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Verdi I Vespri Siciliani Zurich Opera, 6 June 2004
Marrocu, Schmid, Christoff, Giordani, Groissböck, Mayr, Murga, Nucci, Raimondi, Winkler

DVD Opus Arte La Scala/Muti/Pizzi

Catching Zurich's new production by Cesare Lievi, in a stop-over on the way home from covering a German festival which has English as its lingua franca, one was disadvantaged as are many tourists. Surtitles were in German, so one relied on the bare bones of an English synopsis.

I Vespri Siciliani remains an outsider in Verdi's oeuvre despite being composed soon after Trovatore, Traviata and Rigoletto (it was last seen there in 1972); a grand opera for Paris with the expected dance scenes, introduced somewhat unconvincingly amongst the ruins of Maurizio Balo's lugubrious set of ruins, which cramped the action and made for even more suspension of disbelief than opera often demands. Political parallels were not developed, and the stage direction of the main characters was basic; the four standing equidistant across the front of the stage for their quartet.

Leo Nucci as Monteforte just
before assassination attempt

The principals have to veer continually between the calls of love, honour and duty, with the heroine very much caught in the middle. Though not a major operatic star, I enjoyed the honesty of Paoletta Marrocu's portrayal and found most of her singing true and beautiful. All the main parts are difficult and not recitalists' favourites. To my taste (and from too close to the stage) Marcello Giordani as Arrigo was too consistently loud and his voice and stentorian delivery less than ingratiating; he managed his very high notes towards the end impeccably.

Ruggero Raimondi, a great favourite with the Zurichers, relied on the force of his presence and the power of his bass voice as the fanatical Sicilian conspirator, and instigator of the final massacre for which we had been waiting for most of 3½ hours, but line and intonation were in short supply from this veteran singer. The audience was happy to accept the will for the deed.

In the event a lot of brandishing of fists and, after a rushed and perfunctory wedding ceremony, the knifing to death of the French Governor (Leo Nucci) and he alone, had to serve for the famous massacre - definitely short-changing the expectant audience !

There was however one short intriguing scene towards the end, with bored ladies having to stand around to welcome the bride-to-be singing her big aria with an armful ofr flowers; a light, almost comic interlude before the violent and tragic denouement. The latter day Sicilian wedding photo in a desolate urban setting, which I reproduce from the programme, catches the hectic, incongruous mood of Cesare Lievi's presentation of Verdi's 13 C Sicily.

It had been a little like the Masked Ball, but in a twist of the story the conspirators were apprehended, brought to execution, and reprieved in the nick of time when Arrigo finally acknowledged Monteforte as his father, sealing the fate of the occupiers. In my book, the baritone Leo Nucci, whom I have often admired at Zurich and on DVD, was the star of the show; exemplary poise and vocal variety - no longer young, but in fine voice throughout the range, encompassing authority as commander, and tenderness as a father.

My seat was right in front, practically over the heavy brass of the large orchestra, which was ably marshalled by Carlo Rizzi making his Swiss debut, but perhaps there could be more flexibility and consideration for the singers at times?

I left finally feeling that this was a good Verdi opera to have 'collected', but not a production which I would urge others to go and see.


La Scala Orchestra & Chorus/RICCARDO MUTI

DVD Opus Arte La Scala Collection OA LS3008 D [Live Video 7 DECEMBER 1989; 211 mins]

After a dubious start, with little to show for direction of the singers or credible staging, this performance gradually warms up. The chorus (are they professionals?) rush on and off, then just stand and sing; it is all very old fashioned, or if you prefer, charmingly 'period'. Had production styles changed much since 1855.

There are some magnificent duets and ensembles and the principals do well and, judging from the enthusiastic reception from a vociferous audience, are local favourites. Hero and heroine look like - opera singers, and this is not one to convert the unfaithful. But they sing well and the ardour of their exchanges draws you in, especially those in which they are torn in conflict between loyalties, a main theme throughout. Giorgio Zancanaro is suave and rather attractive as the despotic governor whose heart melts for his errant son; far less sinister than Nucci in Zurich. But, as there, he alone has to stand in for all the victims of the final massacre!

I Vespri was composed for Paris, and first seen with the obligatory Act 3 ballet (the Four Seasons) which completely interrupts the drama, but is included here. The music is good to hear for once, but I don't think the Milan dancing, or that beginning Act 5, will cut much ice with sophisticated opera buffs.

The production is no better than some others in the series; the English subtitles adequate but not proof-read; the Italian libretto has no track references to help you not to get lost repeatedly, until you discover at the end that it "may differ slightly from the performed edition of the opera". Surely Charlotte de Grey, Booklet Editor, could do better?

The opera is problematic but should not be completely avoided - Gramophone says Callas "brings distinction to a performance of Vespri that is otherwise a bit of a curate's egg - as is the opera itself" (Archipel New CD ARPCD00163). There seems to be no other DVD yet.

© Peter Grahame Woolf