A "Vespri" to savor....
B. Cathey | Wendell, NC United States | 09/05/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Unlike Verdi's other operas from the 1850s, I VESPRI SICILIANI has not had that many recordings--just two available commercial releases on CD and a couple of video releases, and the commercial releases are a decidedly mixed bag. This live Gala recording under Riccardo Muti, from the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino (13 May, 1978), along with another live issue (featuring Anita Cerquetti and Boris Christoff, on Myto records), are the preferred means of really experiencing this neglected Verdi work. This Gala issue, in good sound, with Veriano Luchetti, Renata Scotto, Renato Bruson, and Ruggiero Raimondi--all in stellar voice--may well be the best preformance all round. Scotto was nearing the end of her notable career, but she still had the top notes, the dramatic power, and finely-developed technique to sing Elena's music quite well. Veriano Luchetti--shamefully neglected by the big recording companies--is supreme as Arrigo, with his wonderfully burnished and honeyed tenor sounding glorious throughout. [Why did not EMI or DG or someone use him more during the 1960s-80s? His commercial Nabucco and a Verdi Requiem suggest what he was capable of on stage in operas like Don Carlo and Simon Boccanegra--search out his private air checks, if you can find them!]Ruggiero Raimondi, of course, is a bass baritone, and his traversal of the role of Procida invests that character with more youth than does the more historionic Christoff in the Myto recording (with Cerquetti). Bruson, the Monforte, is equally fine.So, this is a superb I VESRPI SICILIANI, which, along with the classic Cerquetti performance of a couple of decades earlier, makes a strong case for this neglected Verdi masterpiece. At Gala's cheap price, this is an irresistable bargain. Highly recommended."
Good singing, but...
Maurice M. Meneguzzi | Reston, VA | 09/24/2005
(3 out of 5 stars)
"Despite the very good singers, this CD's are disappointing because of
1 - The low technical quality of the recording,
2 - The full recording of the very long and numerous interruptions for applause,
3 - the absence of a libretto.
Live performance of from the 1978 May Festival in Florence.
L. E. Cantrell | Vancouver, British Columbia Canada | 01/03/2009
(4 out of 5 stars)
Live performance, May 13, 1978, from the stage of the Teatro Communale during the May Music Festival in Florence.
Generally acceptable AM-quality broadcast mono sound, but not as good as one might reasonably expect from 1978. The recording has a bit more than its fair share of tape hiss, so I would not advise listening with headphones. There are some stage noises, but they are not excessive. Applause occurring at the ends of acts is rolled off fairly promptly. For some incomprehensible reason, though, the cast was allowed to take individual bows at the end of Act III, Scene 1, and the sea of tumultuous applause and cheering was recorded in its entirety. Since this is an Italian opera with an Italian cast in an Italian venue, the probability of a claque being present is 100%. In this case, Bruson seems to have been the particular object of the claque's loving attention.
ELENA - Renata Scotto (soprano)
ARRIGO - Veriano Luchetti (tenor)
GUIDO MONFORTE - Renato Bruson (baritone)
GIOVANNI DA PROCIDA - Ruggiero Raimondi (bass)
NINETTA - Nella Verri (mezzo-soprano)
DANIELI - Gianpaolo Corradi (tenor)
IL SIRE DI BETHUNE - Graziano Polidori (bass)
IL CONTE VAUDEMONT - Carlo del Bosco (bass)
TEBALDO - Gianfranco Mangonotti (tenor)
ROBERTO - Giorgio Giorgetti (baritone)
MANFREDO - Carlo Novelli (tenor)
Ricardo Muti with the Orchestra e Coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino.
DOCUMENTATION: No libretto. No summary of the plot. Short history of the opera and Verdi's difficulty with the rigid performing requirements required by the Paris Opera. Track list showing timings and identifying the major singers on each track. Thumbnail biographies of Scotto, Luchetti, Bruson, Raimondi and Muti.
The so-called "Sicilian Vespers" took place on the evening of Easter Monday, March 30, 1232 in Palermo. At that time, Sicily was under the reign of the King of Naples, the brother of the French King who is better known to history as Saint Louis. Within living memory, this French dynasty had expelled popular monarchs of the Imperial German line, the Hohenstaufens. Worse than that, these Frenchmen were highly competent in extracting past-due taxes from the Sicilians.
Giovanni da Procida was a Neapolitan doctor who had been exiled by the King of Naples and who had landed on his feet to become in effect the prime minister of the King of Aragon.
