National Opera's lengthy, but effective, `Vespri'

CRITIC'S CORNER

Opera: Review

September 19, 2005|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,sun music critic

Since its Parisian premiere 150 years ago, Verdi's I Vespri Siciliani - The Sicilian Vespers - has ranked among the also-rans of his operatic entries. Other than the overture and maybe one or two arias, the work just can't get a firm hold on the public.

Some of the trouble is easily spotted. The plot creaks noisily. The music dips in quality here and there. And, even when the original third-act ballet is cut, as in Washington National Opera's new production at the Kennedy Center, the piece is not exactly concise. (Saturday's opening-night running time stretched past the 3 1/2 -hour mark.)

But, hey, it's still Verdi, and that counts for a lot. And the best in Vespri is awfully good indeed, full of sweeping melodies and brilliant orchestral colors. It's remarkable how much power the opera does have, given that the composer had to write it specifically for the stifling conventions of the Paris Opera (as Les Vepres Siciliennes) and use a factory-produced libretto largely devoid of originality, poetry and insight.

To open its 50th anniversary season, Washington National took the somewhat risky route of tackling its first Vespri. It put the company's superstar asset into the pit - general director Placido Domingo conducts most of the run - and brought back the team of director Paolo Micciche and set designer Antonio Mastromattei, from the 2003 Aida.

Micciche transplants the opera's 13th-century setting to the 19th, without undue damage. In this fresh context, the core political issue in the opera - Italian resentment over foreign occupation - reminds us of Verdi's own preoccupation with the struggle for Italian independence.

Generating the plot is a romance that puts Sicilian heroine Elena and her unexpectedly half-French boyfriend, Arrigo, into a collision course with his French governor father and a Sicilian rebel. The latter plots to massacre the invaders, in a twist worthy of The Sopranos, during the lovers' wedding.

The Washington production attempts to give these people, places and events enhanced focus via artwork (especially by Verdi contemporary Francesco Hayez) that is projected onto screens. Giant gilded frames come and go, in lieu of traditional props, to aid the visual business.

Also projected are postcardlike images of Sicily, occasionally set in panoramic motion (suggesting at one point that Palermo had the world's first revolving town square). It's all a little too contrived, not to mention distracting or even dizzying at times, but it gives the opera a look.

The production gets its most distinctive sound from soprano Maria Guleghina as Elena. She sang on Saturday with a potent combination of creaminess and bite, helping to give the character of the conflicted woman considerable depth. She negotiated most of the coloratura demands solidly and spun out long lines with considerable elegance. Too bad she missed her entrance in the last act, but she recovered for the second verse.

Franco Farina, as Arrigo, had a patchy night, but, at his best, offered equal parts steel and sweetness. As the determined rebel Prochida, Vitalij Kowaljow lit up the opera house with a beefy, but warm, tone and consistent elegance of line.

Lado Ataneli's performance as the governor, Monforte, proved nearly as imposing in vocal weight and style. The rest of the solo singers made more or less sturdy contributions, as did the chorus, sent downstage a la Les Miserables (ho-hum) for the throw-off-the-yoke finale.

Domingo wasn't always in control, either of the vocalists or the hard-working orchestra, but his conducting had an effective momentum tempered by telling bends in the rhythm that helped underscore how much Vespri deserves to be heard.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

I Vespri Siciliani

Where: Kennedy Center, Virginia and New Hampshire avenues, Northwest, Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. tomorrow, Thursday, Sept. 28 and Oct. 4; 2 p.m. Sept. 25; 7 p.m. Oct. 1

Tickets: $45 to $290

Call: 202-295-2400, 800-876-7372, or visit www.dc-opera.org

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