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08 Mar 2005

VERDI: Les Vêpres Siciliennes

In 1847, Giuseppe Verdi revised his opera I Lombardi alla prima crociata (1843) into a work for the Parisian stage. This “new” composition, featuring extensive plot changes, new music, and the requisite ballet, is considered better than the original upon which it was based. A reverse fate awaited Verdi’s next work for Paris, the grand opéra Les Vêpres Siciliennes, which premiered at the Opéra in 1855. Although it was performed there, with minor changes, until 1863, attempts to get the work past censors in Italy failed, for tales of successful revolutions simply were not permitted on the Risorgimento stage. After a poor translation of the opera entitled Giovanna de Guzman made the circuits, Verdi revisited the score in 1856, and, removing the ballet, created I vespri sicilani. This inferior version, which employs much of Giovanna de Guzman’s text, is unfortunately the one that has remained in the repertory.

Giuseppe Verdi: Les Vepres Siciliennes
Neilson Taylor (baritone), Jean Bonhomme (tenor), Jacqueline Brumaire (soprano), Ayhan Baran (bass), Stafford Dean (bass), Neil Howlett (bass), Pamela Bowden (contralto), Bernard Dickerson (tenor), Gerald English (tenor), Michael Rippon (baritone), Nigel Rogers (tenor), BBC Chorus, BBC Concert Orchestra, Mario Rossi (cond.), Ashley Lawrence (cond. for ballet music).
Opera Rara CV 303 [3CDs]

In 1847, Giuseppe Verdi revised his opera I Lombardi alla prima crociata (1843) into a work for the Parisian stage. This "new" composition, featuring extensive plot changes, new music, and the requisite ballet, is considered better than the original upon which it was based. A reverse fate awaited Verdi's next work for Paris, the grand opéra Les Vepres Siciliennes, which premiered at the Opéra in 1855. Although it was performed there, with minor changes, until 1863, attempts to get the work past censors in Italy failed, for tales of successful revolutions simply were not permitted on the Risorgimento stage. After a poor translation of the opera entitled Giovanna de Guzman made the circuits, Verdi revisited the score in 1856, and, removing the ballet, created I vespri sicilani. This inferior version, which employs much of Giovanna de Guzman's text, is unfortunately the one that has remained in the repertory.

Les Vepres Siciliennes is the latest in the Opera Rara series Verdi Originals. Previous issues include Macbeth and Simon Boccanegra, with promises of La forza del destino and Don Carlos to come. This issue is a recording of the original French version as performed at London's Camden Theatre on 10 May 1969 and subsequently broadcast by the BBC on 15 February 1970. The CD, digitally remastered by Oliver Davis, is a superb rendering, for it lacks the usual vacant spatial sounds so often present in older live performances. As a result, Opera Rara presents a noteworthy representation of a work that expands the opera-goer's knowledge of this portion of Verdi's compositional history.

This five-act version is rarely performed. Because of its extended length and considerable vocal forces, productions are expensive undertakings. Furthermore, all but die-hard admirers come to hear Verdi the "Italian"; therefore, this work tends to fare poorly in the common repertory. For these reasons alone, this recording is significant, for it offers a fascinating picture of what came before and what would follow in the composer's canon. The quality of this performance (and the recording) is so consistently excellent that it is difficult to focus on specifics; nevertheless, the principals, tenor Jean Bonhomme (Henri), soprano Jacqueline Brumaire (Hélène), baritone Neilson Taylor (Montfort), and bass Ayhan Baran (Procida) deserve special mention for certain numbers. Bonhomme and Taylor are perhaps at their dramatic best in the their Act III Scene and Duet, the main melody of which is among those Verdi previewed in the opera's extensive Overture. Baran's interpretation of "Et toi, Palerme," Procida's entrance aria (and one of the most popular selections from the opera in its own day) demonstrates his melodic ability. Throughout the performance, Brumaire excells, but perhaps her florid mastery in "Merci, jeunes amis" in Act V is one of her strongest points in this performance.

Because of the position of this work in the Verdi canon, certain numbers are of special interest. In the Act IV quartet "Adieu, mon pays," one hears how the composer applied the skills learned from Rigoletto. Moreover, the setting of the "De profundis clamavi" is clearly reminiscent of the composer's use of the "Miserere" in Il trovatore, and the falling "sigh" figures in the string accompaniment as Hélène and Procida sing "Mon pays" is a clear allusion to the third act of La traviata. Looking forward, one can foresee the musical energy and character development that will again appear in La forza del destino, Don Carlos, Aida, and, of course, Otello. What amazes about this version, something lost in the Italian Vespri, is Verdi's able handling of all of the elements of grand opera, including the Act III Ballet of the Four seasons, well conducted, by the way, by Ashley Lawrence, who for the ballet, takes the baton from Mario Rossi. One needs to note Maestro Rossi's able handling of the score (perhaps retouched in the remastering?); the balance between the singers and the orchestra is perfect. In this complex score when so much melodic activity rests in the accompaniment, the singers are never overwhelmed. The BBC Chorus ably supports the singers, but, at times, one suspects that their forte is really choral music and not opera choruses. If one has the opportunity to see Les Vepres Siciliennes on stage, one should, of course, do so. In lieu of a live performance — or even to enhance it — Opera Rara's recording is a must.

Denise Gallo

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