CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews


I Vespri Siciliani — Struggles With Verdi

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.

Other Reviews:

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)
As far as I Vespri Siciliani is concerned, Tim Page already pointed this out in his review, it is foremost a long opera. It does, as Plácido Domingo has mentioned, contain some very beautiful moments. There is a gorgeous duet in Act III between Franco Farina's Arrigo and Lado Ataneli's Monforte, and the overture, although not a favorite of mine, ranks among the finest of Verdi's. But even with the 30-some minute ballet excised and some arias and repeats cut, it takes a while to be done with. The story doesn't particularly propel you through the drama, either. The second act in particular seems interminable. (Again, taste differs: Joe Banno, for example, thinks of the second act as the finest of the work, while I would have no problem in cutting deeply into it.)

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.


Princess Alpenrose said...

Reading and laughing along with you, there jfl!

I loved "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.'"

I'm a singer and a long time opera watcher, and much of what you say is true. Poor acting, poor singing, phony sets and blantant historical inaccuracies* do little to endear opera audiences, or help them justify the ticket prices!

* (not to mention costumes and surtitle translations.

I could write a BOOK on the Garanamals mix and match style costumes apparently cut from window curtains by Maria von Trapp which dominated the stage at last spring's Baltimore Opera production of Figaro.

Or the tongue biting I had to do to reamain seated and keep my hands off someone's throat through subtitles featuring translations of Se Vuol Ballare to include the phrase "I'll cook his goose." There's no goose, nor any other type of fowl in that aria, I assure you!


Good writing there, jfl. Love it!

Princess Alpenrose said...

... and, hey, re the flags, maybe the stage director was thinking:

"If I raise and lower some famous flags, at strategic 'emotional' points, then I Vespri Siciliani will suddenly become as popular as Les Miserables!"

tee hee hee ...

Anonymous said...

Keep up the good work, JFL! A piece of Verdian garbage by any other name (le garbage?) still don’t smell like roses. I saw Vespri yesterday- I got a cheap ticket- and it was a torturous evening for me. Looong, ludicrous plot, choppy music, cheap sets, these surtitles… I didn’t even notice the goose Andrea picked up, I was trying to listen to the Italian 101 texts, but I noticed that some important exclamations (Elena crying “Never!”) were simply missing. Singing: Guleghina is a force of nature, but she messed up royally. Only Kowaljow was really good. There was someone behind me, of the Easily Impressed American species who kept exclaiming “Oh boy!”, loudly, every time a singer held a long note, before the note was finished. Acting- didn’t detect any, though the last act came close.
I hope you will continue to champion the idea that some Verdi operas are good, and some not so much, especially in hackneyed productions. I am new to the, uhm, traditional opera, this was my first live Verdi actually. I have been playing/singing/listening to music since I was six, but early on my opera taste crystallized into Monteverdi/Handel/Rameau/Gluck- which is criminally underperformed!- and Mozart. Don Giovanni is the best there is.
But when I mention that I like opera, many people assumed it’s only the Holy Trio: Wagner- yes, love it, esp Tristan, when it is done well but please no creaky 500 pounds of flesh in breastplate, and Puccini- I am allergic to him most severly, and Verdi- Otello, yes, Nabucco- please, no, and Vespri- never again! And Carmen- it works for opera houses and house cleaning products.
I saw a note that WNO is doing Verdi’s Macbeth next season- keep you claws sharp and honest for this one. Face the Verdi’s Deplorable Cultus, to borrow a phrase from Tolkien, and Ritorna to us vincitor!
(still at war with Fleming Cultus, though favourable votes for my Amazon review of Sacred Cheese, titled “The Kraft of Renee Fleming”, are coming in strong)

Garth Trinkl said...

Give me Gluck, Mozart, Wagner, Janáček, Strauss, or Britten anytime

I think that Verdi's Don Carlo is one of the handful of greatest operas ever written.

Princess Alpenrose said...

Monika - Great mini-review! I like your perception and description of things.

And now we have a new acronym, the EIA (Easily Impressed American). Ouch! They are out there. I must be the DTPA (Difficult To Please American)...

