Les vêpres de Westchester

The big news from Bel Canto at Caramoor’s presentation of Les Vêpres Siciliennes last Saturday is far from unexpected: This wonderful score, a five-act grand opera composed to a French libretto, sounds much better—and, incidentally, makes a lot more sense—when sung in the original French words to which Verdi composed it. Even sung in American French. (The most exciting performance I’ve ever attended of it, however, was Die Sizilianische Vesper, auf Deutsch, in East Berlin, a riveting Walter Felsenstein production that omitted about forty minutes of the best music.)

Will Crutchfield’s picked company of soloists and chorus (the latter from his Bel Canto Young Artists) sang and played with fervor worthy of the occasion. The four leads were not of the very highest international rank, but close enough and ardent enough to give us a fine notion of what a full-scale Vêpres might be. This ran to three and a half hours of music. On a humid night at over eighty degrees, there were fewer early departures from Caramoor’s Venetian Theater than might have been expected.

Verdi scholar Julian Budden has called the version usually heard, I Vespri Siciliani, “one of the worst [libretto translations] ever perpetrated.” Aside from the mangled accents falling on the wrong syllables, the story points are more confusing than they need be, the characters less rational, the labyrinthine plot even murkier in Italian. Yet this is the score published by Ricordi and, therefore, on the plea of expense, performed at the Met and every other American (or Italian) opera house that has given the piece.

Only Vincent La Selva’s New York Grand Opera, back in 1999 in Central Park, has ever presented the French original on American soil, and that was with microphones and mediocre singers. Preposterous as its story may be, Les Vêpres contains a lot of terrific music composed at the peak of Verdi’s powers, immediately following the great trifecta of Rigoletto, Trovatore and Traviata. It deserves better in public performance than the Italian translation permits. We should be carried along not alienated by the political myth here enacted.

The singers performed with tolerable French diction and a proper regard for Opéra grandeur. Turkish bass Burak Bilgili won the most admiration among the men; he was simply the loudest, but singing, never braying. Procida, the arch-conspirator who represents the insatiable desire of the Sicilians for liberty (business) and vengeance (pleasure), even during the false happy end that occupies most of Act V, must be irrepressible. “O toi, Palerme” (a popular favorite that has never stirred my heart) was robust and well oiled, his conspiratorial whispers in the cabaletta clear to the last row.

Marco Nisticò had the sinister presence of Verdi’s villain-turned-parent, Guy de Montfort (a bad-guy goatee helped), and his baritone is smooth and robust, but in his soliloquy he lacked the heart-turning warmth that can give this opera an illusion of humanity.

John Osborn, Henri, also properly hirsute for his character (a rebel’s long hair), nailed the only high D Verdi ever wrote for a tenor. He sang with a persuasive sense of line and no shrillness in a role that races between dramatic outbursts and elegiac passages. Some of the most forceful declamation seemed to call for more push, more support than Osborn can easily produce, but this was a creditable performance of a heavy role on which more famous tenors (Nicolai Gedda) have stumbled.

Angela Meade wore a little tiara and spangles on her dress, appropriate to a Duchess in exile and, even more, to a diva on a roll. Folks adore her hereabouts, a fact that seems to have made her feel more secure on stage, and she capped her performance of the “Bolero” by tossing her wedding roses one by one to the crowd during the ritornello—is that Diva or what? She seemed happily unembarrassed by her avoirdupois and eager to change moods (Hélène is often troubled, to say the least) and run around the little stage area.

Her lovely voice, which Maestro Crutchfield treasures (Norma, Semiramide), was less cold and less separated into rival components—a thin, lofty top, a detached, hearty chest—than has been the case during her recent essays at Lombardi and Beatrice di Tenda. She has never quite struck me as a finished product, and the signs that she is willing to work on her lacunae indicate a winning professionalism. She has the voice to be big and the guts to be big.

As Hélène, Meade was cold and fiery at once in her battle-cry in Act I, tender in her duets with Henri (ducking some high notes in the prison scene—but who needs them?), delicious if not string-of-pearls perfect in the chromatic runs that conclude “Ami le coeur d’Hélène,” with plenty of voice left for the famous “Bolero” (no high E, but Verdi didn’t compose that note). Then, as in her Met Ernani, she tossed caution to the winds and sang the concluding trio with powerhouse authority, easily matching Osborn’s frenetic outbursts and Bilgili’s menacing threats. I hope Meade, who has previously sung the role in Vienna, will be considered worthy of a Met revival—en français, s’il vous plaît!

Maestro Crutchfield led the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in an unflagging, thrilling performance, often holding the dramatic scenes tautly together at the expense of breaks for applause that would have been de rigueur at La Grande Boutique. He was supportive to his singers, slowing down at some tricky moments—but not halving the tempo during the “Bolero,” as Caballé used to demand! The double choruses of which Verdi made much use in this opera were well-drilled and exciting. The almost invariably omitted “Four Seasons” ballet was not too much of a drag—the “illustrative” orchestrations were intriguing, and we all sympathized with the program for “Summer”: “The nymphs, invited to dance, say they are too hot.”

Why is this opera, so full of charged situations and gorgeous melodic solutions, so much less known than her sisters of Verdi’s middle period? Much of the problem is the gimcrack libretto. Verdi spent much of his time reading plays, scouting for likely libretti. With the exceptions of Nabucco and Aida, his most successful operas are based on hit plays, from Schiller to Shakespeare. If he had lived twenty years longer, no doubt we would have an operatic Hedda Gabler or Cherry Orchard, perhaps even a Salome or Tosca. But Les Vêpres was not based on a play.

