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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
I Vespri Siciliani - grand opera in five acts (1855)
Guido di Montforte, Governor of Sicily – Vladimir Stoyanov (bar); Duchess Elèna, sister of Duke Frederic of Austria – Amarilli Nizza (sop); Arrigo, a young Sicilian in love with Eléna, - Renzo Zilian (ten); Giovanni da Procida, a Sicilian doctor – Orlin Anastassov (bass); Bethune, a French officer – Cesare Lana (bass); Vaudemont, A French officer – Lorenzo Muzi  (bass); Ninetta, Elèna maid – Tiziana Carraro (mezzo)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Fondazione Arturo Toscanini/Stefano Ranzani
rec. Teatro Verdi, Busseto, February 2003.
Director, set and costumes designer. Pier Luigi Pizzi
Dolby Digital 2.0; Vision: 16:9; Colour: NTSC.
Sung in Italian. Subtitles in Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish.
Notes and synopsis in Italian, English, German, French
DYNAMIC 33551 [159:00]



Every Italian composer of worth wanted to make his debut at the Paris Opéra. The 1830s and 1840s were the golden age there. With the benefit of the theatre’s facilities and its musical standards, Auber, Meyerbeer and Halévy developed opera with greater complexity and length and generally on a scale previously unseen. 

Verdi’s first invitation to Paris came in 1845, shortly after the production of Giovanna d’Arco. At the time he was fully committed in Italy and 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. He followed the example of Rossini and Donizetti in modifying previous work by grafting on a new plot, composing new numbers 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 Jerusalem was sufficiently successful to keep the theatre management interested in the composer. Jérusalem was to have been followed by a completely new Verdi work for The Opéra. However, the dramatic upheavals and political unrest in France, leading to the Second Empire in 1848, made that impossible. Verdi did not return to Paris until 1852 when, during the composition 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 to be presented in 1855, the year of the Grand Exposition. 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 promised the services of Eugène Scribe who had been librettist for Halévy and Meyerbeer for their Parisian grand operas. This turned out to be a mixed blessing. Verdi was hindered Scribe’s laziness and his duplicity when the latter tried to palm the composer off with a libretto that had been turned down by Halévy and later partially set to music by the then ailing Donizetti as Le Duc d’Albe. Scribe persistently failed to provide Verdi with a dramatically taut final act. This lead to the composer demanding release from the contract, as its terms, as originally stipulated by him, had not been met. Eventually matters were resolved and the composer and poet reconciled. 

The plot of Les Vêpres Siciliennes is set in Palermo, Sicily, in 1292 at the time of the French occupation and the massacre of the occupying French troops. It was premiered at The Opéra on 13 June 1855. Les Vêpres met with mixed reviews in Paris although it played for the scheduled performances. It was revived there in 1863, for which Verdi added new music, but it was not destined to enter the charmed circle of Grand Opera such as Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots or Halévy’s La Juive. It was not heard in France in its original language after 1865. Despite problems with the censors an Italian translation made an auspicious start in Italy with nine productions in different theatres during the 1855-56 carnival season. The ‘Four Seasons’ ballet was eventually dropped in Italian performances. It is in the Italian translation and under the title of I Vespri Siciliani that the work, as in this performance, is generally performed during the present day.

In the libretto the French Governor, Guy de Montforte, recognises in Elèna whose brother has been executed by the French, a potential insurgent and warns Arrigo to keep away from her palace. Arrigo loves Elèna and when Procida returns to the island to raise the populace against the occupation the three plot to kill Montforte. In a confrontation Montforte and Arrigo realise that they are father and son. The son saves the life of his father when the plotters, lead by Elèna and Procida strike, and is denounced by them. Elèna forgives Arrigo when he reveals his paternity. Montforte 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 Vêpres Siciliennes is one of the few in which the composer focuses on that between father and son. Although different facets of this relationship are to be found in I due Foscari (1844), I Masnadieri (1847) and Luisa Miller (1847), Montforte is the very first of Verdi’s lonely figures of authority who have to weigh their love of wife, or 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).

