In my quest to unlock the fascination and beauty of (early and middle) Verdi, I don’t seem to be making much headway. The Washington National Opera’s I Vespri Siciliani at any rate didn’t do the trick. But if I am no closer to falling in love with that particular opera and others of its kind, at least I now understand better why this is so. The commonly held opinion that many of Verdi’s operas succeed or fail by virtue of the singing is not only true, it points right to the answer to my troubles with the genre.
The reason is that singing is precisely what these operas – and not just blatant vehicles like Nabucco – are all about. That, in turn, is not (just) because Verdi wrote so beautifully for the voice (and even that pleasure is an acquired taste), but because many of his operas simply don’t offer anything else. The drama is staid and silly, the text plenty hackneyed and boring and only in place, it seems, to give the singers something more than just vowels to discharge. Gluck’s lessons (“to confine music to its true purpose… expressing the poetry and reinforcing the dramatic situation without interrupting or obstructing the action with superfluous embellishments”) never penetrated most Italian opera. The staging, accordingly, is mere window dressing. (In this particular production, that can be taken quite literally. More about that later.)
Thus, opera lovers seem split into those for whom opera is indeed all about the singing and dramatic truth be damned and those for whom it is dramma per musica with all elements equal partners. Where story, staging, action, and even music are but an excuse for showcasing vocal chords, opera to me (Verdi lovers will stone me for this) is like an Elvis movie. (That Verdi, once freed from the need to heed convention, went on to compose works like Don Carlos, Simon Boccanegra, Falstaff, and Otello should redeem me, you would think…)
It seems that whenever writing about Verdi, I have a knack for offending, even angering, opera lovers. (To be sure, a few sympathetic voices chime in from the bleachers, too.) I’ve been called select choice names in music forums where someone posted my less than enthusiastic comments on Nabucco, and “Ignoramus” and “Cretin” are the nicer ones. If I am that for not declaring I Vespri (1855) or the earlier Attila or Luisa Miller (1849) masterworks, or if that means I can’t appreciate excellent singing, so be it. Give me Gluck, Mozart, Wagner, Janáček, Strauss, or Britten anytime.
But apart from the fact that I think I can very well appreciate excellent singing – or even excellence of any sort in operas that I am not very fond of, I think the distinction between these two fundamentally different approaches to opera needs to be acknowledged, without necessarily judging one better than the other – or denying value to either. In fact, I am working hard on getting myself to enjoy Verdi of all colors. (Philips – sensing my struggle? – dropped their reissues of obscure Verdi on my doorstep. I am sitting in front of a tower consisting of Stiffelio (1850), Attila (1846), Il Corsaro (1848), and Un Giorno di Regno (1840). Opera Rara added the St. Petersburg version of La Forza del Destino (1862) on top of it. If I don’t get it courtesy Carreras, Raimondi, Berganza, Caballé, Milnes, Cossotto and Norman, I’ll get professional help.)
Until then, however, I insist that it is the synthesis of all elements that makes great opera. No wonder that the most outstanding operas (in my book) had the libretto come first or relied on extensive collaboration between composer and an equally inspired librettist. Strauss/Hoffmansthal, Britten/Auden, Mozart/Da Ponte, Verdi/Boito, and Wagner/Wagner come to mind.
Charles T. Downey, DCist Goes to the Opera (DCist, September 18)
T. L. Ponick, Opera's Verdia golden moment (Washington Times, September 19)
Bernard Holland, Verdi Onstage and Domingo on the Podium (New York Times, September 19)
Tim Smith, National Opera's lengthy, but effective, 'Vespri' (Baltimore Sun, September 19)
Tim Page, 'Vespri Siciliani': Verdi's Very Magnum Opus (Washington Post, September 19)
The singing so far was variable from night to night. There were moments where Maria Guleghina struggled with the text, but those seemed to have been overcome by the third performance. Lado Ataneli impressed me, as did Vitalij Kowaljow (Procida). The rest of the cast was solid if unspectacular. The first entry of Bethune (John Marcus Bindel) was a little disappointing but he made more of his limited role as the opera went on (and on, and on).
The story of I Vespri is so silly that it does not merit retelling. It is matched in the staging of Stage and Visual Director Paolo Miccichè. The arrangement of different oversized frames on stage and the projection of closeups of paintings onto the back of the stage seem to say: "We blew all the money on the singers - this will have to do." It was not helped by crudely thoughtless details such as the hoisting of the tricolore and les couleurs during the production. The opera is set in thirteenth-century Sicily. The first occurrence of the green-white-red flag that is now Italy's came in Lombardy in 1796. Italy as a country was only founded six years after Verdi wrote I Vespri, and only in 1897 did the Italian flag lose the 'Cross of Savoy'. The French flag is only two years older, becoming the national flag of France in 1794 (and again in 1830). Since there were no attempts to lift the story out of its Sicilian context (despite all-too-many opportunities, given the current political situation in many countries in which the U.S. has some interest), and since the "French" generally did not bother with Sicily after Charles I of Anjou was replaced by King Peter III, it made little sense to 'update' the costumes to a vaguely Napoleonic time.
This, admittedly, will be of little concern to most Verdi lovers and won't keep them from attending either of the remaining two performances on October 1st or 4th.