Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Les Vêpres Siciliennes - Grand opera in five acts (1855)
Guy de Montfort, Governor of Sicily – Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester (baritone); Duchesse Hélène, sister of the executed Duke Frederic - Barbara Haveman (soprano); Henri, a young Sicilian – Burkhard Fritz (tenor); Jean Procida, a Sicilian doctor – Balint Szabo (bass); Béthune, a French officer – Jeremy White (bass); Vaudemont, a French officer – Christophe Fel (bass-baritone)
Chorus and Netherlands Opera
Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra/Paolo Cargnani
Director: Christof Loy
Sets: Johannes Leiacker
Costume design: Ursula Renzenbrink
Video: Evita Galanou/Thomas Wollenberger
rec. Netherlands Opera, September 2010
Audio formats: LPCM 2.0 & dts Digital Sound
Video format: 16:9 Anamorphic
Subtitles: English, French (sung), German, Spanish
OPUS ARTE DVD OA 1060 D [2 discs: 208:00 plus 24:00 (bonus)]

Like his illustrious predecessors Rossini and Donizetti, Verdi was tempted to Paris by the superior musical standards, greater money available for productions and the relative lack of censorship that plagued his work in Italy then under foreign occupation. For his first assault on Paris the composer followed the example of his predecessors in re-working, in French, a successful opera originally written to an Italian libretto and premiered in Italy. That first work, Jerusalem, was a reworking with additional music and the de rigueur ballet of I Lombardi; it was premiered at the Théâtre Académie Impériale de Musique, Paris (The Opéra) in November 1847.

The original intention of both the theatre and Verdi was for Jerusalem to have been followed by a new original work by him. However, the political and social upheavals 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 the new contract. The Opéra management was 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.

Whilst Verdi is renowned for 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). Montfort 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).

In the libretto 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 Sicily to raise the populace against the occupation by the French the three plot to kill Montfort. In a confrontation Montfort and Henri realise that they are father and son. The son saves the life of his father when the plotters, led 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. Les Vêpres Siciliennes 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 Paris repertory 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 until the Andrei Sebans production at the Bastille in 2003. Despite problems with the censors, a version in 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 the title of I Vespri Siciliani that the work is generally performed during the present day. It is the least well known and performed of Verdi’s mature period operas, a significant disappointment to him.

Verdi was greatly saddened by his experiences and frustrated by the bureaucracy within the Opéra. Additionally the late delivery and haggles with the librettist, Scribe, who he later discovered 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. At one stage the composer demanded release from the contract as its terms, as originally stipulated by him, had not been met. He swore never to compose for the theatre again. As we know he was later tempted back for his longest opera Don Carlos. If Verdi was disappointed and frustrated by his experiences at The Opéra I have some sympathy with his feelings in both respects having watched this DVD. I have long wished for a French language DVD recording of music that I know well from the versions in Italian staged by Pier Luigi Pizzi in 2003 at the small Teatro Verdi in Busseto (see review) and the older 4.3 format staging at La Scala conducted by Muti (Opus Arte OA LS 3008 D). I have heard and reviewed the original language version, elegantly presented on CD by Opera Rara (see review) with Francophone lovers. Taken from a BBC broadcast that issue did much to raise the profile of the opera in the original language as, at the time, the only previously generally available recording was the admirably cast RCA recording in Italian featuring Domingo, Arroyo, Milnes and Raimondi in the principal roles under Levine (RCA RD 80370).

I approached this issue tentatively as the producer is the German director, Christof Loy, with the sets and costumes by his regular collaborators. Despite having reviewed the French language performance of Don Carlos deriving from the 2004 performances at the Vienna State Opera, reasonably cast and well conducted by Bertrand de Billy, I have kept away from the parallel DVD of Peter Konwitschny’s notorious production. Loy is generally thought of as a more imaginative producer than the enfant terrible Konwitschny, aiming to illuminate not shock his audience or watchers. However, I am seriously disappointed with this production. I accept that updating of costume and use of primitive sets is the current vogue. I recognize that these sometimes serve to bring a fresh look to a hackneyed and frequently filmed opera. Les Vepres Siciliennes is not, however, often performed let alone filmed. It also has another critical facet against the vogue of updating being specific to a date and time in history and involving a situation and circumstances that do not readily lend themselves, at least in my imagination, to that treatment.

