VepresGiuseppe Verdi - Les Vêpres Siciliennes

De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam 2010 | Paolo Carignani, Christof Loy, Barbera Haveman, Burkhard Fritz, Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester, Balint Szabo, Jeremy White, Christophe Fel, Lívia Ághová, Fabrice Farina, Hubert Francis, Roger Smeets, Rudi de Vries | Opus Arte

In the behind-the-scenes featurette on the BD for this opera, Frank, one of the nearly 100 strong chorus of the Nederlandse Opera, says that he feels like he is not just one of the crowd in this production, he’s part of history. And in a way, there is definitely something momentous about Verdi’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes (1855). It’s not just the fact that it’s Verdi in full-blown Grand Opéra mode, in French moreover, or that it’s based around an historical event that has contemporary and political significance for the revolutionary-minded composer himself – but it’s also a lesser-known Verdi opera, very rarely performed or recorded, even more rarely in its full French version complete with a half-hour ballet in the middle. The Dutch production of Les Vêpres Siciliennes in Amsterdam is certainly an historic occasion then, and what a fascinating, thrilling and momentous event it turns out to be.

The original historical events referred to in the opera date back to 1282, when the Sicilian people rose up against the cruel French occupying forces after one outrage too many committed against the ordinary citizens. You would imagine that Verdi was less interested in the historical Vespri Siciliani than he was about the revolution in Italy in his own time, and stage director Christof Loy likewise isn’t concerned about setting this production of the opera to any specific historical time period. Nominally however, it’s set in the 1960s (the dates of birth of the young protagonists are given as the early 1940s), which would seem to draw a parallel with events in French-occupied Algeria, but there is nothing culturally specific that makes any reference to this. Loy’s direction then is by no means the fiasco that has been suggested elsewhere. The director’s touches are distinctive certainly, and not for everyone, but taking the opera out of its natural time period – which would have no meaning or significance for a modern audience anyway and arouse none of the passions Verdi undoubtedly was aiming for – Loy manages nonetheless not only to do great service to the opera and even help cover over some of its flaws.

The staging has much of the same look as Loy’s Salzburg production of Handel’s Theodora, and it has a very loose thematic connection in it being about citizens standing up to the abuse of a foreign power. Similarly, the sets are kept minimal, with rarely anything more than a few chairs scattered around the stage, creating a sense of timelessness that is reflected in the costumes. The French, like the Romans in Theodora, for the most part wear formal dinner jackets, the Sicilians casual jeans and shirts, with only Hélène – the Duchess – wearing a man’s suit and tie. The political and social distinctions are therefore much more meaningful to a modern audience than any period costumes. Props and effects are rarely used, but when they are (bottles and glasses, slides and projections) they are employed to good effect and for maximum impact. The main part of the Loy’s work however is in his directing of the singers, their movements, placement and their interaction, and it’s hard to see him putting a foot wrong anywhere in this respect, as the full impact of the complex relations between the characters, their backgrounds and motivations all come through.

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Where the plot and the libretto are less convincing, Verdi music fills in the gaps and Loy steps back and lets it speak for itself (the otherwise static Act IV for example is powerful simply through a magnificent set of duets, trio and quartet). In the places where even Verdi’s judgement of the occasion is questionable – the start of Act V for example, Loy steps in and manages to make something more meaningful out of it. The director chooses the Four Seasons ballet in Act III to be the thematic centrepoint of his interpretation (controversially it would seem), giving motivation to Henri’s later actions that are otherwise difficult to reconcile, the revelations about his own origins and his father leading him to idealise or just imagine how things might have been different. This illusory ideal leads him to believe that his marriage to Hélène at the start of Act V (the same fantasy home setting of the ballet is used here) – otherwise an improbably joyous occasion considering the circumstances – could bring a true peaceful union between France and Sicily. It’s a thoughtful interpretation by a director who clearly cares enough to play to the opera’s strengths and mitigate its weaknesses. At the very least, it’s certainly preferable to simply cutting the ballet, as would be more common (if the opera were indeed more commonly performed), and letting it limp by with its inherent flaws.

Although there are some unfamiliar elements, the opera itself is recognisably and whole-heartedly Verdi, with romantic tragedy, dire threats of revenge and rousing revolutionary sentiments. Musically, Les Vêpres Siciliennes doesn’t always feel like the Verdi we know, but, like Don Carlo (a much better opera admittedly), there’s something fascinating and appropriately dramatic about having the Verdi experience filtered through the French Grand Opéra idiom, with its echoes of Un Ballo in Maschera and even Rigoletto and La Traviata here, with its rousing choruses and its grand Overture (placed strangely between Acts I and II here, but no less effectively), but with unexpected delicacy and with musical arrangements that I’ve never heard from Verdi before, such as in the wonderful ballet music. The orchestra and the chorus, under Paolo Carignani, are outstanding in their delivery, the opera approached with a real Verdian sweep.

The singing – even though there are some difficult passages and coloratura to navigate right at the end of a long opera – is for the most part beyond reproach. Barbera Haveman is a great presence, the charismatic figure that Hélène needs to be, her singing strong and heartfelt throughout. Burkhard Fritz is a lovely lyrical tenor who manages to make the difficult nature of Henri’s plight sympathetic. Balint Szabo’s bass makes for a grave, dignified, yet compelling revolutionary voice as Procida. Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester is fine, but the weakest of the principals, not really cutting a strong enough figure as Montfort, and his singing isn’t as clear and resonant as the others. Les Vêpres Siciliennes isn’t great Verdi by any means, but it’s a side to Verdi that we rarely see in his most popular works, and it’s thrilling for that alone. We can be grateful to the Nederlandse Opera for bring the full opera in its full original form (with only one slight tweak of the placement of the Overture), but also to have a director like Christof Loy, who clearly cares enough to put the additional effort into making the opera relevant and meaningful.

The quality of the Blu-ray release from Opus Arte is good, if not exceptional. The large mostly dark stage and stark lighting makes it difficult to get an entirely satisfactory exposure level, but the image is relatively clear, the opera well-filmed and there are no noticeable defects. There’s not much to choose between the LPCM Stereo and the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 audio mixes. The surround track is firmly to the front and centre, with little but ambience in the rear speakers. The 2-channel mix, by the same token eliminates some of the reverb. Otherwise, both tracks are more than adequate for a live recording, achieving a good balance between singing and the orchestra. The half-hour Introduction to the opera is an entertaining and informative look mainly behind the scenes at the rehearsals and presentation of the opera.