I Vespri Siciliani is the least performed of Verdi’s mature works. It was written for the Paris Opéra to a French text by Eugène Scribe and Charles Duveyrier (Les vêpres siciliennes). While the opera is occasionally performed in its original French version, it is typically presented in its Italian translation. Verdi just sounds better in Italian. This 2010 production from Parma is, of course, in that language.
I can’t offer a good reason for the infrequency of performance of Vespri. It is a masterpiece worthy of any of Verdi’s much more frequently performed works from his middle period. It’s easily as good as La Forza del Destino. Yet Forza has had 229 stagings at the Met while Vespri has had only 45.
Verdi clearly had Giacomo Meyerbeer in mind, specifically his Les Huguenots, when he composed his first original opera for Paris. He had converted I Lombardi to Jérusalem for the Opéra in 1847. While the music was new, the libretto was not. It had started out as Le duc d’Albe (Il duca d’Alba) by the same two librettists who had given it to Donizetti. He never finished it, so Scribe and Duveyrier moved the locale from Flanders to Sicily and convinced Verdi to set it to music. Verdi as was his custom required numerous changes. The opera received its premiere on June 13, 1855.
It’s reception was generally favorable. Berlioz who was as great a music critic as he was a composer wrote the following: Without casting a slur on the merits of Il Trovatore and so many other moving works of his, it must be agreed that in the Vêpres, the penetrating intensity of melodic expression, the sumptuous variety, the judicious sobriety of the orchestration, the amplitude, the poetic sonority of his morceaux d’ensemble [ensemble pieces], the warm colors glowing everywhere and that sense of power, impassioned but slow to employ itself, that is one of the characteristics of Verdi’s genius, stamp the whole work with grandeur, a sovereign majesty more marked than in the composer’s previous creations. What a sentence. Perhaps the great Hector has misplaced his periods when he wrote it.
This opera shows that Verdi, like his musical hero Rossini, had completely mastered the French Grand Opera form brought to prominence by Meyerbeer to a degree that exceed Meyerbeer. His mastery of this form was to be realized at an even higher artistic level a decade later in Don Carlo(s). When Verdi brought the opera to Italy it couldn’t be set in Sicily owing to the Bourbon censorship that was down to its last breath. So it was moved to Portugal. When Italy was unified in 1861, it settled for good in Sicily usually with its Italian text. But it lost out to Verdi’s other masterpieces and became an operatic rarity. In 2013/14 it received 25 performances worldwide and that was more than usual.
Why is it not part of the standard operatic repertory? It may be that the French Grand Opera style with its more restrained emotional display is responsible. But if that were the case Don Carlo(s) would not enjoy the popularity is does. For whatever reason, it’s a mostly ignored work by opera’s most popular composer. A final word on performance frequency. Les Huguenots had only 5 stagings in 2013/14 and that was more than any other of its composer’s operas.
The opera’s story is loosely based on the uprising on Sicily against French rule that occurred in 1282. Over about six weeks thousands of Frenchmen were killed and the French were driven from the island. In the opera the French are massacred at the wedding of Arrigo and Elena. The former is the illegitimate son of the French leader Montfort while Elena is the sister of the executed (ordered by Montfort) Austrian duke Frederick. Thus, we have the soprano, tenor, and baritone. You can easily figure out who’s who. The bass, Procida, doesn’t appear until the second act. He’s the leader of the Sicilian insurrectionists and the typical implacable Verdi bass like Silva in Ernani.
Procida, Arrigo, and Elena want to get rid of the French. Arrigo loves Elena. She says she’ll love him back if he’ll kill Montfort. He’s OK with this arrangement until he discovers that Montfort is his father. It seems that 18 years earlier Montfort had forcibly made Arrigo’s mother his mistress. She’s now dead but left a letter asking Montfort to treat their son well. He’s delighted to do so and wants Arrigo to acknowledge him as his father – an unusual reversal of the typical bastard/father relationship. Arrigo agrees to do so in order to save Elena and Procida from execution. This after he’s stopped them from killing Montfort. The three way conflict that Arrigo suffers from will be illustrated below. Montfort is so happy with his reluctant son that he arranges for him to marry Elena whereupon the French are massacred.
There’s even more, but it suffices that Verdi here first shows his unique ability to blend the public and the private into a dramatically coherent whole. This unequaled skill would characterize most of his subsequent work and set it above that of every other composer for the lyric theater.
It seems odd that Verdi would choose a story for the Paris Opéra that has the French as the bad guys and which concludes with all of them being slaughtered. Equally strange is that the two French librettists were also not bothered by making their countrymen both villains and victims.
