Friday, March 16, 2007

Geoffrey Riggs: Verdi's VESPRI SICILIANI?

It's occurred to me that while it's very easy and understandable why some would single out a Rossini, say, for especially demanding tenor writing, or a Wagner for especially demanding orchestral writing, or a Donizetti for especially demanding soprano writing, and so on, it's more difficult to zero in on any particular composer who mirrors all these three composers (or additional ones) together in each of these demanding respects (and a few more).

Of course, at the time, Meyerbeer's Paris works, for instance, depended on frequent constellations of remarkable talent, all the way from the remarkable first desks in Habeneck's orchestra to the extraordinary facility of vocal luminaries like Nourrit and Falcon. But even here, it's notable how frequently Meyerbeer allows the "spotlight" to stay on only one or two characters per work (in terms of the nth degree of vocal difficulty, that is) rather than throw everything imaginable into the writing for three or four different characters at the same time. Sure, the writing for the soprano Berthe in PROPHETE is hardly easy, but weighed against the extreme difficulties in adequate casting for both the tenor and mezzo, those associated with the soprano seem fairly surmountable. Similarly, the tenor's music in AFRICAINE, while occasionally deeply expressive and compelling, does not abound in the sheer trickiness of Selika's. Here, the tenor's writing seems (relatively) surmountable (although often inspired as emotional expression). Two other instances like this, ROBERT LE DIABLE and HUGUENOTS, have daunting writing indeed for their tenor roles instead, while Valentine, for instance, in HUGUENOTS, though hardly negligible, ultimately takes a back seat to the tenor. And so it goes.

In fact, it's hard to find any opera throughout the rep where both the soprano and tenor roles would show up equally often in many a list of the most difficult roles of all for their voice types, and where the instrumental writing and additional production requirements are especially daunting as well.

Well ........... it's hard, perhaps, to find such an opera, but is it impossible?

In my own experience, come to think of it, I've yet to experience a fully satisfying VESPRI SICILIANI. And I'm referring as much to performances attended in person as to audio recordings and video ones. Could it be that, as a totality, VESPRI is in a unique position in requiring an equal fusion of the declamatory and the agile from both principals, an alert conductor capable of taking a near-symphonic partitur in hand, a master of mise-en-scene production, an expert choreographer, and the needed dramatic rapport among all the principals as a whole for delineating, vividly, some frequently complex character relationships?

Granted, the fusion of the heroic and the agile in Elena's "Coraggio, su coraggio" cabaletta, say, is not duplicated much elsewhere in her role, although the contrast between the declamatory versus the agile (the Siciliana) is still a recurring characteristic throughout the part. At the same time, even this pales somewhat when compared to the frequent fusion of the two contrary aspects in far more than just one catch-all passage in Norma's writing, or Abigaille's, or Lady Macbeth's, or the DEVEREUX Elisabetta's. Similarly, the more elaborate orchestral writing in VESPRI (more elaborate compared to some other Verdi and bel canto scores in general) is still not on a par with Wagner's GOETTERDAEMMERUNG, say.

Still and all, it's in the surprisingly equal (more or less) distribution of incredible challenges for all concerned that VESPRI stands out, in my view, from any other opera I've yet heard. I realize that's a pretty large statement. But on recent reflection, I'm hard put to recall any other score where quite so much is so vulnerable to the vicissitudes of each and every musician involved.

This consideration is separate and apart from musical and dramatic genius, of course. In terms of the most probing human insight and deep musical expression, VESPRI arguably doesn't operate at the same high plane as DON CARLOS, for instance, and even though the VESPRI tenor role of Arrigo is certainly more difficult as sheer singing than the title role of DON CARLOS, the latter still reaches the spectator at a deeper level, IMO. Even the sometimes inspired orchestral tone painting in VESPRI is not quite as consistent or well-wrought as some of the writing in Verdi's OTELLO, for instance, or even the half dozen most inspired verismo scores.

Still, the score for VESPRI is far from ineffective: As a spectator, I do sometimes respond strongly to the feelings of Elena and Arrigo, and, in view of the readiness of some to dismiss much of Verdi's orchestral writing, I find it amusing that no less a "would-be-German" than Berlioz ;-) -- this tongue-in-cheek description courtesy of Tom "Tenor-Monster" Kaufman -- wrote after VESPRI's premiere of the "sumptuous, wise variety of the instrumentation" and its "vastness and poetic sonority of the concerted pieces".

This is a fine work, if not a supreme one. The problem is, it's extremely tricky to bring off successfully. Sure, one could lay that at the feet of certain inadequacies in the opera itself, but I seriously feel that ultimately it simply requires such a level of supreme technical achievement from everyone that, short of a miracle or an astounding series of coincidences, basic inadequacies are bound to pop up somewhere, "somewhen". And this is doubly the case when one considers the rarity of any opportunity of hearing this opera in its French original as VEPRES SICILIENNES.

I've never been fully satisfied at any performance -- and I'm only talking of basic reasonably respectable accomplishment here, never mind true transcendence in performance, which I've pretty much given up on with this score -- and so my two-part question is:

1. Has anyone here ever felt unequivocal satisfaction at any "live" VESPRI or with any video/audio recording of it at all?


2. Applying the technical parameters I've outlined here (at undue length), is there any other opera that anyone can come up with that has the same combination of appreciably elaborate scoring, two protagonists with equally daunting mixtures of the declamatory and the agile, terrifying production reqs., elaborate choreography, intricate character relationships -- all the rest of it?

I'd be sincerely interested in any responses on either query. Thanks.

Geoffrey Riggs



At 3/20/2007 2:27 PM, Blogger Paul said...

As for the difficulty of performing Meyerbeer's music, I think it's worthwhile to throw "Il Crociato in Egitto" into the discussion, especially in light of its recent revival at La Fenice. The Opera Rara recording of this work illustrates the complexities of at least three roles (tenor, soprano and "castrato") as well as for the orchestra. Having two competing stage bands playing at the same time is practically a Charles Ives moment.

At 3/20/2007 5:33 PM, Blogger Liz said...

Thanks very much. This is precisely the kind of score I'm talking about. CROCIATO IN EGITTO is exactly on target. I have to say, though, that while both the castrato role and the tenor role of Adriano made a deep impression on me the two times I heard this, the soprano role (hardly easy, of course) didn't -- to the same extent.

When I completed a fairly exhaustive survey of Assoluta roles for McFarland, this opera did not appear in any conspicuous context either. But one learns something new every day(!), and I'd much appreciate it if you might jog my memory on some of the specific hurdles in the soprano role.

Does it have any extended sequences with sharply contrasted tessituras (or tessiture?:-)? -- i.e., one sequence unduly low versus another unduly high, etc.? Is her orchestral accompaniment ever especially emphatic or heavy during particularly florid passagework? Does her overall range exceed two octaves, and does it encompass at least a high B natural and a low B natural below middle C? I should recall who created the part (somehow I'd guess it's a bit late for Colbran) but don't.

This kind of reminder would be deeply appreciated.

Thanks -- and thanks for writing in!


Geoffrey Riggs


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