Gatti leads superb cast in Rome Opera’s Les vêpres siciliennes

ItalyItaly Verdi, Les vêpres siciliennes: Soloists, Teatro dell’Opera di Roma Orchestra, Chorus and Ballet / Daniele Gatti (conductor). Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, Teatro Costanzi, Rome, 22.12.2019. (RP)

Michele Pertusi (Procida) © Yasuko Kageyama

Director – Valentina Carrasco
Sets – Richard Peduzzi
Costumes – Luis F. Carvalho
Lighting – Peter van Praet
Choreography – Valentina Carrasco & Massimiliano Volpini
Chorus master – Roberto Gabbiani

Hélène – Roberta Mantegna
Ninetta – Irida Dragoti
Henri – John Osborn
Guy de Montfort – Roberto Frontali
Jean Procida – Michele Pertusi
Thibault – Saverio Fiore
Daniéli – Francesco Pittari
Mainfroid – Daniele Centra
Robert – Alessio Verna
Le Sire de Béthune – Dario Russo
Le comte de Vaudemont – Andrii Ganchuk

The triumph of the Rome Opera’s new production of Les vêpres siciliennes rested chiefly on the shoulders of Daniele Gatti, the company’s music director, who was conducting the opera for the first time.

With Gatti at its helm, the Rome Opera’s orchestra is on a path to becoming one of the finest pit bands in the world. Les vêpres siciliennes contains some of Verdi’s best orchestral music, including its popular overture, the extended (and often cut) ballet music and the vivid, colorfully orchestrated entr’actes. With its soaring, lyrical melodies, the overture had all the excitement and drama that one would expect, but it was the transparency and scintillating beauty of the orchestral sound throughout, especially at its softest, that was exceptional.

Verdi’s sprawling, five-act French grand opera is based on an historical event in the thirteenth century when Sicilians massacred the occupying French forces. In the opera, Guy de Montfort, the French governor, had fathered a son, whose mother was a Sicilian woman whom he had treated despicably. The woman raised their son, Henri, to hate the French and despise his unknown father. A letter in her hand reveals all to Montfort and instantly sparks a yearning for a relationship with his son to fill the emptiness in his life.

The French are harsh masters and particularly abusive towards Sicilian women. Procida, a Sicilian patriot, returns from exile with the news that the Spanish will intervene if there is an uprising by the local population. A prisoner of the governor, Hélène, whose brother was killed by the French, seeks revenge.

Montfort shows the letter to Henri and seeks a reconciliation, coupled with a demand that his son switch his allegiance. This poses a quandary for Henri who is in love with Hélène, and he subsequently thwarts her attempt to murder Montfort. Montfort sentences the Sicilian insurgents to death, but moved by Hélène and Henri’s love, he decides that they should marry and pardons the insurgents. To Hélène’s horror, Procida seizes her wedding to Henri as the opportunity to slaughter the French as the wedding bells toll.

Rome Opera assembled a superb cast for this production of Les vêpres siciliennes, not seen in the theater since 1997, which was the first staging of the original French version in Italy. John Osborn was a dashing, heroic Henri and his burnished tenor and sensitive phrasing perfectly suited Verdi’s music. Of the many fine lyric tenors active today, Osborn is the most consistently compelling on stage, due to a singular combination of voice, musicianship and the intensity he brings to his parts.

Soprano Roberta Mantegna was most impressive as Hélène in the long, sweeping phrases that Verdi composed for this conflicted heroine, topping each with high notes that blossomed beautifully. The young soprano has the passion, lyricism and vocal brilliance for Hélène, a role that is as demanding vocally and dramatically as Violetta in La traviata. The production did her no favors, but her singing was brilliant.

Bass-baritone Michele Pertusi was a formidable Procida whose voice and presence electrified the stage. He sang Procida’s great entrance aria, ‘Et toi, Palerme’, with elegance and lyricism, yet instilled it with patriotic fervor. In another of his fascinating, detailed characterizations, baritone Roberto Frontali was a commanding yet introspective Montfort. The extended scene in Act III is among the most moving of Verdi’s great duets for a father and his beloved but errant child, and Frontali and Osborne were marvelous in it.

With such voices, Gatti had the leeway to shade and shape phrases, and indeed whole scenes, in a wide range of dynamic levels. Most impressive were the soft ones, where the orchestra maintained a cushion of shimmering sound that permitted Mantegna, Osborn and Frontali to express their innermost feelings with exquisite sensitivity. At the opposite end of the spectrum were the choruses, especially in Act I, that resounded throughout the theater. The Rome Opera Chorus sang as magnificently as their colleagues in the pit played.

Director Valentina Carrasco updated the action to what appeared to be the mid-twentieth century. Massive stone slabs and blocks were more abstractions than the buildings of a realistic set. Most of it was functional and stark, with the sun-bleached stones configured to create buildings or landscape. The exceptions were the prison scene where the Sicilian prisoners were brutally tortured, and the muted fabric hangings that brightened the stage for the governor’s ball.

Carrasco’s concept emphasized the libretto’s misogynistic overtones. The Sicilian women were often limp, long-haired puppets, subject to the whims of the French oppressors. Originally conceived as a divertissement on the theme of the four seasons, the ballet instead depicted the plight of the Sicilian women, drawing clear parallels to the fate that Henri’s mother had suffered. Rape, birth and revenge were graphically depicted, followed by a sensitively lit water purification rite. The booing during the ballet was subdued by the even more vociferous cheering.

By the final scene, however, the production lost momentum. An empty expanse of stage was surrounded by massive stone walls, and it seemed as if the action had suddenly been transported to the Tomb Scene of Aida. The chief protagonists – Hélène, Henri and Procida – were dwarfed by the set, or more accurately the void created by the absence of one. The musical standards never waned, but visually the dramatic impetus was lost. Pertusi fared best with his vivid, wild-eyed Procida. Osborn, vocally indefatigable, simply looked out of place in a suit and tie. Mantegna was hampered by an unfortunate 1980s-style power suit with an unflattering peplum jacket; it was an injustice to conceive her Hélène as frumpy and bedraggled instead of heroic and beautiful.

The opera ends abruptly. Carrasco’s solution was to have the stone walls form a vise to crush the French as the Sicilians pelted them with rocks. It was oddly anticlimactic.

Rick Perdian

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