It seems that the King of Naples was using Sicily as a staging point for the fleet he was assembling to conquer Constantinople and with it the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Emperor, Michael Paleologus, who was week militarily, but well equipped with both brains and money, did not approve of the Neapolitan King's plans. With the Emperor's backing, Giovanni da Procida organized the massacre of all the French in Sicily, while incidentally destroying the fleet assembled for the attack on Constantinople, and starting a European war. Reflecting on this welter of bloodshed, Emperor Michael congratulated himself in his diary as the "liberator" of Sicily. Observing these southern shenanigans from the north of Italy, Dante would content himself by consigning many of the principal players to Hell.
The opera was commissioned for the Paris Opéra, where it premiered on June 13, 1855 before Louis Napoleon and his court as "Les Vépres Siciliennes." The opera was a considerable hit and was soon being performed in Italy and elsewhere under the more familiar title of "I vespri Siciliano"--although, of course, the censors in some of the many micro states that made up Italy at the time had objections to massacres of representatives of occupying powers (for which read Austria) and forced changes in plot and even to the title of the piece. The initial popularity of the piece faded away rapidly, so that it, and the next succeeding opera, "Stiffelio," are the least often performed of Verdi's middle-period works.
"I Vespri" was written immediately after Verdi's magnificent triad of "Rigoletto," "Il trovatore" and "La Traviata" which marked the beginning of his "second style," as his contemporaries called it. He obviously did it for the money and for the prestige that came with being commissioned by the richest opera house in the world. It is fairly obvious that he quickly came to regret both.
In a letter to a friend, written in the middle of composition, he wrote, "A work for the Opéra is enough to stun a bull. Five hours of music? ....Ooof."
Verdi had been presented with a libretto by Eugene Scribe, who ran what can only be called a libretto factory. Scribe would block out the general plot and determine the special stage effects, than farm out the actual writing to a staff of poetical hacks. The factory's output had served for Auber, Rossini and Donizetti, but it would not meet Verdi's more demanding standards. Worse, unknown to Verdi at the time, and perhaps to his dying day, Scribe's libretto was nothing more than a slightly modified version of the libretto he had supplied to Donizetti back in 1840 as "Il Duca d'Alba." Donizetti, had never completed the opera and was now safely dead, anyway, so waste-not-want-not Scribe had foisted in onto the Opéra and poor Verdi.
After fifteen months of laboring on the opera in Paris, Verdi wrote to Crosnier, the director of the Paris Opéra: "It is at the same time sad and mortifying to me that M. Scribe will not take the trouble to improve the fifth act, which everyone agrees is uninteresting. I am not unaware that M. Scribe has a thousand things to do, which perhaps are dearer to him than my opera!... but if I had been able to foresee his complete indifference, I would have stayed in my own country, where, truth to tell, I was not doing so badly."
Never again would Verdi allow any mere wordsmith to ride roughshod over him.
Verdi complained of having to write five hours of music, but his opera is not that long, nor is it performed without cuts. The most common cuts center on the half hour of ballet music that the Opéra required that he jam into Act III.
This particular performance does include a full 32 minutes of ballet music and runs to 203 minutes in total, occupying three CDs. Not having a score easily available to me, I cannot say whether it is complete, but I rather doubt it--at least so far as repeats are concerned. The 1961 Callas version, conducted by Kleiber (sans overture) clocks in at 169 minutes, while Levine's "complete" version from 1974 with Domingo and Arroyo runs to 187 minutes.
This May Festival performance certainly offers some big names with Muti, Scotto, Bruson and Raimondi, but to my ears at least, it seems a bit harsh and rough-edged ... or perhaps not quite jelled. The very first reaction I had to it was that the chorus seemed to be pushing too hard. Later, it struck me that while Scotto, Bruson and Raimondi were each singing well enough, there was never any feeling of a blend in the ensembles. I used the term "well enough" intentionally. When Scotto, for example warbles "Mercé, dilette amiche" in Act V, the one piece in the opera that can truly be regarded as a standard warhorse, she is OK, but no more than that.
The lead tenor is Veriano Luchetti, a perfectly good singer of the second rank, who would have been a fine house tenor in a second- or third-tier opera house. For an Italian, he was strangely lacking in squillo, singing, in fact, much more in the manner of a German tenor doing the lighter Wagnerian roles or perhaps Florestan. (I notice that an earlier Amazon reviewer questioned why he did not become a bigger star. I suggest that anyone asking that question listen to the merely polite, pro forma applause Lechetti gets after one of his big numbers, especially after the claque-enhanced cheers for the other members of the cast.)
I regard this as an acceptably competent performance of "I vespri Siciliani" rather than a great one. It possesses the unquestioned virtues of being available and at a low price. It also seems to provide a more generous portion of the opera than its rivals on disk. For these reasons, I believe that it edges--just barely--into the four-star range.