was a revival in Paris in 1863, for which Verdi wrote several new arias, his first ‘Grand Opera’ had a chequered fate. It was not destined to enter the charmed circle of Parisian Grand Opera repertory alongside such established successes as Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots or Halévy’s La Juive. It was not heard in France in its original language after 1865. With the first Paris performances over, Verdi organised an Italian translation only to discover that the subject was not acceptable in Italian theatres. In its first manifestations in Italy the location of the action and title were changed. Nonetheless the opera made an auspicious start in Italy with nine productions in different theatres during the 1855-56 carnival season. The ballet was eventually dropped in Italian performances.

Until the recent issue by Opera Rara of the original French version of the work (review), the only mainline audio recordings were of the Italian version conducted by James Levine (RCA 1974) and a live performance from La Scala conducted by Muti (EMI 1989); this latter production is also available on DVD (Opus Arte).

Whilst Verdi is renowned for his operas examining the father-daughter relationship, Les Vêpres 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). Montforte is, however, the very first of Verdi’s 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 Verdi’s other Grand Opera for Paris, Don Carlos (1864).

This Bologna staging is costumed in the period of the original St Bartholomew massacre in the 13th century. The Sicilian aristocrats are dressed in opulent finery from the opening scene whilst those for the wedding of Arrigo and Elèna in the last act are particularly fine. The occupying French soldiers in chain mail and ‘metal’ headgear look rather heavy and incongruous in the opening scene when they are supposed to be carousing and propositioning the local women. A by-product of this armorial dress is that the smaller stature of Leo Nucci as the harsh dictator Governor Montforte, who has had Elèna’s brother executed, is at a distinct disadvantage looking anything but imposing and authoritative. In fact he looks insignificant among his soldiers and beside the figure of Arrigo sung by Veriano Luchetti. The La Scala production on Opus Arte sets the work at the time of its composition. There the soldiers’ dress is altogether more elegant and imposing as they sing of their domination of the local population. The tall and elegant Giorgio Zancanaro, as the Governor, is enhanced by his costume, whereas Nucci is diminished by his. Nucci has a considerable discography as a Verdi baritone but his wiry monochrome brings no great distinction or vocal authority to the role of Montforte. His two duets with his son, the first in act 1 when he demands a name from the younger man (Ch. 6), and when in act 3 he recognises Arrigo as his son (Chs. 10-12) are not distinguished by vocal colour or nuance. The same sad lack of graceful phrasing, variation of colour and respect for Verdian line, is also found in Veriano Luchetti’s portrayal of Arrigo. Their duets are very much of the school of stentorian can belto competition, the effect of which is further aggravated by the rather harsh stereo sound. Zancanaro and Chris Merritt in the La Scala production, despite the latter’s rather tight tenor, make much more of these vital scenes which give dramatic credence to the whole work,.

As the implacable patriot Procida, Bonaldo Giaiotti manages to convey gravitas as he returns to his homeland and yearns for its freedom (Ch. 7) although his voice is a little unsteady under pressure. The best singing comes from the American Susan Dunn as Elèna. This production marked her European debut and was followed by an acclaimed Aida at La Scala. Her voice is even and beautiful across its range. At the end of Arrigo! Ah, parli (Ch. 18) the applause is prolonged and she is forced to break role and make acknowledgement. Italians are renowned for their love of excellent vocalising and in these post-Callas days seem readily to forgive other failures such as lack of vocal expression and acting ability. Susan Dunn does not do acting! Her face hardly changes from bland expression and her body language as a support to the evolving drama is completely lacking. Cheryl Studer on the La Scala issue sings equally beautifully but also acts with her voice, face and body to give a significantly more complete portrayal. Despite being labelled ‘the new Tebaldi’ in some Italian quarters, Susan Dunn had a very short stage career.

The sets at Bologna are even more opulent than the costumes. Mid-stage drop and draw curtains are used to variously reveal an avenue of palm trees, a shoreline, an area with huge rocks as well as more intimate spaces. The camera-work tends to be mid-shot and I often felt the stage was over-cluttered with sets. This caused movement problems when groups of French soldiers and Sicilians were on the stage together. I have never seen the Bologna stage but I suspect it is significantly smaller than that at La Scala. The more simplistic but evocative sets in the latter’s production might have better suited the Bologna stage.

If there were no rival on DVD I would be particularly frustrated about the shortcomings of the singing and acting in this production of Verdi’s rarely heard work. As it is the La Scala production on Opus Arte is not only better sung and acted it comes complete with the Four Seasons ballet and is fully complete - nearly forty minutes more of Verdi’s creativity. It also has a booklet with a full libretto although without Chapter indications. All in all it is far superior to this Bologna offering.

Robert J Farr

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