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Les Vêpres Siciliennes

AMSTERDAM
De Nederlandse Opera
9/29/10

Verdi's Les Vêpres Siciliennes situated in present-day Sicily? Henri (Arrigo) in jeans and an open shirt? The French occupation army dreaming about Paris, the Eiffel Tower and Place Pigalle? Why not? And with the Vêpres ballet supplied with a new story — half Freudian, half Tiroler sex comedy — about the youth of Henri, Hélène and her brother in Austria? Why not? This seemed to be the course of thought in director Christoph Loy's production of Vêpres for Nederlandse Opera, but the staging left many questions unanswered. What was young Henri was doing in Austria? What did it mean to have Procida executed by hypodermic syringe at the end of Act IV, only to return in Act V, wherein Henri was dreaming about a happy family life? Why was the bolero sung by Hélène on the verge of delivering her first baby?

As there were no explanations at all — at least not during the performance or in the program book — it was no wonder that the greater part of the public acted somewhat bewildered, to put it mildly. The problem was that Loy had not only occupied himself with an actualization of the political aspects of the opera but had simultaneously tried to explore the psychological reactions of a patriot who is discovered to be the son of the leader of the occupation army. This was an interesting point of view on paper, no doubt — but unfortunately Verdi does not always provide the right music to support this approach.

The father–son intrigue at the center of the plot could only have been effective with the right singers. Alas, Swiss baritone Alejander Marco-Burmeister, as Montfort, lacked the heft of a true Verdian baritone as well as the ability to sustain the long lines necessary for the opera's taxing Act III. More convincing was German tenor Fritz Burkhardt as his son, Henri: he was not always very French in style, but he grew vocally and dramatically during the performance. Romanian bass Istvan Szabo contributed a reliable Procida.

The only singer able to create some moments of genuine Verdian excitement was Dutch soprano Barbara Haveman as a youthful Duchesse Hélène. During the first half of the opera, Haveman's performance seemed preponderantly lyrical, but she delivered really passionate contributions to Acts IV and V.

Les Vêpres Siciliennesis not Verdi's most convincing opera, but the score contains enough good music to support the drama. Several productions have proved that there is sufficient drama between the notes to create an exciting performance. During the performance on September 29, there was an unfortunate lack of musical excitement from conductor Paolo Carignani, who seemed to be trying to avoid some of the extrovert elements in the score that did not support Loy's staging. Carignani even consented to placing the overture after Act I, depriving the opera of one of its strongest musical statements. Verdi deliberately opened this piece with a plural repetition of a three-note motif that is generally known as "the figure of death," followed by another motive that represents a psalm for those who are about to die. It was only in the last two acts of the opera, when the drama is more focused — and due principally to the involvement of Haveman and Burkhardt — that the proceedings seemed truly Verdian. spacer 

PAUL KORENHOF

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