I vespri Siciliani

Mid period Verdi in a highly traditional La Scala production isn’t usually my cup of tea but I thought that if the usually excellent Opus Arte label thought the thing was worth a reissue it might be worth watching.  With caveats, it was, even for someone who is as allergic to this kind of production as myself.

The piece itself is less performed than many other Verdi works of the same period (Rigoletto, Traviata, Trovatore) and it’s also done less often than his other works based, albeit loosely, on historical events, Don Carlos and Simon Boccanegra.  I can see why.  It’s very formulaic and would score very high in any game of Verdi bingo.  There’s a long lost son, a mucked about with historical event, spurious injection of romance, melodrama and a big dollop of Italian nationalism.  There’s also a “seldom performed” third act ballet which is included here and brings the work up to around three and a half hours which is about an hour more than plot or music can stand (worth noting that the competing DVDs are 40-50 minutes shorter).  The music is a bit patchy.  There are some good numbers; solos, ensembles and choruses, but there’s also a lot of routine rumptytumptying and the ballet music is like a parody of a dull 19th century ballet.  If it was on locally I would go see it but I’d hope that there would be some judicious cutting!

The La Scala production, filmed in 1989 and directed by Pier Luigi Pizzi, is incredibly traditional.  There’s never a hint of an idea though the piece has been time shifted from the 13th century to the mid 19th, presumably because it’s prettier.  The sets and costumes are very nice to look at, if a bit stagey.  The boats in Acts 1 and 2 look are almost a pastiche of opera scenery.  The blocking is “park and bark” with the chorus arranged decoratively behind the singers (*).  The ballet choreography is again like a parody of a dull 19th century ballet.  It goes on for ever and adds nothing to plot or character development.  The costumes here are also like a parody with the poor corps de ballet dressed like anorexic meringues.

Then there’s the singing. I think I get what all the fuss is about.  All four principals; Chris Merritt as Arrigo, Cheryl Studer as Elena, Giorgio Zancanaro as Monforte and Ferrucio Furlanetto as Procida sound really, really good to me though it ought to be obvious that I’m no connoisseur of the fine points of singing Verdi.  I particularly liked Zancanaro’s touching and dignified Monforte but really singling out any one of them is unfair.  The other soloists and chorus do fine too and Riccardo Muti probably gets as much out of the music as there is to be got.  Unpromising as the ballet is Carla Fracci and Wayne Eagling make the most of it and there is some very skilled dancing especially in their two pas de deux.

The disk package is typical of the period.  The picture is adequate 4:3 and the sound is decent LPCM stereo.  The video direction by Christopher Swann is quite decent too.  The only subtitles are English and there is no bonus material.  It looks like quite extensive documentation is included but most of it is missing from my library copy.  It does have a reproduction of the original La Scala playbill which I rather like and so have reproduced below.

Bottom line, this will probably please fans of fine singing in traditional productions and/or Verdi completists.  Fine as the singing is though it rather reminds me of why I avoided productions of Verdi almost entirely for many years.

(*) Christopher Gillett says that the La Scala chorus contract entitles them to additional pay if they are called upon to act and therefore directors are required to do no more than arrange them decoratively!

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