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What does it take to make a neglected stage work become part of the standard repertory? Giuseppe Verdi’s 1855 grand opera, I Vespri Siciliani—or Les Vêpres Siciliennes, as it was called at its Paris premiere—rarely trod the boards before the mid-1970s, when the Metropolitan Opera mounted an attention-grabbing revival for soprano Montserrat Caballé and RCA put out a starry recording featuring Plácido Domingo and Martina Arroyo. Enough for a change of status, you’d think. But in the 30 or so years since that flurry of interest in Vespri, productions of this stirring, sprawling, quirky, and beautiful opera haven’t exactly been commonplace.

In other words, it requires some cojones to schedule something like Vespri as a season-opener, let alone a 50th-season-opener. But if anyone has the imprimatur to do it, it’s Vespri veteran Domingo, who as Washington National Opera’s general director is conducting five out of the production’s seven performances. The score has inspired Domingo to give the most propulsive and coherent podium work WNO audiences have heard from him in ages, and the orchestra follows suit with confident, boldly projected playing. There’s none of the lingering or affectionate detailing familiar from the tenor’s usual conducting of the Italian repertoire. The score emerges with an exciting sense of flow, even if the orchestration’s rhythmic and dynamic felicities don’t always register.

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What do register, stunningly, are the imagination and experimental verve of Verdi’s writing. Vespri was composed on the heels of his astonishing midcareer trifecta of Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, and La Traviata. Throughout the score, you can hear the last florid gasp of traditional bel canto style—the swashbuckling Rossini-isms in the overture, the echoes of Donizetti in swaths of the vocal writing—giving way to the mahogany tone that would characterize such late works as the Requiem and Otello. And in his writing for voices, Verdi does things here that don’t quite sound like anything else in his canon. The sharp jabs of staccato in the chorus that closes Act 2, the strangely extended, unpredictably wandering melodic lines in the baritone aria that opens Act 3, the way the orchestra will drop out, turning a concerted ensemble suddenly a cappella—all this, plus Verdi’s best overture, a slew of nobly beautiful arias, and one of the most compelling duets he wrote for tenor and baritone.

That duet, between the French governor Monforte and young Sicilian freedom-fighter Arrigo—the story is set in the year 1282, when the Sicilians violently threw off the yoke of French colonialism—is Vespri’s linchpin moment. In the duet, Monforte reveals a recent discovery that Arrigo is his son. The revelation throws Arrigo’s loyalties into turmoil: How do you fight the French oppressor when you are the French oppressor? This is no happy reunion, but Verdi makes it enthralling, dressing the encounter in arresting music and crowning it with a soaring melody heard first in the overture.

Baritone Lado Ataneli (Monforte) and tenor Franco Farina (Arrigo) make the duet the highlight it should be. Ataneli has the ideal Verdi sound—smooth and chestnut-brown, the notes delivered in a seamless legato subtly inflected to signal shifting emotion. If Farina’s tenor becomes effortful and consistently loud in the upper register, the vibrato loosening increasingly the higher he goes, his voice does possess the requisite Italianate warmth and ring, and he phrases excitingly, with a natural feeling for the twists and turns of the text. Neither singer is a world-beating actor—whether their performances should be deemed understated, underrehearsed, or underdirected is a tough call. But both avoid the worst excesses of big-face melodrama and give us at least a sketch of the dramatic arc.

Of course, director Paolo Miccichè could’ve helped those boys out by having them actually make eye contact, sing to each other, and react to one another—y’know, the stuff that two characters in a scene together are supposed to do. Instead, he resorts to that most wearisome of traditional operatic staging clichés, the Grimace-and-Cross. It goes like this: When you hear a key piece of dialogue along the lines of “I’m really your father!” you make a surprised face and cross the entire length of the stage. Make sure you travel away from the person who delivered the line, then wail your anguished response across the footlights to the audience and come to rest someplace where you can emote alone.

This every-man-for-himself approach to dramatic conflict also takes its toll on bass Vitalij Kowaljow, who plays Procida, the rebel Sicilian leader recently returned from exile. Kowaljow may just be the best singer in this strong cast, with a handsome, rolling sound that’s even from top to bottom and delivered with wonderful breath control and a flawlessly liquid line. His performance of the aria that introduces his character, “O Tu Palermo,” is an object lesson in singing Verdi’s music. But we want our rebel leaders to be men of passion and political charisma. Thanks to uninspired staging, this Procida emerges as merely dyspeptic and glum, with too little spark in his acting and too much park-and-bark in his singing.

Soprano Maria Guleghina, on the other hand, is more consistently engaged and engaging as Elena, the Sicilian duchess torn between her love for Arrigo and her fervor for the coming revolution. Verdi wrote the part for a soprano of unusual range and agility, and, some moments of lumpy phrasing and a few inconsistencies of line aside, Guleghina has the gutsy lower register, the floated high notes, and the emotional throb that mark the best Verdi sopranos. (Sure, on opening night she missed her entrance for her final aria, but she made some ravishing sounds during her prison-set love duet with Arrigo.) Equally important, she finds ways to connect with her fellow singers—and that includes members of the chorus—making obvious her character’s shifts from insurgent leader to vulnerable lover to would-be peacemaker. Clearly not satisfied going through the motions, the singer finds ways to be emotionally present and reactive in spite of all the unhelpful crossing and posing.

That’s not to say that Miccichè’s direction is all empty gesture. Local operagoers will remember him as the guy who helmed the WNO’s Aida and Norma at DAR Constitution Hall a couple of seasons ago. Like those stagings, his Vespri production concept revolves around shifting, larger-than-life projected images. This time around, mercifully, we’re saved the hyperactive curtains and screens he was so enamored of at DARCon, whirring and clanking into place smack in the middle of key arias and ensembles. Working now in the well-equipped proscenium theater of the Opera House, the director is more sparing with his projections and less attention-grabbing with his shifts from one image to another. It’s all still a bit too busy, but this time the slide show doesn’t obliterate the opera, and the projected paintings by Verdi contemporary Francesco Hayez are appropriately chosen to comment on the drama.

The director—aided by Joan Sullivan-Genthe’s beautifully sculptural lighting, and Alberto Spiazzi’s costumes, which move the action forward to Verdi’s own time, when Italy broke free of its Austrian occupiers—also uses the chorus to especially telling visual effect, as in the divided stage of the opening scene: The beaten-down Sicilians look ghostly in steeply angled light stage left, while the French carouse in a robust amber glow stage right. The production’s real visual coup, however, is the set of enormous gilded picture frames (designed by Antonio Mastromattei) that glide and spin into position to define the stage area and point up aspects of the action. Empty frames, starkly lit during the overture, create expectation for the sweeping historical struggle that will fill them. Later, whirling frames, glinting before an oversized collage of chandeliers, give dizzying movement to the elegant ball that assassins will soon turn to confusion. There are times, to be sure, when the frames seem nothing more than a tarted-up complement to the director’s carefully arranged stage pictures or the art show projected behind them. Still, imagery like this helps to compensate for Miccichè’s more superficial impulses.

Most exciting, though, is the fact that the WNO, with a fraction of the Met’s gargantuan budget, has managed not only to create some stylish designs but also to assemble an idiomatically Verdian cast and mount a credible staging of I Vespri Siciliani. This production could well point the way for other regional companies to attempt this opera, once thought to be obscure, exotic, and overly challenging. Who knows—we might even be witnessing that moment when “neglected” ever so slightly begins to tip toward “standard.”CP