Ossia I Vespri Siciliani takes its name from the evening prayer to which the faithful are called by the ringing of bells. Specifically the bells of Verdi’s Sicilian vespers signal the Sicilians that it is time to massacre the French.
This was many years ago, about 750 years ago actually. Just now Palermo’s Teatro Massimo has mounted Verdi’s original 1855, grand opera version in commemoration, after thirty years, of another Sicilian massacre. Judges Giuseppe Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were famously blown-up in 1992 (many others were murdered less spectacularly), the result of turncoat Mafiosi testimony.
Trying to reconcile this recent Mafia history with that long ago history of a French occupation as told by Verdi’s famed librettist, Eugène Scribe is not so easy. But it is easy to be critical of the Scribe libretto. In fact Verdi’s mistress Giuseppina Strapponi (later his wife) advised him to back out of his contract with Paris’ Opéra, given the second hand libretto was of such doubtful quality. Verdi thought however that he might be able to make some really impressive grand opera music. And that he did.
Besides impressive spectacle, grand opera likes flashy, virtuoso singing, it likes pretty little hummable songs, nifty quartets and trios, emotional duets, and lots and lots of great big choruses. And maybe and above all French grand opera likes ballets. The Scribe libretto provided all these opportunities for Verdi. Never mind that grand opera had been out of fashion for about twenty years.
Palermo born stage director Emma Dante (of impressive credential indeed) summarized the pre-history of the opera by dumping five ballerino French soldiers gaudily costumed as puppets onto the stage apron who twitched like bewitched marionettes throughout Verdi’s clumsy overture. The first act introduced Hélène, the murder of whose brother, the Duke of Alba, was unavenged, with an aria virtually impossible to sing. We met Montfort, the sympathetic baritone French governor who later will splendidly deliver one of the opera’s loveliest airs once he learns that the Sicilian tenor Henri (who maybe will get it together vocally for his big Act IV aria) is actually his son.
The brilliance of Hélène’s aria stirred up a grand chorus of revolt, the Palermitani clash with French soldiers, 15 or so banners appeared with photos of the victims of the 1992 massacre. A ballet of revolt followed. Three Klezmer style musicians walked on stage — a violin, clarinet and accordion — to provide a very stylish, and personable reduction of Verdi’s very extended, musically pallid ballet score. Palermo may lack good restaurants but it has a terrific clarinet player and a plentitude of truly excellent dancers who responded with boundless energy and refined technique to Palermo born choreographer Manuela Lo Sicco’s rich, chic and witty choreography — she is a frequent Emma Dante collaborator.
This first act encounter of Montfort with his as yet unrecognized son Henri does not go well — Henri refuses to become an accomplice to the French. Plus of course he loves Hélène. Meanwhile an angry spectacle erupts. Palermo is sacked by the French who threw huge piles of furniture etcetera onto the stage, the Palermitani meanwhile sack the palace, dumping box after box of papers from the palace onto the stage (did I get this right?). The spectacle did continue on, and for quite a while after the music had stopped.
Voilà grand opera!
The curtain fell on Act I. There was a lot to clean up onstage. It was a long intermission. With great trepidation we embarked onto the second of the five acts.
Procida, a bass voiced Sicilian rabble rouser, has returned from exile. He is standing in a suspended boat, sort of like it was an airplane. He sang the air “Et toi, Palerme” in gorgeous tone, the Palermitani were entranced (as was I) as he extolled the beauty of Palermo, “queen of cities!”
Et voici! The four principal singers that la Dante does not mess with, leaving them mostly downstage and on the stage apron to render the plentitude of quartets (some a cappella), trios, duets and arias that are the glories of Verdi’s Les vêpres Siciliennes. The opera comes just after the Verdi’s middle period masterpieces, Traviata, Rigoletto and Trovatore. While offering in Paris homage to the French styles of songs and ensembles there is the sense as well that Verdi has moved into a new sphere, a new exploration of the emotional depths of his later personages.
Yes, tenor Leonardo Caimi got it together vocally, barely, for his big fourth act aria “O jour de peine et de souffrance!” — he had betrayed Hélène and Procida by revealing to his father the plans for insurrection. Baritone Mattea Olivieri’s third act aria “Au sein de la puissance” was delivered the joyous emotion of a new father. Beside his enchanting “Et toi Palerme” Luca Tittoto smoothly anchored all of the grandiose quartets and trios. Soprano Selene Zanetti negotiated her difficult first act aria “Au seins des mers” with cautionary aplomb and let her final aria “Sorte fatale” rip with its spectacular glissandos.
It was an all Italian cast, to my ears at odds with the French language, basic Italian flair and flash always just below the surface. Conductor Order Meir Wellber (Teatro Massimo’s music director) held the Teatro Massimo orchestra in check in the quirky acoustic of its auditorium, allowing the public scenes the necessary volume, pulling back to work closely with the singers in their personal moments. There is the suspicion that it was Mo. Wellber’s idea to assign the first act ballet to Klezmer-like treatment.
And no, Emma Dante’s staging shenanigans never let up, nor did the glories of Mme. Lo Sicco’s choreography (or the energy of her dancers). Well, we were all waiting, let me say dreading the massacre. The production travels to Naples, Bologna and Madrid. I won’t be the spoiler.
But maybe someone can tell me what happened to Henri in the end.
Cast and Production
La duchesse Hélène: Selene Zanetti; Ninetta: Carlotta Vichi; Henri: Leonardo Caimi; Guy de Montfort: Mattia Olivieri; Jean Procida: Luca Tittoto; Thibault: Matteo Mezzaro; Danieli: Francesco Pittari; Mainfroid: Pietro Luppina; Robert: Alessio Verna; Le sire de Béthune: Ugo Guagliardo; Le comte de Vaudemont: Gabriele Sagona. Orchestra, Chorus and Ballet of the Teatro Massimo. Conductor: Omer Meir Wellber; Stage Director: Emma Dante; Scenery: Carmine Maringola; Costumes: Vanessa Sannino; Choreography: Manuela Lo Sicco; Lighting: Cristian Zucaro. Teatro Massimo, Palermo, July 23, 2022. All photos courtesy of the Teatro Palermo, copyright Rosellina Garbo.