[Met Performance] CID:236380

I Vespri Siciliani
Metropolitan Opera House, Thu, January 31, 1974

Debut : John Dexter, William Badolato, Jan Skalicky

In Italian

I Vespri Siciliani (2)
Giuseppe Verdi | Eugène Scribe/Charles Duveyrier
Montserrat Caballé

Nicolai Gedda

Guido di Monforte
Sherrill Milnes

Giovanni da Procida
Justino Díaz

Cynthia Munzer

Douglas Ahlstedt

Paul Franke

Nico Castel

Robert Goodloe

Andrij Dobriansky

Conte Vaudemont
Edmond Karlsrud

James Levine

John Dexter [Debut]

Set Designer
Josef Svoboda

Costume Designer
Jan Skalicky [Debut]

William Badolato [Debut]

Translation by Caimi
I Vespri Siciliani received fifteen performances this season.
The opera had been presented by the company in concert form on 8/23/67. The classic ballet, Le Quattro Stagioni, intended for Act III, Scene 2, was not included in this production.

Production a gift of the Gramma Fisher Foundation, Marshalltown, Iowa

Review 1:

Review of Irving Kolodin in the Saturday


The Metropolitan's venture with the unfamiliar that brought the whole of Berlioz's "Les Troyens" into the repertory of an American opera house for the first time a few months ago has been climaxed by a similar service on behalf of Verdi's "I Vespri Siciliani." Some would quarrel with the look of the result as staged by Josef Svoboda and directed by John Dexter, but there is a great deal to admire and much to enjoy in the musical effort of a cast headed by Montserrat Caballé and Sherrill Milnes under the responsive leadership of James Levine.

Unlike "Les Troyens," which for decades has been extolled by the tastemakers, "I Vespri Siciliani" has been as systematically bad-mouthed in the same circles. To be sure, Berlioz wrote no better opera than "Troyens," whereas Verdi composed ten of greater distinction than "Vespri." Nevertheless, there is in it much more that is "worthy of the composer," to quote the usual demarcation in the guides, than an overture that is a staple of band concerts, a fine bass aria, and a sprightly soprano solo known as the "Bolero." A deft incision to expel some of the air pumped into it by Verdi in respect to the Parisian taste for which it was written in 1854-55 and a scalpel to some of the fat (in the form of ballet music) have made the best of the rest much more conspicuous.

Pared of its un-Verdian accommodations to the conditions under which it was commissioned, "I Vespri Siciliani" emerges as just what it is - a missing link in the chain between "La Traviata," which precedes, and "Un Ballo in Maschera," which follows. The text is all too much the mixture of the banal and the threadbare, which Verdi endured until he started to tell his collaborators how to write what he wanted. But the plot concerning the uprising of the Sicilians (in the thirteenth century) against the occupying French aroused the libertarian in him. Given Levine's perceptive ear for such values and Dexter's sincere striving for essentials in direction, "Vespri" asserts and undeniable claim to be truly Verdian.

As in many of Verdi's early and middle operas, he key to the solution of the problem is in the voice and personality of its principal female performer (whether called Abigaille, in "Nabucco." Elvira in "Ernani," or Lady Macbeth in "Macbeth.") In "Vespri" it is the character of Elena, a part impersonated with commanding excellence by Maria Callas in Italian revivals of the Fifties.

As of then, Miss Callas could bestride the stylistic schism the role contains, to give nearly equal effect to the florid writing Verdi inherited from Bellini and Donizetti and to the palpitating dramatic expression he invented. Caballé cannot, of course, create such an infuriated Elena as Callas was: But she is superbly qualified to go even beyond her predecessor in glorifying the older order of vocal challenge. Her exquisitely defined version of "Arrigo! ah parli a un core" in the next to the last scene aroused a storm of applause that was only quieted when the singer gestured for it to stop and let the opera continue. This was an echo of the success Caballé had enjoyed a week or so before in Carnegie Hall for her finesse in seldom-heard arias of Handel and Vivaldi as well as Bellini and Donizetti. It is a reminder, too, that in works which cross stylistic lines, as "Vespri" does, it is better for an impresario to cast for strength to one side or the other rather than compromise both. In this instance of the operatic bargain, the choice of Caballé purchases beauty of line and phraseology, rare at any time, at the price of dramatic credibility. It will have to do until the next Callas comes along.

The other principals had less virtuosity to dispense but a variety of alternative values. Best balanced among them was the effort of Milnes as Monforte, governor of the occupying French. As if being governor were not difficulty enough, he has to cope with the problem that the head of the insurgent Sicilians, Arrigo, is his son by a secret affair with a woman who had cursed him with her dying breath. The thankless task thrust upon Nicolai Gedda of playing Arrigo to a "father" years his junior was further complicated by the insufficiencies of vocal range and power. Justino Diaz did not bring excitement to the incitement of the other rebel, Procida, but he sang the music powerfully.

As a totality, the dark scenic scheme of Svoboda could be described as perfect for "Fidelio," which takes place in a prison. It is also perfect for the one scene in "Vespri" that is also in a prison: But the other requirements were less well served. The clear artistic purpose of the long flight of stairs by which it is dominated is to intensify the conflict of Elena's love for Arrigo with her devotion to the rebel cause he abandons under the pressure of his newly found father. The spatial arrangement also makes impressive use of the side and rear spaces of the Metropolitan stage for crowd movement. But when the action calls for Procida to enter from a beach, and he merely appears at the top of the staircase to declaim the famous aria "O tu Palermo," the production scheme is begging the issue rather than responding to it. Dexter's action was constantly alive, forthright, and, best of all, disrespectful of operatic convention. Arm thrusts and body lunges were suppressed, and strong postures and expressive repose substituted for them. Jan Skalicky's good-looking costumes were mostly in the tonality of the dark surroundings, with a well-devised burst of color for the wedding, which touches off the massacre of the French by the Sicilians.

Perhaps the most enduring outcome of this risky venture is the contribution of Levine to its musical success. The performance of the overture was, as has been his wont, physically forceful and a shade brutal aesthetically. But as the performance progressed, welcome variations in accent and emphasis began to accumulate. In the final scene, the adjustment of the orchestra to Caballé's finely spun sound and the implementation of Verdi's subtle contrasts of indecision and excitement compel the creation of a new timetable for Levine's emergence to musical maturity...like now?

[Le Quattro Stagioni ballet not performed]

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