The Siberian Vespers
Teatro alla Scala
01/28/2023 - & February 1st*, 8, 11, 14, 17, 21, 2023
Giuseppe Verdi : I vespri siciliani
Luca Micheletti*/Roman Burdenko (Guido di Monforte), Andrea Pellegrini (Il sire di Bethune), Adriano Gramigni (Il conte Vaudemont), Piero Pretti (Arrigo), Simon Lim (Giovanni da Procida), Marina Rebeka*/Angela Meade (La duchessa Elena), Valentina Pluzhnikova (Ninetta), Giorgio Misseri (Danieli), Bryan Avila Martínez (Tebaldo), Christian Federici (Roberto), Andrea Tanzillo (Manfredo)
Coro del Teatro alla Scala, Alberto Malazzi (chorus master), Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala, Fabio Luisi (conductor)
Hugo De Ana (stage director, sets & costumes), Vinicio Cheli (lighting), Leda Lojodice (choreography)
(© Brescia e Amisano/Teatro alla Scala)
Premiered in Paris in 1855, Les Vêpres siciliennes is not one of Verdi’s most popular works, though several arias and duets are both beautiful and popular. Based on Le Duc d’Albe, the libretto was written in 1838 by Eugène Scribe and Charles Duveyrier for Donizetti, who never finished the opera. Le Duc d’Albe is about the uprising of the Flemish people against their Spanish rulers. After the immense success of Rigoletto (1851), Il trovatore (1853), and La traviata (1853), Verdi was in high demand everywhere. Paris, then the cultural centre of Europe, had to commission a Verdi opera. The city of lights had already asked Verdi to rework his opera I Lombardi alla prima crociata (1843) into French (becoming Jérusalem, premiered 1847), but Les Vêpres siciliennes was to be an entirely original creation.
Verdi had the librettists rework Le Duc d’Albe’s setting from Flanders to Sicily, and changed the Spanish oppressors into the French Angevin rulers of Sicily in the thirteenth century. The opera style en vogue in the Paris of the 1830s & 1840s was Meyerbeer’s Grand Opera. The latter’s biggest hits, Robert le Diable (1831), Les Huguenots (1836) and Le Prophète (1849) were the model for Verdi, who embarked on writing an imitation Meyerbeer opera.
Unfortunately, his attempt was not successful. Indeed, he applied the Franco‑German’s master formula: an epic historical struggle with a love interest, in five acts which included a ballet, and written four to six strong lead roles for the same number of superstars of different voices (Duchess Hélène/Duchessa Elena, a soprano; Henri/Arrigo, a tenor; Guy de Montfort/Guido di Monforte, a baritone; and Procida, a bass).
Alas, copying a formula does not guarantee success. By 1855, grand opera was already démodé in Paris. Following the 1848 “romantic” revolution, tastes had changed. The opera quickly fell out of favour, and when Verdi attempted to revive it, the Paris Opera opted for a revised French version of Il trovatore instead (Le Trouvère, premiered in 1857).
The same year of the Paris premiere of Les Vêpres siciliennes, an Italian version was hastily arranged using a mediocre translation by poet Giovanni Caimi. As the censor wouldn’t have tolerated an opera involving an uprising on Italian soil, the setting was yet again moved, this time to Portugal, and the title used was Giovanna de Guzman. This Italian version was rebaptized I vespri siciliani, after the Piemontese annexation of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in 1860. Verdi thought it a botched job, and there is little justification in continuing to produce I vespri siciliani rather than Les Vêpres siciliennes.
Argentinian stage director Hugo De Ana’s muse seems to have abandoned him. Over the years, I have admired several of his opera stagings, sometimes controversial but always provocative and thrilling. De Ana’s setting of I vespri siciliani is not thirteenth century Sicily but the WWII German retreat and American landing. In Sicily’s long, rich history, this is far from the most riveting chapter. Sicily was colonized by the Ancient Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals and Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Swabians, Angevin French, Aragonese and the list goes on.
If a transposition of epoch were desired, the most provocative would have been the Norman takeover of Sicily from the Andalusian Arabs. To the Pope’s dismay and ire, the new occupiers refused to persecute the island’s Muslims and Jews as the Spaniards did. On the contrary, they used Arabic as the court’s language and kept Arab scholars as advisors. Another interesting period in Sicily’s long history is the struggle between Guelphs and Ghibellines during the Swabian Hohenstaufen rule in the twelfth and thirteenth century. Finally, the most provocative period for a reset would have been the Piemontese invasion of Sicily in their campaign to “unify” Italy. The provocative Szymanowski opera King Roger (1924) takes place in the Norman period, and Visconti’s Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) (1963), itself based on Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel (1958), takes place in the unification days of the Risorgimento, almost contemporaneous with the opera’s creation.
Little was gained by De Ana’s change of epoch other than a high degree of ugliness. Throughout the opera, the sets were greyish black, despite the opera being set in sunny Sicily. The Mediterranean Sea surrounding the island is nowhere in sight. And this, despite the obvious scene of Procida’s clandestine landing in Sicily, “O tu Palermo,” after years of exile. With De Ana’s bleak sets, we may as well have been in Siberia or the Canadian tundra.
A further disturbing feature was De Ana’s penchant for violence and torture. Throughout the opera, the Germans gratuityously torture the Sicilians, especially the women. In the libretto, the French flirt and have their way with some Sicilian women. De Ana ends Act II with a tableau of murdered women. Surprisingly, the ferocious “German” soldiers stood idly earlier in the opera when Elena brandished a knife and when she and others distributed arms.
The only touch of originality was De Ana’s clin d’œil to Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), with Death playing chess with the knight. Though I vespri siciliani is no more apocalyptic than most other opere serie, this homage is not unwelcome. However, having Death and the knight onstage throughout the entire opera was both tedious and distracting.
The saving grace of the performance was Verdi’s music, masterfully conducted by Fabio Luisi and La Scala’s orchestra, possibly the most Verdian of all orchestras, and the glorious singing. The four main singers are among the best working today. Soprano Marina Rebeka is one of the greatest living sopranos. She possesses a rich and distinct timbre, just the needed bite for the Act I aria “Coraggio, su coraggio!” and ample agility to handle the coloratura in the Act V “Mercè dilette amiche.” Tenor Piero Pretti is an impassioned Arrigo, capable of portraying the tormented young man’s struggle between patriotism and filial loyalty. His is a young, virile voice, with no difficulty in the upper register.
The revelation of the evening was baritone Luca Micheletti, who eclipsed everyone with his strikingly charismatic stage presence. This isn’t surprising, as this talented singer is also an actor and stage director. If only he were allowed to give Hugo De Ana some advice – he could have saved the production! Finally, Simon Lim was a more than competent Procida, though De Ana’s incompetent directing seemed to make him the villain. Of course, this is a valid viewpoint, but it counters the crux of this “nationalistic” opera.
Though Les Vêpres siciliennes is chronologically the twentieth out of Verdi’s twenty‑eight operas, it’s less inspired than many of his middle and even earlier works. The characters are poorly developed and the plot convoluted, especially in its Italian incarnation. The present production was a missed opportunity to set things right, to resurrect a neglected opera from the pen of a mature Verdi. All the necessary elements were in place to achieve this; it would be impossible to imagine a stronger ensemble of soloists. The last La Scala production of I vespri siciliani was three decades ago. Let’s hope we won’t have to wait as long for another, and let’s cross our fingers it will be Les Vêpres siciliennes and not its shabby Italian translation.
Ossama el Naggar