In the 1850s, having completed Luisa Miller, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata (all from hit plays), Verdi had his first crack at the grandest opera house of all, the Paris Opéra. For this commission, he demanded the most famous of Parisian librettists, Eugène Scribe, hoping for something on the order of Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète.

At the climax of that opera, just as Jean of Leyden is committing the sacrilege of proclaiming himself the son of God, a voice from the crowd cries out, “Mon fils!” It is his mother, Fidès. The crowd goes wild. To escape being torn to pieces as a messianic fraud, Jean is obliged to deny his mother, and she must deny him. The crowd is joyous, and only we, the audience, are aware of—and distressed by—the agony of the principals. That pinpoint where the excitement moves, at one syllable, into heart-rending pathos awed Verdi. He wanted a moment like that so bad he could taste it, and would try for it again and again (with “figlia” in Boccanegra, “Renato” in Ballo, “mio padre” in Aida). He begged Scribe for another Prophète.

But Scribe was a weary old man. He fobbed Verdi off with Le Duc d’Alba, a libretto whose score Donizetti had left uncompleted. Alba, set in Antwerp, has a pinpoint moment, when a crowd of oppressed Flemings is quelled by the appearance—the mere name—of Alba, the Spanish general who terrorized the Low Countries in the 1560s.

Leading the revolt is the vengeful daughter of the executed Prince of Egmont, and her youthful Dutch admirer, Henri. But Henri learns that Alba is his father, and Alba, the monster, becomes a doting Verdian parent. Rather than betray his girlfriend, Henri hurls himself between her fatal dagger and his dad. Thrilling, yes, but over much too soon. Besides, Verdi did not feel that his genius responded to Dutch beer-halls and insisted the show be moved to some revolutionary event in a sunnier clime.

The “Sicilian Verspers” was the massacre, in 1282, of a French army that had been occupying the island for fifteen years. Unfortunately, there was no monstrous “Alba” figure in this legend to chill the blood of educated audiences with his very name, and no martyred “Egmont” either. Suitable substitutes were invented, but they are cardboard fictions whom singers must labor to bring to life, not unlike the situation in Trovatore but shallower, less focused. Verdi has made a tighter case for his mazy characters in Trovatore, absurd as they may be.

The historical “Vespers” massacre is said to have broken out just as the bell for Vespers rang on Easter Monday, when a French soldier pestered a bride going to church in Palermo and her husband knifed him. (The church “of the Vespers” still exists, at the opposite end of town from the church that inspired Szymanowski’s King Roger.) The Sicilians slew everyone in Palermo who could not pronounce the word “ciciri” (which defied the French tongue), their spouses and children as well. (You can find the matter explained in Steven Runciman’s elegant The Sicilian Vespers.)

The incident with the bride actually occurs in the opera, a few minutes into Act I, but just as the Sicilians are about to fly at the throats of their oppressors, “Montfort’s” appearance terrifies them into submission. No wedding bells ring, no daggers draw blood. But the massacre is the drama’s raison d’être and, four acts later, after every manner of melodious delay, we get it in the neck. Takes two minutes. The curtain falls on gore. Henri, the patriotic Sicilian, being (since Act III) French by birth, is murdered with his father. Hélène, as his bride, is also doomed. You see the problem: However fine the music, the entire action might seem like filler. But such wonderful filler! Especially if the French libretto is used and, as at Caramoor, passably pronounced.

Director Steven Tharp, who kept the rumbustious plot remarkably clear, made, in his lively introductory talk, two small errors. He cited Les Vêpres for “the only a capella quartet in Verdi’s operas” (there’s one in Luisa Miller that’s better and more difficult to sing) and “the only father-son duets in Verdi,” in contrast to the many famous father-daughter duets. But in the original, French Don Carlos, there is such a duet, the wonderful threnody sung over Posa’s murdered corpse by Carlos and King Philip. Cut from the later versions of the opera, Verdi recycled it for mezzo and bass as the “Lacrimosa” in the Requiem. I hope it will be sung in Caramoor’s next operatic project, Don Carlos, on July 26.

For those insatiable for bel canto and undismayed by humidity, the afternoon before the performance was filled, as usual, with preliminary concerts relevant to the theme (Verdi in Paris), sung by Caramoor’s excellent Young Artists. There were two, covering “Italian Composers in Paris” and “The Paris Opera,” presenting works by Piccini, Sacchini, Cherubini, Spontini, Donizetti, Auber, Halévy, Meyerbeer—even Verdi. (What! No Mercadante?)

Among the singers, the most polished were Jennifer Feinstein, Noah Baetge and Cameron Schutza in a trio from Donizetti’s Elisabeth; Baetge again, with a fine messa da voce flow, in “O toi que j’ai chérie,” the seldom-heard aria Verdi composed for an 1864 revival of Les Vêpres (not as good as the one it replaced), and Elise Brancheau, Sarah Nelson Craft, Paul Han and Nicholas Masters in a quartet from Auber’s Le lac des fées.

Masters and Nicholas Altman, in a conspiracy duet from Donizetti’s Marino Faliero, demonstrated the roots of Verdi’s low-male-voice machismo, and Joseph Beutel sang Meyerbeer’s once popular “Piff! Paff!,” a song about the delights of shooting your religious enemies that might, like the sentiments it expresses, return to fashion.