Thanks for writing in!

Andrea (ps the goose was in the Baltimore Figaro production that made me insane)

jfl said...

Crimeny... where did my response go? Quickly again:

1.) Garth: I always give Don Carlos (5 act v.) a pass - in this review as well. On a good day, I'll even let Rigoletto slide by my cranky opinion. And today - hold onto your seats - I tremendously enjoyed (and whisteled along to) a recording of Il Trovatore that I shall review shortly. Speaking of which: Ditto Daphne with La Fleming - which (upon first hearing and no comparison yet) sounds fairly delightful.

2.) Monika: Choppy is a good description, incl. of the overture. Which is why the regard of Verdiites for it ("Second best ovt. he ever wrote") surprises me so much. In truth, I find the Stiffelio overture more entertaining by a good margin. Guleghina screwed up again? There seems to be a paragraph missing from my review (dig, dig...) where I spoke a bit about the contributions. I'll add that tonight, I hope.

3.) Once I am sovrintendenti in Monaco di Baviera I'll invite you over to a season of Nielsen, Stravinsky, Britten, Wagner, DSCH, R.Strauss (I shouldn't have to mention the initial) sprinkled with W.A.M. (Cosi 'round the clock), [Rameau/Lully], [Monteverdi/early Handel], Gluck and Janacek. :) Collective Recovery.

Anonymous said...

Andrea, lift up your head- I'm all for DTPAs! William Christie of Les Arts is a DTPA par excellance, no?
My first meeting with EIAs was at the Vermeer exhibition at the Washington National Gallery, several years ago; I was very excited to be able to see so much Vermeer goodness in one place, even though I’ve seen some of these paintings in Europe. I quickly made my way to the View of Delft. Everybody in this blog probably knows it, but just in case you need a refresher:
There was an American couple standing in front of it, and they looked mesmerized; I was thinking, of course, it’s one of the most sublime paintings in the world, they better be impressed. Finally, the lady turned to her companion and said “Wow, how did paint these people so small?”
Little things that make you happy- that’s what happiness is all about!

Akimon Azuki said...

(Ms Monika sez: I finally got my Blogger profile worked out! office work left some brain cells alive!)
JFL, Guleghina screwed up royally, but at very advanced level- that is, on level to which the enthusiastic and still sober Russian Posse and EIAs were largely oblivious. The notes were mostly there, I think, I am not so familiar with Verdi's Opus Sicilianus, and she is good at fudging the lines anyway, but her vocal technique- my God, she is fascinating even when she flips! There were such notes that I have not known them to exist in normal/not suicidal vocal delivery of human species. She can sing up a storm, and boom, and squeal, and - words fail at the description of the freak of nature that is Maria. I love her hopelessly, and can see why she is so addictive. I would see La Boheme, tfu, if she was it- hey, I would see Les Most Miserables if she was in it! But not Vespri again, please...
hey, that sovrintendenti business- excellent. Always good to have a plan for total world domination, given the Powerball fallouts. Me, I will be BUYING that Drottningholm Court Theater! And it won't be Verdi playing in there after I'm done, I tell you!
over and out

Princess Alpenrose said...

Am loving this dialogue here ... I would have been all over Guleghina's screw ups (noticed every single one, and btw currently those who speak the language have the worst, the most atrocious diction in Russian) but also sympathetic. Singers really know and understand.

I wonder what the (insider's) scoop really was? What threw her off, I wonder?

Those of you who were there - Did you notice where/when things started to fall apart? Were she and the conductor not communicating or were there technical (stage/set/costume/sound) problems? Or did her memory just go kaflooey for no apparent reason?

Anonymous said...

the gal is too lazy to learn the text. that's what threw her off.

Princess Alpenrose said...

ooooohheeeeee ... OUCH! Anonymous obviously has insider information. Do tell!

Garth Trinkl said...

Jens, regarding Verdi, you obviously enjoy great vocal music more than you enjoy and appreciate great music drama.

jfl said...

"Great Music Drama"... right on. And I still feel bad for 'dissing' the Oberon libretto. :)