Coming to watch the performance I was hit by another frustration: the inadequacy of the Opus Arte booklet. There is an interesting essay on the work by Uwe Schweikert and a synopsis by director, Christof Loy, both given in English, French and German. Loy’s synopsis is significantly lacking in explanation of the goings-on in the abbreviated ballet music (DVD1 CHs.26-30) which is given as some kind of semi-mime game in a room with floral wallpaper, a table and lots of kitchen pans and the like, some of which are used as swords and shields in mock battles whilst Henri looks on. Loy’s explanation in his synopsis is given in the one sentence: Henri dreams of his life in which his mother and father, loved ones and friends can be reunited. I certainly couldn’t figure this out. More importantly than that inadequate explanation of his concept, in this one scene, is the booklet’s complete omission of the Chapter listings and timings one hopes and expects to find, and generally does so on other labels. For the sake of the reader, DVD 1 contains Act one on CHs 2-9, Act two on CHs. 10-18 and Act three, including the ballet, on CHs.19-31. Just in case that sounds relatively simple, after the cast have strolled, in modern dress, onto the sparse set in the opening, the opera itself starts (CH.2). However, the start is not with the famous overture, but with the French soldiers dressed in white open necked shirts and dark trousers singing the virtues of their Governor, Montfort, and questioning the virtue of the local ladies one of whom gets man-handled. Cinematic scenes of Paris are flashed on a section of the back wall. DVD 2 contains Act four, (CHs.2-10) and Act five (CHs.12-18) along with extras in the form of curtain calls and “bonus features”.

With sparse sets, the drama is left to Verdi’s music. Various bits and pieces of stage business grate aesthetically on me. First example is when, in the marriage festival of the Sicilians in act three, and after Procida has stirred up the Sicilian men to revolt, the French soldiers party and break glass bottles and wine glasses on the stage and make the abducted local women kneel and bloody themselves in some kind of representation of their rape and defloration; with one of their number having her throat cut (DVD1 CH.18). The finale of the opera concludes with Montfort having his throat cut in the same manner and place and is more gory and gratuitous than a stabbing. Similarly the implications, at the intended wedding party of Henri and Helene, after Montfort’s amnesty, having the Sicilian men pick up their dead and bloodied women, as others make merry with their wives and girls, raises serious questions; necrophilia would appear not beyond this director’s imagination. So too does the matter of Hélène being pregnant and giving birth before the wedding and Henri going off to see his father pushing a pram and with words Verdi never saw (DVD 2 CH.14). This scene occurs after Henri had been pressurised into acknowledging his parentage after seeing Procida, bound on a bed, being given a lethal injection and Hélène being prepared for a similar death despite Montfort’s words Prepare them for the axe (DVD 2 CH.9). How Procida was resurrected to stir the final rebellion (DVD 2 CHs.15-16) is left in the air.

Verdi was fluent in the French language, spending much time in Paris, particularly before his marriage when he and his future wife lived openly together in that city. In the various rewrites of Don Carlos, in Italian as Don Carlo, he always arranged to have a libretto in French to work from. Unlike Rossini, who had to learn the prosody and traditions of French opera before venturing with his adaptation of Le Siège de Corinthe, Verdi was fully at home in the idiom. Consequently the French words and his music have an intimate relationship. At the time of this review I had just returned from five weeks in France and I regret to suggest that the French of this cast would not have been recognised in the langue d’or of the North or the langue d’oc of the South; maybe in Alsace. There is the odd moment, from the burly figured Henri of Burkhard Fritz, of a French squilla in his singing (DVD 2 CH.2). However, in general the solo singing is far too Teutonic. A French language coach, such as major houses employ, should have been a must. If they cast had sung in German, or even in Italian - with which they may be more conversant - none of them would have let the house down although vocal strength and monochrome tone comes over as more important than nuance or feeling for words. In the Netherlands, with its own Germanic linguistic twang, the audience was more appreciative of the singers, chorus and conductor at their curtain calls than generally at the end of the opera when they were distinctly muted. I wonder if Loy and his team appeared at the first night and if so what was their reception? Personally, I would not quibble at the reception for the conductor, chorus and orchestra all of whom added strength to the performance. The conductor in particular has a sense of Verdian sweep and of the French patina in the music.

With the bicentenary of Verdi’s birth coming in 2013, there might just be a chance of a sensible production of this neglected opera of Verdi maturity being given in the language of its composition and sung by soloists who comprehend and can sing the words.

Robert J Farr

With the bicentenary of Verdi’s birth coming in 2013 we live in hope of a sensible production of this neglected opera in the language of its composition and sung by soloists who comprehend and can sing the words.