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VERDI: I Vespri Siciliani

spacer Dessì; F. Armiliato, Nucci, Prestia; Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro Regio di Parma, Zanetti; Production: Pizzi. C Major 723904 (Blu-Ray), 723808 (DVD), 170 mins. (opera), 11 mins. (bonus), subtitled


What a marvelous opera Vespri is! Here is Verdi in his full maturity, the musical language of Rigoletto, Traviata and Trovatore now enhanced with a newfound "Parisian" harmonic sophistication. The Eugène Scribe libretto has its share of illogical moments, but Vespri nonetheless packs a tremendous punch, thanks to the theatrical charge of the music. It is impossible to view this video, part of the Teatro Regio di Parma's "Tutto Verdi"series, and not wonder why Vespri doesn't occupy a more central spot in the standard repertory. 

The sheer scale of the work is sometimes cited as a reason for its infrequent revival. But the Parma production cuts it down to size. The performance includes a number of small trims, along with the standard excision of the Act III ballet. The spare sets — the work of director/designer Pier Luigi Pizzi — reduce the already modest proportions of the Regio stage, thrusting much of the action into the auditorium. This has its drawbacks: the chorus is often arrayed in the back of the house, causing some small but audible coordination problems.  

But the strategy lets the Regio itself, with its opulent decor, invoke the work's grand-opera origins; so, for that matter, do Pizzi's richly detailed costumes, updated to the nineteenth century. When the performers have their feet planted onstage, the blocking proceeds along conventional lines, except for a bizarre moment in "Presso alla tomba ch'apresi," the Act II Elena–Arrigo duet, when Daniela Dessì and Fabio Armiliato, playing the most restrained lovers in the entire Verdi canon, indulge in what can only be called foreplay. Elsewhere, Pizzi rightly allows the text and the music, along with the performers' innate expressivity, to define the dramatic moment.

The musical performance is less notable for brilliance than for a feeling of rightness and balance. The orchestra fluffs the tricky dotted rhythm in the overture's first measures, but its playing has plenty of warmth and marvelous singing tone. Massimo Zanetti's great virtue as a conductor is the unobtrusive, precisely crafted framework he creates for his performers. All four principals are terrifically idiomatic. Giacomo Prestia may not be a Christoff-like basso profundo,but he sings with gruff command. In close-up, Fabio Armiliato looks like a parody of an Italian tenor — his eyes cross as he approaches high notes — and his occasional recourse to falsetto reminds us that Arrigo was written for a very different, distinctly pre-verismo type of singer. But his sound is full of squillo, and his line has undeniable thrust: in full cry, Armiliato slashesforward.

Dessì's Elena is more problematic but every bit as interesting. Sections of the role find her distinctly overparted. Top notes are pressured and unlovely. She wisely offers an easier alternative to the two-and-a-half-octave cadenza in "Arrigo, ah! parli a un core," but the bolero is a shambles. Other passages, though, display her very real virtues. Her articulation of the text is stunning: the words themselves convey Elena's pride, her nobility and her fervor. Dessì's haunted half-voice in the aforementioned duet is a thing of true beauty. Moreover, she is fascinating to watch — dark, handsome, fully in command of the stage and every inch the tragic heroine. 

Leo Nucci, a continual "Tutto Verdi"presence, here plays Monforte. He shows us not only the governor's ruthlessness but his paternal tenderness. The Verdi style is so deeply ingrained in Nucci's singing that one is hardly aware of his making interpretive choices; the line emerges as if the score and its execution were a single entity. The Parma series is serving as a de facto record of the Indian summer of this great baritone's career, and for that we can only be grateful. spacer 


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