My immediate thought when coming to watch this DVD was how was an opera conceived for the facilities of Paris’s ‘Grande Boutique’ going to be staged in the tiny Teatro Verdi in Busseto. It has a very small stage, a minuscule stalls area and three levels of boxes in the usual semi-circular form. The theatre was built in Verdi’s home-town against his wishes. At the time Verdi believed the money should have been spent in support of an imminent war. He later relented and sent a generous cheque and reluctantly agreed to have the theatre named after him. Despite a box always being available to him he never entered the building. It is perhaps the smallest Italian theatre presenting opera. It does so under the aegis of the Fondazione Arturo Toscanini and despite fears over financial viability people flock to it season after season. My worries as to presenting Grand Opera in the tiny theatre with its small stage seemed compounded when I saw the name of Pier Luigi Pizzi as Director, set and costumes designer. It was he who fulfilled the same functions for the La Scala production of 1989 - recorded on DVD Opus Arte OA LS 3008 D. He set that production at the time of the opera’s composition, with the French soldiery looking particularly smart. It was in stark contrast with the production at Bologna directed by Luca Ronconi which places the opera in its correct historical period. This has the occupying French soldiers in chain-mail and ‘metal’ headgear. They look rather heavy and ponderous in the opening scene when the soldiers are supposed to be carousing and propositioning the local women (review). Here the problem is one of getting the French soldiers and the watching Sicilian men in proximity to each other. Pizzi overcomes the limitations of the size of the stage by imaginative use of the auditorium. The Sicilian men are circled around the stalls, sitting or standing with their backs to the lower tier boxes all round the auditorium floor. They enter and leave by the same door the audience uses. In the second act Pizzi extends the stage along each side with a walkway, which Procida first uses and then the others. Their hands nearly touch those of the audience as they rest them on the box fronts. The video director uses many close-ups of the singers. A slight downside of the use of the walkway adjacent to the lower boxes occurs during Elena’s act 5 aria Merce dilette (CH 2) when the moustached male occupant of the box behind her, and his wife, are as much in the picture as the soprano! At other times a camera at the rear of the stage looks down on the participants and out into the auditorium. This is used sparingly but to good dramatic effect.

In this production all the Sicilian men and the aristocrats, including Eléna and Procida are dressed in dark blue. Arrigo’s blue uniform is hardly distinguishable from the French soldiers. The small stage floor, with a few steps and pillars, are all also draped in blue. The only contrast of dress colour comes with the act 2 Tarantella (CH 6), in the masked ball of act 3 when Arrigo thwarts the attempted assassination of Montforte by his colleagues (Act 3. CHs 6-8) and the last act wedding scene.

In Les Vêpres Siciliennes Verdi does not try to repeat the musical formula of double aria and cabaletta seen in his immediately previous great trio of Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata. Rather it is the first stage of the evolution of style that he fully realised in Un Ballo in Maschera three years later. There is a continuous flow of duets, arias and scenes that move the story along. The orchestration is full of drama and melody and Stefano Ranzani on the rostrum handles the demands with aplomb helped by the Orchestra and Chorus of the Fondazione Arturo Toscanini. But in this opera as in his preceding three it is the singing of the soloists that makes or ruins a performance. Whatever the budgetary limitations that the Teatro Verdi operates under, they have managed to field very adequate soloists in both the main roles and the comprimario parts. Of the men, it is the Bulgarians Vladimir Stoyanov as Montforte and Orlin Anastassov as Procida who impress most. Each has impressive stage bearing, acts well and sings expressively. Anastassov’s O tu Palermo (Act 2 CH 5) is sung with sonority and excellent characterisation as well as some impressive mezza voce.  Stoyanov has a firm Verdi baritone and like his colleague sings with variety of colour and expression. He conveys Montforte’s character as he first realises that Arrigo is his son (Act 3 CHs 1-2) and later puts pressure on him to proclaim him as his father, via singing as well as acting and deportment (Act 4 CHs 9-10). As Arrigo, the Venetian tenor Renzo Zilian has a strong lyric tenor voice that he uses remorselessly. It is a pity, as there is no spread at the top of his voice even at full power, but characterisation, variety of modulation, colour or expression of character are not his strengths. As a consequence, much of Arrigo’s many emotions evident in the music go for nothing. I am not surprised that he has gone on to sing Calaf in Turandot and moved towards the tenore di forza repertoire. The two basses cast as Bethune and Vaudemont, Cesare Lana and Lorenzo Muzi both sing with sonority and character, whilst the chorus contribute with vocal vibrancy and act with commitment.

The burden of the singing on the female side is largely borne by the role of Eléna. I had not previously heard Amarilli Nizza but I am mightily impressed by her lyric soprano voice and her portrayal in this performance. She acts convincingly and uses a wide range of colour and expression in her singing. Add a good trill and well-controlled vocalism in Merce dilette (Act 5 CH 2) and I was very happy with her contribution. Of course this is a small theatre. How she would fare in a larger auditorium I can only guess, but on the basis of this performance she is a welcome addition to the roster of sopranos in this repertoire. I shall look out for her in the future.

As I have indicated, Pier Luigi Pizzi’s direction and staging within the size limitations of the Teatro Verdi is most impressive. The production brings out the intimate issues and confrontations of Verdi’s creation that can be lost on a larger stage. This is very true of the confrontations between Montforte and his son. Pizzi handles these with loving detail and the singers respond in their acting. Similarly, I have rarely seen the role of Procida as so central as is evident here; after all he is at the core of the opera and his implacable character is vital to the dénouement of act 5. Such understanding of the music is not always evident in producers, who far too often are concerned with concepts rather than the music and the basics of the story. The sound on the recording comes over remarkably well considering the challenge of capturing voices from different parts of the theatre.

Robert J Farr




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