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OPERA REVIEW : Verdi's 'Vespri Siciliani' Exhumed in San Francisco


SAN FRANCISCO — Understatement: "I Vespri Siciliani" isn't the most popular or the most accessible of Verdi's mellifluous melodramas.

A five-act historical extravaganza designed to accommodate the grandest conventions of the grand opera in Paris, it frequently sprawls, limps and lumbers. But when it soars, it really soars.

It was written, in French, for the Great Exposition of 1855. The standard Italian version materialized later that year in Parma and Milan.

Although the score teems with glorious tunes and brooding monologues, not to mention lavish choruses and marvelous concertati , the opera has not been performed with much frequency in the interim. The scale may be too daunting, the libretto too convoluted.

Contemporary audiences have trouble, in any case, when it comes to telling the good Sicilians from the bad Frenchmen. Or are they bad Sicilians and good Frenchmen? See the problem?

It was only in 1974 that the mighty Metropolitan got around to exploring this milestone of middle-period Verdi, which looks forward to the complexity of "Otello" more than it looks backward to the simplicity of "Rigoletto." And now, at very long last, it is San Francisco's turn.

The new production, seen Thursday at the War Memorial Opera House, is superbly conducted by Charles Mackerras and brilliantly, if provocatively, staged by Christopher Alden amid austere modernist decors by Paul Steinberg. The company tries urgently, and commendably, to treat the creaky formulas as valid musical theater.

Mackerras, who the night before had turned the saccharin of "La Boheme" into perfectly refined sugar, conveyed Verdi's romantic passions with taut ardor counterbalanced, in moments of repose, by exquisite, arching lyricism. He inspired unexpected degrees of precision and fervor from the San Francisco orchestra--not exactly the world's finest--and he supported the singers with constant sensitivity.

Los Angeles needs someone like him in the Music Center pit. Desperately.

Alden and Steinberg are no strangers to Los Angeles. Their iconoclastic inventions have brought bracing vitality to the most irrational of art forms in conjunction with the modest Long Beach Opera.

In richer San Francisco, they still refuse to leave bad enough alone. Thank goodness.

Alden seizes the archaic plot maneuvers for a heroic exercise in stylization and abstraction. The director toys with massive symbols, freezes the action when convenient, strips movement to stark essentials and brazenly moves the period from 1282 to the time of the opera's creation.

The political clashes of the Risorgimento are reflected in the stark spatial contrasts of Steinberg's minimalist designs. A huge traveling colonnade is offset by a series of symbolic icons--a cluster of cannons suspended here, a languid Grecian statue reclining there, a liberty bell towering over the bloody denouement.

The basic playing area becomes a vast, crimson prison. Chairs--neatly arranged in moments of calm, violently disordered in passages of disorder--serve as the favored prop.

Most of the innovations turn out to be dramatically useful. All of them are primitively picturesque. Only the late 19th-Century costumes, primarily black and white, require an initial leap of faith.

Alden and Steinberg harbor a healthy distrust for phony realism. For better or worse, they have transformed "Vespri" into a thinking person's opera. It is quite a trick.

Unfortunately, the cast at their disposal looks better than it sounds.

Carol Vaness, as a tragic and tempestuous Elena who likes to model off-the-shoulder evening gowns, looks devastatingly glamorous and sounds properly seductive. Her soprano may not command the ideal vocal heft of a Callas (whose does?), but Vaness sings the difficult music with unflagging poise and easy virtuosity. She sustains purity in moments of tenderness, a fine semblance of ferocity in moments of agitation and graceful agility in the long-anticipated bolero of the last act.

The others have problems. Chris Merritt's big, sweet, high-flying tenor tends to curdle under pressure, and it undergoes a lot of pressure in the heroic outbursts of Arrigo. As Monforte, Timothy Noble's burly baritone tends to sound raspy in the middle and strained at the top. James Morris, the stolid bass-baritone who gets to sing "O, tu Palermo," is more baritone than bass now, and that is no advantage in the fundamental lines of Procida.

The supporting ensemble, dominated by Philip Skinner as Bethune and Yanyu Guo as Ninetta, is solid. The chorus performs nobly.

The ballet is mercifully absent.

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