Angela Meade sizzles in Verdi’s “Vêpres” at Caramoor
Don’t look now, but it’s time for another annoying composer anniversary. Worse, the Verdi bicentenary this year is the most irritating kind of composer anniversary, requiring us to commemorate a composer whose operas are already quite familiar, even too much so.
Will Crutchfield’s ingenious solution, for his summer of Verdi on the Bel Canto at Caramoor series, is to examine the Italian composer’s French works. This approach has the double advantage of avoiding any of the chestnuts in the Verdi canon, while actually drawing attention to some quite neglected works.
On Saturday night, Crutchfield led a marathon performance of Les vêpres siciliennes, a French grand opera that Verdi premiered in Paris in 1855, after his less successful maiden attempt at the French capital with Jérusalem in 1847. Not only did the performance bring together almost all of the music in this gargantuan score, clocking in at a tick under four hours with two intermissions, it used the original French libretto by Eugène Scribe and Charles Duveyrier, adapted from their libretto for Le duc d’Albe, left incomplete by Donizetti. If audiences know Les vêpres these days, it is almost certainly with the clumsily retrofitted 1861 Italian text.
The opera’s title refers to an episode from medieval history, a 13th-century insurrection against the Norman French rulers of Sicily that began with a massacre known as the Sicilian Vespers. Caught in the middle are the French governor, Guy de Monfort, his long-lost son, Henri, and Henri’s doomed love for La Duchesse Hélène, a noblewoman held prisoner by Monfort.
As he often does, Crutchfield assembled an excellent cast of singers, headlined by soprano Angela Meade, who was nothing short of extraordinary as Hélène. Meade commanded the stage with a regal presence, brimming with confidence in her opening aria in Act I, spitting with defiance in her Act IV duet with Henri, and spinning out a smooth legato in the Act II duet with Henri. She had the vocal power, unflagging through a long evening, to soar above ensembles like the Act IV quartet, while holding back enough suavity to give the “Sicilienne” in the last act a light and airy character, all the way up to the fizzy high C-sharps, after perfectly floating the high, soft parts of her Act IV cavatine.
Next to her, tenor John Osborn did not exactly disappoint, but he had a forced way of handling his high B-flats, when he did not place them in falsetto, as in his Act III duet with Monfort. Some of the high notes felt just at the edge of control, and he seemed to have the least sure command of his role, dropping a line or two of text here and there and making one false entrance in the final trio.
As Procida, Turkish bass Burak Bilgili carried easily over the orchestra with a full-throated sound, even at very loud dynamics. At times one was not sure exactly where the center of the pitch was, because of a strong vibrato and an occasionally reckless approach, at his best in the lovely cavatine “O toi, Palerme.” Baritone Marco Nisticò had a smooth, sad intensity as Monfort, with a super-refined tone and a pretty high G, sometimes just slightly small for the space.
The supporting cast and well-prepared chorus filled out a fine vocal ensemble, making an impressive and beautifully coordinated sound in the many striking choral scenes. Caramoor’s semi-staged performance, directed by Steven Tharp, helped to underscore the musical structure of the crucial double-choruses with movement and stage placement.
In spite of being opposed to cuts in the score, Crutchfield accepted a few for this performance, all in the 40-minute ballet sequence at the end of the third act, depicting the Four Seasons.
The Orchestra of St. Luke’s was in mostly polished form, in the ballet and throughout the opera, with excellent contributions from piccolo and clarinet soloists. The supertitle machine informed the audience of the action that would have been told by the dancers. To the surprise of some members of the orchestra, the supertitles got a few laughs in the Summer section, by referring to the oppressive heat that hung over Caramoor’s outdoor theater throughout this long performance, putting some of the harpist’s strings out of tune. Although I would love to see more French operas with their complete ballets restored, the ballet music definitely missed something without at least some movement of bodies to go with it.
Caramoor’s “Verdi in Paris” series continues with a performance of the four-act version of Don Carlos on July 20. caramoor.org