Verdi's 'missing' opera Le Vepres Siciliennes enjoying a global revival

It's long and demanding and seldom performed, but Verdi's Vespers is enjoying a new lease of life in 2013, in productions around the world.

It’s been called the “missing link” among Giuseppe Verdi’s operas, composed right after his three mid-career mega-hits – Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata – and pointing the way toward the masterpieces of his later years. Why “missing”? It’s not as if Les Vepres Siciliennes (The Sicilian Vespers), first performed in Paris in 1855, was lost or had to be reconstructed by scholars. Yet, despite its importance in the Verdi canon, the opera has remained a relative rarity.

Now, in the great Italian composer’s bicentennial year, Les Vepres is getting renewed attention, with performances this summer in Frankfurt, Germany, at the Caramoor Festival outside New York City, plus a production at London’s Covent Garden this autumn.

“Those three works right before it are shorter, perfectly proportioned, the summing up of everything he already knew how to do,” says Will Crutchfield, Caramoor’s director of opera. “After that, he felt a need for taking in some other possibilities.”

Paris in those days represented the pinnacle of success for an opera composer, with lucrative contracts and spectacular productions, such as Rossini’s William Tell. He wanted something with big, grandiose effects, and that’s what he did,” Crutchfield says. “And he did a great job of it. The music is fantastic.”

Indeed it is. Beyond the best-known numbers, such as the heroine’s bolero and Et toi, Palerme for the bass, the entire score teems with inspired arias, duets and ensembles.

Verdi enlisted Eugene Scribe to write the libretto, based on historical events of the 13th century when the Sicilians rose up against their French rulers. Tradition says the rebellion was signalled by the ringing of bells for sunset prayers known as vespers. In the opera, the bells mark the wedding of the lovers Helene and Henri, who support the uprising even though Henri is the son of the French governor, Montfort.

“I think it’s the most political opera that Verdi wrote,” says Norbert Abels, the chief dramaturg of Oper Frankfurt, where a new production has been packing the house. “Sure, there’s a love story, but it’s not the main point. What the opera really is about is the connection of historical and family catastrophe.”

Verdi was in his early 40s and had composed 19 operas when he wrote Les Vepres. After that his output slowed – in his remaining 45 years, just eight more operas. But most are on a level surpassing anything he had done before.

When the Metropolitan Opera in New York first performed Les Vepres in 1974 (in Italian as I Vespri Siciliani), the critic Irving Kolodin wrote that it “emerges as a missing link in the chain between La Traviata and Un Ballo in Maschera”. Crutchfield agrees, and points to another opera that “would have been impossible” without Les VepresDon Carlos, which premiered in Paris 12 years later and is now regarded by many as Verdi’s profoundest work. Crutchfield will lead a performance of that at Caramoor on July 20.

Ironically, the very qualities that most drew Verdi to grand opera are the ones that make Les Vepres difficult to perform. “It’s long, it’s hard, it’s expensive,” Crutchfield says. “And for every tenor who can sing Henri there are 10 who can sing Alfredo in Traviata.”

Still, companies are finding ways. The Covent Garden production, opening in October, will mark the house debut of Stefan Herheim, a Norwegian whose revelatory stagings have made him one of the most sought-after directors in Europe. The soprano Marina Poplavskaya and the tenor sensation Bryan Hymel star as Helene and Henri.

The Frankfurt production, starring Elza van den Heever as Helene, Alfred Kim as Henri and the baritone Quinn Kelsey as Montfort, trimmed the score a bit and updated the action to a populist revolt against a modern-day police state.

Crutchfield, whose semi-staged production stars Angela Meade and John Osborn, argues strongly against cuts. His performance is expected to clock in at just under four hours.

“The few times I’ve seen it have been in heavily cut productions, and you just don’t feel that sure hand of Verdi the musical dramatist,” he says. “If you want to hear that, you’ve got to be willing to sit down and stay for a while.”

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