The Parma production, as is standard for that house, has very sparse sets which merely suggest what’s going on. Pier Luigi Pizzi set the action in the 19th century rather than the 13th. I suspect he was trying to evoke the Risorgimento. The sets and costumes didn’t add much, but neither did they distract. What was distracting was the constant marching up and down the aisles of the theater by both the chorus and the principals. I can think of no reason for doing this other than that it was possible.
The four principals on this recording are all up to the demands Verdi makes of his soloists. The ageless Leo Nucci, 68 at the time of this recording and still singing as of this writing, is the French leader. Montfort is the most human character in this opera. He is sorry for the rotten way he treated Arrigo’s mother. He wants the French and Sicilians to get along, though on French terms. And he want a relationship with his son. What he gets is death. Unusual for a Verdi opera all the other leading figures are still alive at the curtain. Nucci has the Verdi style down to the last strophe. His voice is still rich and smooth from top to bottom. While he moves like an old man he sings liked a much younger one.
Fabio Armiliato is a fine spinto tenor who is up to the high pressure vocal emissions Verdi requires from his tenor in this opera. I’m not going to present the excerpts from Vespri in the order in which they appear. So here is the great tenor-baritone duet from Act 3. Verdi never wrote a better duet. In this piece Montfort reveals to Arrigo that he is his son. Arrigo is torn three ways. First he fears he will lose Elena because he promised her he would kill Montfort who now turns out to be his father. Then he doesn’t know how to treat his new found father. And finally he recalls how badly his mother was treated by his father. At the end of this duet he’s an emotional chimera. The skill with with Verdi handles this situation is Olympian. The main theme first sung by the baritone and later by the tenor is part of the overture, which incidentally is probably the finest Verdi ever wrote. Equally impressive is the dramatic tension that builds throughout the duet. Verdi was the master of the tenor-baritone duet and even by his lofty standard this number stands alone. A work of genius. Quando al mio.
Elena is played by soprano Daniela Dessì. The part calls for a lirico-spinto and is accordingly just right for her voice. She both acts and sings her part with conviction. She has three solos, the most famous of which is the bolero from Act 5. But here is the moving Arrigo! Ah, parli a un core from Act 4 in which she forgives Arrigo for having stopped her and Procida from killing Montfort in the 3rd act. An action that both view as a betrayal as he was in on the plot before learning of his paternity.
Procida is bass Giacomo Prestia. He has made his career mainly in Europe singing at most of the continent’s leading houses. The bass staple O tu, Palermo occurs just after Procida makes his entrance in Act 2. Procida declares his love and loyalty to his country and city. Prestia’s lyric bass is pleasant and satisfying.
The opera’s big concertato concludes Act 3. It depicts everyone’s reactions to Arrigo’s stopping of Montfort’s murder by the Sicilian plotters. It’s one of Verdi’s best even considering that this was another operatic form which he dominated.
Verdi spent a lot of time and effort with his librettists trying to get a quartet into the opera. What emerged was Addio, mia patria which appears nears the end of the third act. Montfort wants Arrigo to acknowledge him as his father. Arrigo is torn. Procida and Elena want him to refuse even if it means they will be executed. Another example of Verdi’s superb ensemble writing.
The main problem with this recording, aside from all the marching up and down the aisles, is the conducting. Massimo Zanetti’ leadership lack the drive and propulsive force so essential to Verdi. He’s competent, but nothing more.
Francis Toye, Verdi’s first biographer in English, and generally a very astute analyst of Verdi’s work, thought that there was little of musical interest in this opera. I suspect he never heard it performed. I Vespri Siciliani clearly is the equal of its coevals by Verdi and deserves to be performed as often.
A gratuitous extra: This run of Vespri was the one where the tenor, Fabio Armiliato, was booed off the stage and replaced by Kim Myung Ho in civvies holding a score. The Parma company was lucky to have recorded a few performances unaccompanied by mayhem. Parma is famous for its rough handling of singers. Go here for the details.
I VESPRI SICILIANI
Guido di Monforte – Leo Nucci
Il sire di Bethune – Dario Russo
Il conte Vaudemont – Andrea Mastroni
Arrigo – Fabio Armiliato
Giovanni da Procida – Giacomo Prestia
La duchessa Elena – Daniela Dessì
Ninetta – Adriana Di Paola
Danieli – Raoul d’Eramo
Tebaldo – Roberto Jachini Virgili
Roberto – Alessandro Battiato
Manfredo – Camillo Facchino
Parma Teatro Regio Chorus and Orchestra
(chorus master: Martino Faggiani)
Massimo Zanetti, conductor
Pier Luigi Pizzi, stage director, set and costume designer
Vincenzo Raponi, lighting designer
Roberto Maria Pizzuto, choreographer
Recorded live at the Teatro Regio di Parma, 13 and 17 October 2010