'Vespri Siciliani': Verdi's Very Magnum Opus

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 19, 2005

By all rights, Giuseppe Verdi's "I Vespri Siciliani" ("The Sicilian Vespers") ought to be better-known than it is. This five-act opera is filled with Verdi's usual virtues -- sturdy melodies, sumptuous ensembles, fierce dramatic intelligence and plentiful opportunities for a stage director to indulge in spectacle. Yet it is more highly regarded among musicians and scholars than it has ever been by the general public -- "Vespri" (1855) is the least performed of all the operas Verdi wrote in the half-century after "Rigoletto" established him as the most significant force in Italian music since Rossini.

Now the Washington National Opera has endeavored to give "I Vespri Siciliani" a fresh chance, with a creative production, a solid cast and the influential advocacy of General Director Placido Domingo, who not only conducted the work but chose it to open the company's 50th-anniversary season at the Kennedy Center on Saturday night. Domingo's love for this score is well known: He once said his 1974 complete recording of "Vespri" -- with soprano Martina Arroyo and baritone Sherrill Milnes, under the direction of the young James Levine -- was his favorite among the many hundreds of discs he has made.

And there is a great deal to admire in "Vespri" -- indeed, perhaps a bit too much of it. Although an uncut rendition of Verdi's "Don Carlo" may last longer than one of "Vespri," "Vespri" somehow seems longer because of a story that is ludicrous even by Verdian standards, peopled with characters who are neither terribly vivid nor terribly likable. And so the opera feels curiously padded, although the music is of such high quality that it would be difficult to decide what should be trimmed.

Oh well, at least the spectator receives a full evening in the theater for the cost of a ticket. And, once a decidedly shaky rendition of the Overture was out of the way, Domingo settled in, leading the Washington National Opera Orchestra and the increasingly brilliant Washington National Opera Chorus with drive and affection.

The soloists were evenly cast: If nobody stole the show, nobody really let down the team, either. Franco Farina sang with musicianship and a bright, clarion sweetness as Arrigo. At this stage in his career, he has virtually everything a world-class tenor needs except that magical, easy-to-recognize-but-never-to-be-defined quality that would elevate his performances into the stratosphere. Call it charisma, star quality, or simply a more compelling and individual artistry -- it isn't quite there yet.

As Elena, soprano Maria Guleghina made the most of what would seem to be a problematic vocal estate. She was fine in loud, proclamatory phrases, when her voice rang out nobly throughout the opera house. Quieter passages were less convincing, and she often sounded wavy and unsupported when she tried to sing softly. Still, there was some beautiful musicmaking, particularly in the final trio, where she shared the honors with Farina and Vitalij Kowaljow, who sang Procida, and whose dark, lithe and lustrous bass voice sometimes calls the young Samuel Ramey to mind.

Baritone Lado Ataneli made a thoughtful, sensitive and rather gray Monforte, and there was consistent support from soprano Erin Elizabeth Smith and that tried-and-true WNO backup team of tenors Robert Baker and Corey Evan Rotz, baritone James Shaffran and bass-baritone John Marcus Bindel. Ha-Chi Yu was the sinuous solo dancer.

The production, directed by Paolo Micciche, might be described as Handsome-on-a-Budget -- a series of scrims and projections, the images ranging from the young Verdi to works of Renaissance art to nifty, floating travelogue shots that manage to give the impression that "I Vespri Siciliani" is set on an ocean liner. The opera will be repeated Tuesday, Thursday, Sep. 25 and 28, and Oct. 1 and 4.

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