New Amsterdam Opera 2021-22 Review: I Vespri Siciliani
Verdi’s Rarely Performed Opera Returns to New York in Commendable PerformanceBy Chris Ruel
On Friday, Oct. 22, 2021, for the first time since 2004, Verdi’s “I Vespri Siciliani” returned to New York with New Amsterdam Opera’s concert performance of this lesser-known Verdi work of French grand opera at the historic West Park Presbyterian Church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
New Amsterdam Opera had delayed the concert for nearly two years because of the pandemic. Thankfully, it wasn’t shelved because it’s worth an opera buff’s knowing since it falls in the middle of the composer’s output. You simultaneously hear hints of past compositions while getting a taste of his future works, making it an important bridge.
“Vespri” is a bit of a rarity, having never made it into the standard repertoire, though its debut was well-received by the Paris Opéra audience and critics, even tough ones like Berlioz.
Verdi arrived at “Vespri” after his trio of hits, “Rigoletto” (1851), “Il Trovatore” (1853), and “La Traviata” (1853). The composer had Paris on his mind and wanted to create a work fit for the Opéra. After back and forth with librettist Eugène Scribe, the team landed on a pre-existing libretto by Scribe and Charles Duveyrier, “Le duc d’Albe.” Though intended for French composer Fromental Halévy, he left the libretto unused. Donizetti set part of the text in 1839 but that was it for “Le duc” until Verdi ran with it, though with significant edits begrudgingly made by the librettists.
“Vespri’s” story is quite interesting and devastatingly tragic. It’s also fairly straightforward as far as opera plots go. The story has a lot going for it, particularly its intrigue and calamitous finale, but what it doesn’t have in its favor is a memorable tune, something you leave the theater humming. That doesn’t mean there aren’t moments that blow your socks off, it just means don’t expect to be whistling anything like “La donna è mobile” the following day.
Grounded somewhat in the lead up to the War of Sicilian Vespers (1282-1302), “Vespri” relates the story of young Sicilian revolutionary, Arrigo, and his divided loyalty between the woman he loves, the Austrian Duchess Elena, whose brother was executed by the French governor of Sicily, Monforte.
Arrigo, after his release from charges of treason, arrives in Palermo just before a melee breaks out between Sicilian men and French soldiers. Monforte disperses the crowd. All leave except Arrigo, who Monforte asks to stick around for a chat.
Impressed by the young man’s fervor, the governor offers Arrigo a commission in the French army. Arrigo refuses. He also refuses to stay away from Elena, his new love, though Monforte commands him otherwise.
Enter the fanatical Sicilian patriot, Procida. Arriving in Palermo from exile, he asks for Arrigo and Elena. The Spanish, he tells them, will aid the Sicilians’ overthrow of the French, but there’s an if. The population of the entire island has to get behind the movement or the Spanish won’t come to their aid. Elena is game for the revolt and makes Arrigo promise to avenge her brother’s death, which he agrees to.
Monforte summons Arrigo to attend a ball. The young patriot declines the invitation, and the governor has him promptly arrested. With Arrigo in jail, Monforte muses on his own past. He had abducted a Sicilian woman who bore him a son and has recently received a deathbed letter from the woman, informing him that his son is none other than Arrigo.
Looking to patch things up with his son, Monforte informs Arrigo of his paternity, setting the stage for a clash between familial love, romantic love, and love of country. Arrigo’s immediate response to the revelation is to condemn his father’s actions.
Meanwhile, Procida has been making plans to cause trouble at the masked ball. The rebel conspirators all wear ribbons to identify themselves to one another. Procida sticks one on Arrigo. Aware of the plot, Arrigo decides which side he’s on and warns Monforte. Procida and Elena are arrested and condemned to death.
Neither Procida nor Elena are none too happy with Arrigo, but Monforte agrees to pardon the prisoners after Arrigo begs his father to extend mercy. The governor agrees to do so on one condition: Arrigo must publicly acknowledge him as his father. Arrigo refuses, so Monforte ratchets up the pressure and has Elena led to the chopping block. The patriot relents and reveals himself to be the governor’s son.
Monforte, glad to have his long-lost son back, happily allows Arrigo to marry Elena. Procida, once again, has a scheme. He informs Elena that when the church bells announce her nuptials to Arrigo, the rebels will strike down the French.
Elena implores Procida to call off the attack, but he refuses, so Elena calls off the wedding. Both Procida and Arrigo feel Elena has betrayed them. Monforte soon arrives, and not knowing of the plot, immediately marries the couple and orders the church bells to ring.
Battle of the Lower Registers with a Tenor in the Mix
New Amsterdam Opera’s presentation of Verdi’s “I Vespri Siciliani” was a battle royal of fachs, with a baritone and tenor vying against a bass-baritone for top accolades in this lesser-known Verdi work.
Who came out on top?
Flip a coin. Both bass-baritone Bryan Glenn Davis as the dauntless Sicilian partisan, Procida, and baritone Daniel Scofield as the object of Procida’s hatred, Monforte, brought their characters to life though anchored to the concert stage. They employed emotive voices, slight gestures, looks, and facial expressions that imbued the concert performance with as much drama and tension as the format allows.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Brauner, singing the role of the passionate Arrigo, has grown into a voice of unbridled power, with a spine-tingling squillo and a brassy tone that demands attention like a bugle’s call to arms. When I last reviewed Brauner a little over two years ago, he was quite good. He has leveled up and showed himself to be a fine, young Verdi tenor who will hopefully continue down that path.
In the role of Duchess Elena, soprano Indira Mahajan came alive in the fourth and fifth acts, growing more animated in gesture and voice. Throughout the evening, she showed her capability to sing the music but misfired in drawing me into Elena’s world during the earlier acts. There was plenty of energy on the stage from which she could pull, and she caught some of it in the second half, ending stronger than she began, which for an opera such as technically tough as “Vespri” is commendable. It would be more typical to witness the reverse.
“Vespri” is no Easy Feat
“Vespri’s” daunting music and length calls for Wagnerian stamina from the orchestra and vocalists as they take on three hours of treacherous and demanding passages. There are several moments during which the singers are out on a musical precipice alone, without orchestra. In cases such as this, the more comfortable a singer is with the score, the better the character can emerge from within the music. On stage, the comfort level varied for most of New Amsterdam’s principal cast. Even Brauner didn’t quite get into his groove out of the gate. The fiery Davis (Procida) and Scofield (Monforte), were the exceptions.
Behind the cast, the New Amsterdam Opera Orchestra, paced by Artistic Director and Principal Conductor, Keith Chambers, gave a tight performance of Verdi’s score, and his orchestra showed it had chops. While the opera never entered the rotation, its overture has made its way into orchestral programs. Clocking in at nine minutes, “Vespri’s” overture is Verdi’s longest. It’s a good one, too, starting off with the militaristic doom of a lone snare drum, portending what’s to come. It’s worth a listen.
The New Amsterdam Chorus, which numbered 19, sounded like a dozen more, with the venue’s acoustics adding to the largeness of the sound.
Here’s my biggest issue with New Amsterdam’s performance. There were no supertitles. A synopsis was provided in the program, but that didn’t substitute for understanding the words coming out of the singers’ mouths. The lack of text in translation could pose a huge barrier to entry for someone attending their first opera, and the art form needs to drop as many roadblocks as it can to draw in new audiences.
Overall, New Amsterdam put on a fine presentation of a rarity and should be applauded for taking it on and bringing it back to the Big Apple after a 17-year absence.